Waltz with Bashir

Posted: December 24th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: culture, The Left | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

“Waltz with Bashir”, an animated war documentary by Ari Folman, opens in the US on Dec 26th. It’s a great film, certainly worth watching. Here is the US trailer:

And here are some of my more critical thoughts on the film (no spoilers, I think):

First, I have to admit I really love war films (Tora! Tora! Tora! Is one of my all time favorites). It’s a shame that as Israelis we have so many wars and so few war films, though this is beginning to change recently (we have more films).

Watching “Waltz with Bashir” made me think of two other Israeli war movies from recent years: “Kippur” by Amos Gitai, and “Beaufort” by Joseph Cedar. I don’t mean that the film itself resembled the other two – I think “Waltz” is the best film of the three; it’s a better story, it’s more fun to watch, it provides a stronger experience and in Israeli terms, it’s a real artistic breakthrough. But rather, that on some key themes – both ideological and narrative – those films have something in common. And I think what they have in common say something about the relationship between culture and politics in Israel.

All three stories shift between fiction and reality: “Kippur” is based on Gitai’s own experiences as a reservist on an airborne rescue unit during the Yom Kippur War; “Beaufort” is an adaptation of the book “Beaufort” by Ron Leshem (which in itself is based on a series of conversations turned journalistic pieces Leshem conducted with soldiers who served in the Beaufort army base); and “Waltz” is a sort of documentary, though it’s far from being an effort to describe “a reality” in the common, perhaps vulgar, sense of the term. It deals with it’s creators effort as a grown up to recall 3 days from the first Lebanon war, which seemed to have been gone from his memory.

But although all three films are based on real events, artistically all three go in the exact opposite direction: towards an abstract, even dream-like presentation of the historical events. The war is not present in “Kippur”, it’s hard to tell the time-line of the events, and all we see is an existential fight to rescue wounded soldiers; in “Beaufort” the war and the enemy are completely absent – we only see the caves and bonkers where the soldiers hide, which gives the film it’s claustrophobic atmosphere. And finally, “Waltz” is using the most abstract art form of all – animation.

The most interesting thing about this is the people at the center of these films. None of the heroes of “Kippur”, “Beaufort” and “Waltz” are common war heroes. They are almost the exact opposite. They don’t want to fight. They are neither for the war nor against it. More than anything they are indifferent. Indifferent to the political and historical context of the war, indifferent to the enemy, sometimes even to the danger to their own lives (but not always). They are in some kind of shell shock, a post war trauma, even before the war begins. Their behavior is very passive. They love their brothers in arms, and they want to get home. That’s about it.

I was a soldier and an officer on an infantry unit. I never took part in a war, but I served in the Gaza strip, in the West Bank and did two full tours in Lebanon. I don’t question the authenticity of Ari Folman or Joseph Cedar memories (“Beaufort” is not based on his own story, but Cedar did serve as a paratrooper during the late 80′s), but I remember other experiences and emotions. Most people around me loved the “action”. They preferred the tours in the West bank to the training periods. We were never short in volunteers for operations on South Lebanon. Those who weren’t taken to these operations felt sorry for themselves, not those who were taken. The only operation I took part in (“Grapes of Warpath”, in 1996) was the peek of my career as an officer. I hated my army service, but it felt good to do something “real”.

It was not because we were trigger happy or cruel. I never fired a shot at a live human being during my entire army service. It’s because that’s what you train for and that’s what you want to do as a soldier. And also because even the hardcore lefties in the combat unites believed in what we were doing. Not in each and every mission, but in the general idea, protecting the country and all that. That’s why reservists always show up in time of need, and that’s why in general, even a tiny country like Israel is never short in soldiers.

These are not the heroes of the Israeli war movies. In the movies, if they believe in something, they hide it well. All they do is drift through the events. War is something that’s happening to them while they are doing other plans. This demands explaining. And so is the fact that there is no “classic” Israeli war films from the last three decades – you know, one with good guys and bad guys, where war is immediate and real, and the hero needs to save the day.

I think the reason for this has to do with two facts: the first is that Israeli filmmakers, unlike many of their colleagues around the world, are veterans themselves, and second, that ideologically speaking, they come from The Left.

The single most important question that haunts the Israeli Left is this: How is it possible that the occupation goes on? I mean, with all the peace rallies and peace initiatives, with Oslo and Rabin, with the “Peace Now” movement and all the different governments. The simple fact is that Israel is violating all the universal values that we believe in. All the truths that we hold to be self evident. The Left does not want the occupation, and is willing to fight it, but it’s no use. The occupation has been going on for 30, and 40 years, and will probably go on for the years to come.

Because of this sense of guilt, military action and military heroism – even when it’s “justified” – seems vulgar in the eyes of The Left. And passion or enthusiasm at the face of a war seems like a real crime. That’s how we are left with films where the war itself is almost not present and whose heroes are so detached, led to battle by invisible generals or politicians, shocked and traumatized before the first shot, absolved in advance and released from responsibility for their own actions.

When The Left looks at war it’s always a therapeutic project: to absolve itself from the sense of guilt, to face the trauma. It’s an understandable goal, but it lacks the desire – or the ability to change the political reality now. That’s why at the end of any of these three films, the audience might feel bad about the war, but “good” when it comes to themselves as Israelis (my guess is that foreign audience will also have a better opinion of Israelis after watching these films).

“Beaufort” and “Waltz” were a huge success in Israel, both critically and financially, and “Kippur” did pretty well, surly in comparison to the rest of Gitai’s work. All three won prizes around the world. Now here is a thought: try to imagine a real Israeli war film. With real bad Arabs (Hamas?) and real “good” Jewish heroes. Nothing clinical or detached – the real deal. I think it will make most Israelis uncomfortable. I doubt if it will be such a hit.

3 Comments on “Waltz with Bashir”

  1. 1 Aviv said at 12:08 am on December 25th, 2008:

    Left-wing introspection: What moral price are we paying when we go to war, occupying other peoples, settlements, etc.?

    Right-wing introspection: The price of concessions: Does handing out freebies not make us look weak and beget more warmongering?

    The first introspection appeals to our humanity, to truisms like “people are essentially the same everywhere” – the sort of ideas Said’s “Orientalism” are all about. It’s in the best tradition of self-criticism: Look in your own backyard before you start criticizing others. It relates to White guilt, and to the West’s notion that if only it stopped running the show, everything would be alright.

    The second is a painful reminder that not all ideas were created equal, that moral relativism is unsustainable, and that it’s a rough neighborhood out there. It reminds us that it it takes two to tango, and that sometimes, we can’t “all just get along”. (History shows “getting along” is a goal best pursued through Western ideas like democracy).

    To make a long story short, the true reason why occupation continues has to do with Arab concepts of honor and shame. Unfortunately none of these films deals with that idea. Despite its scope, it’s a heady, intellectual explanation and it angers people who make and fund movies – not a recipe for a very good movie.

    More on those ideas at the Augean Stables. Richard Landes formulated these ideas much better than I ever could.

  2. 2 noam said at 6:49 pm on December 25th, 2008:

    Here is my problem with this right-wing argument: if the only reason for our present in the West Bank was a Palestinian threat to Israel, it would have been understandable. Then we could have had an argument about who’s to blame for the occupation. But Israel has been building there settlements and doing everything in its power to move Jews into them for forty years. We want to stay there. The Palestinians can become Likud member for all we care – that’s not the issue for us.

    Lets ask our right wing friends this: presuming we can solve the terror problem, get rid of Hamas and come up with an agreement that will satisfy all our security need – will you be ready to go back to the 67′ border (with few adjustments) and split Jerusalem into two capitals?

  3. 3 Yarden said at 4:27 am on December 26th, 2008:

    I remember talking to some actors from the Israeli film industry shortly after Beaufort won the silver bear at the Berlin film festival. Funny enough, most of them complained about the same things as you did, telling that the soldiers serving at the post turned with time to some kind of predators, craving to meet terrorists and kill them. It was said that the original book by Ron Leshem doesn’t ignore that aspect, and it is Joseph Cedar who left it out of his film.

    Putting that with what you said about the other two films, watching them I always had a feeling the directors chose to put the spot light on the soldiers, isolating them from what is happening around , simply because they didn’t really care about the larger consequences of those wars. And that looks to me like the usual childish masses cry in Israel of “look what they made us turn to.” As if whenever an innocent by passer gets hurt we should feel bad for the poor soldier and his conscience, rather then for the person who was actually hurt. Those actors I mentioned earlier, they said that Cedar is a great director but he is doing films like in Hollywood, not for the sake of the story and the idea but for the show and entertainment. That is why he won the prize for best director and not for best film.

    I think it is easier for the Israeli society to romanticize wars that don’t belong to us. Once we will start doing that we will loose the ability to think of ourselves as helpless victims. Until we will start looking at our history in a more objective way I guess you will have to manage with movies about Vietnam and WW2. At least you cant complain about the quality.