Amid the whirl of reviews of Oscar contenders over the past few months, I deferred discussing the one unreleased picture that caused a major stir in Egypt: “Waltz with Bashir.
To my surprise, the controversy regarding Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated animated documentary about the Israeli involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982 continues nearly a month and a half after many Egyptian publications decided to the review the film.
Apart from revered critic Samir Faird, one of the few remaining critics in this country who actually understand film, no Egyptian critic gave the film a positive review as expected, although some faintly commended its artistry.
The attacks against the film fall under a few key points: that the film portrays the Israeli soldiers sympathetically; that it denies Israel’s direct involvement in the massacre; and that the focus of the story is on the Israeli soldiers rather than the victims.
Politics aside, there’s one reality critics of the world, with different political affiliations, agree upon: “Waltz with Bashir is a truly great film; original, intelligent and deeply moving.
The film opens with a nightmare: A slobbering drove of 26 dogs, racing the streets of Tel Aviv until they reach an apartment complex of one of Folman’s comrades who was ordered to shoot down dogs during the war because his superiors knew he couldn’t shoot people.
Folman can’t remember much about the experience; his memories of the massacre seem to have been repressed by the horror of what he witnessed. However, he is haunted by one recurring dream where he and some other soldiers, rise steadily from the ocean in a hypnotized, zombie-like state to find themselves facing a posh hotel area in Beirut.
Folman sets out to interview some of his friends who may or may have not, been in combat with him. One of them recalls fantasizing about a giant naked woman taking him away from a marine troop ship while the other soldiers are killed. Another remembers his superior ordering an attack while watching porn. Another recounts a strange ambush set up by a Palestinian kid in the middle of an orchard garden.
The title of the movie refers to another strange occurrence where one soldier, in the middle of a battle emerges from hiding and fires randomly around himself; dancing under a poster by the just-assassinated Christian Lebanese president-elect Bachir Gemayel.
“Bashir chronicles one horrifying episode after another; the majority depicted as terrifying reveries; as hallucinatory recollections that Folman attempts to piece together in order to assemble the picture and find out about his exact role in the massacre.
Contrary to common belief, “Bashir is not the first animated documentary ever made. Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life (2001) and Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10 (2007) are the two most well-known animated documentaries that introduced the rotoscoping technique to a mass audience. The difference between “Bashir and its predecessors is that the animators of the film based their drawings on the staged interviews rather than using the rotoscopic process to directly transform the video material into animation.
The end-result is something altogether different and unique. The lines of the images are sharp; the monochromatic, highly-contrasting colors are rich and bright, hard in their intensity while landscapes occasionally border on the outlandish. This is not a replication of reality; it’s a very personal and subjective account of the massacre from the point of view of the soldiers; a film emanating from the sensory rather than reasonable.
The film doesn’t pretend to be an accurate, objective record of the massacre. “The movie doesn’t even attempt to outline the political situation in Lebanon, in all of its complexity, Folman stressed in an interview with French publication Cahiers du Cinéma last year.
Most Arab critics accused the film of functioning as a therapeutic outlet for Israel to clear itself from a possible responsibility over the massacre. And indeed, in one scene, a friend of Folman declares that film could act as form of therapy.
“The phenomenon of repression is part of the Israeli collective history, Folman said. With Sabra and Shatila though, this form of repression wasn’t concerned with bottling up painful traumas the Israelis were forced to endure; it was to conceal their sense of shame and guilt over a crime they knew they were partially responsible for and couldn’t confront. This is a fact Folman divulges through pointing out the complicity of then Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon who allowed the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen to murder the unarmed Palestinians following the assassination of Gemayel and how the Israeli soldiers assisted the Phalangists by lighting the way for them to carry out the killings.
For that matter, I honestly believe it’s naive of Arab critics to render the film an Israeli effort to wash the country’s hands off the blood of Palestinians. The direct involvement of the Israeli soldiers Arab critics referred to is highly questionable and there’s no tangible means of proving it because hardly any footage of the massacre exists.
History is a changeable story, constantly modified by nations and ages. For someone to claim possessing the ultimate truth about any given event is, at best, wishful thinking.
For the record though, Folman’s anti-war stance is common knowledge. On the Second Lebanon War, he said: “I found it to be entirely unjustified, absurd, immoral. I was distraught that we hadn’t learned anything, that we were repeating the same mistake as in 1982.
The only thing I could do was to protest and sign the letter of solidarity with the Lebanese people which a group of Israeli filmmakers sent to the biennale of Arab films in Paris.
What some Arab critics appeared to require is a blatant, confirmatory statement regarding his position towards the massacre, and perhaps Gaza, even. Yet even if “Bashir was indeed a piece of propaganda, even if it did attempt to distort facts and manipulate the viewers, the work remains an exceptional piece of art. Politics have never been a yardstick to judge films.
Case in point: Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of Will (1935) is still celebrated for its outstanding film-making. Some of cinema’s greatest film-makers – John Ford, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Michael Powell – have created propaganda films at one point during their career that continue to be regarded as masterpieces. Great art has always triumphed over politics and no matter who produced it, it should be protected and relished.
Despite all the negative criticism and accusations the film recieved, the one part that stayed with me is the last one where animation is replaced by real footage of the massacre’s aftermath set against composer Max Richter’s heartbreaking score.
Images of a wailing woman screaming “where are the Arabs and deformed corpses of little children are a reminder of the real tragedy that took place between September 16 and 18; of how the world stood idly and watched innocent lives being taken away, just like it did in Bosnia, in Congo, in Rwanda, in Darfur. History has taught us nothing. Instead of preventing further atrocities, we continue to engage in self-righteous politics, in futile arguments to conceal the fact that perhaps we’re not that different from the aggressor after all.