I must admit, I had a tepid reaction to "Waltz with Bashir," Ari Folman's Oscar-nominated animated film about his experiences during the First Lebanon War and after it, when he seems to have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The dream sequences were indeed seductive, particularly the young soldier floating back to Israel (or Israeli-occupied buffer territory below the Litani line), the lone survivor of his unit, adrift at sea, forgotten or at least unrecognizable to his own army, safely "stateless" in a way out there in international waters.
But as for the politics? What is there to make a fuss about? What were the film's politics? Or did it have any? Was it just too post-Zionist, too Etgar Keret? I took from the film some bite-size lessons: war, in general, corrodes our moral constitution -- it breaks people; the massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila were committed by Christian militiamen, not by the IDF; however, some IDF leadership looked the other way, while some soldiers on the ground were to a certain, undefined degree culpable -- not only for inaction but for rendering specific services to the Phalangists, which, at least in hindsight, made the massacre possible.
Hillel Halkin's review in Commentary makes to my mind a rather jejune complaint about the film's lack of "historical context." The only "context" he adds to the what the film depicts in that case of the massacres are his imaginative reconstructions of "what really happened:" maybe, he reckons, Israeli soldiers were unwilling to wake up their superiors in the middle of the night to investigate the activities of the Phalangists in the camps; maybe they were scared to go in; maybe they were happy to unleash their local allies on their eternal foes...I don't know, yeah, maybe...maybe Folman nudges the viewer in the direction of some of these interpretations. Maybe he doesn't nudge enough.
True, the film doesn't provide an historical context for the conflict as a whole. Israel's 1982 geo-strategic gambit isn't laid out. Nothing of the war's objectives, the internal Israeli debates that preceded it, the machinations of the PLO and its Syrian backers, etc. These omissions produce, in Halkin's mind, a generic "anti-war" film, which, he condemns as intellectually deficient. Fair enough. Still, the film was about experience; it wasn't didactic. And the reviewer's war experience, as it turns out, was one of trying to explain the war with his fellow reservists as he trained in southern Lebanon in the run-up to the war; of trying to explain the massacres in their immediate aftermath. Folman had a different experience, clearly. Now, it's quite a different thing to accuse the film of providing fodder for anti-Semitism insulting the honor of the veterans, and splashing shame on the Jewish state. It seemed to me that Halkin's review almost makes that leap.
How is that possible? Halkin, naturally, interprets the film as an Israeli; I, on the other hand, as an American (Jew). And, as Halkin points out in introducing the film, Israelis and the rest of us saw this film differently. How else to explain the mild reaction of the domestic audience and the wild accolades it has garnered abroad? The review, even more than the box office receipts, points up the wide (and at times widening) gap between the way Israelis see themselves and the way the rest of the world sees them (see Roger Cohen in the NYT, whatever you think of his opinions). Note that the "hero" of "Waltz with Bashir" has to go abroad (like Oedipus of old) to gather clues about who he really is.
I am puzzled by extreme reactions to this film. Did you have one?
Here's one from the Commentary website, a response to Halkin by a certain Jerome Kaufman:
"The film blames the entire massacre in the Sabra and Shatila camp on the Israelis."
Is this guy serious?
And why did Halkin have to diss the score? I liked the music!