Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Waltz with Bashir is nothing but charade

The Israeli film considered favorite to win an Oscar for best foreign language film lost out, but Gideon Levy, for one, was not disappointed by this decision

February 23, 2009
8 min read

It must be noted that this film is infuriating, disturbing, outrageous and deceptive. It deserved an Oscar for the illustrations and animation – but a badge of shame for its message. It was not by accident that when he won the Golden Globe, Ari Folman didn’t even mention the war in Gaza, which was raging as he accepted the prestigious award. The images coming out of Gaza that day looked remarkably like those in Folman’s film. But he was silent. So before we sing Folman’s praises, which will of course be praise for us all, we would do well to remember that this is not an anti-war film, nor even a critical work about Israel as militarist and occupier. It is an act of fraud and deceit, intended to allow us to pat ourselves on the back, to tell us and the world how lovely we are.

Propaganda waltz

Hollywood will be enraptured, Europe will cheer and the Israeli foreign ministry will send the movie and its makers around the world to show off the country’s good side. But the truth is that it is propaganda. Stylish, sophisticated, gifted and tasteful – but propaganda. A new ambassador of culture will now join Amos Oz and A B Yehoshua, and he too will be considered fabulously enlightened – so different from the bloodthirsty soldiers at the checkpoints, the pilots who bomb residential neighbourhoods, the artillery men who shell children, and the combat engineers who rip up streets. Here, instead, is the opposite picture. Animated, too. Of enlightened, beautiful Israel, anguished and self-righteous, dancing a waltz, with and without Bashir. Why do we need propagandists, officers, commentators and spokespersons who will convey ‘information’? We have this waltz.

The waltz rests on two ideological foundations. One is the ‘we shot and we cried’ syndrome: Oh, how we wept, yet our hands did not spill this blood. Add to this a pinch of Holocaust memories, without which there is no proper Israeli self-preoccupation. And a dash of victimisation – another absolutely essential ingredient in public discourse here – and voilà! You have the deceptive portrait of Israel 2008, in words and pictures.

Folman took part in the Lebanon war of 1982, and two dozen years later remembered to make a movie about it. He is tormented. He goes back to his comrades-in-arms, gulps down shots of whiskey at a bar with one, smokes joints in Holland with another, wakes his therapist pal at first light and goes for another session to his shrink – all to free himself at long last from the nightmare that haunts him. And the nightmare is always ours, ours alone.

It is very convenient to make a film about the first, and now remote, Lebanon war: We already sent one of those, ‘Beaufort’ [2007], to the Oscars. And it’s even more convenient to focus specifically on Sabra and Shatila, the Beirut refugee camps.

Even way back, after the huge protest against the massacre perpetrated in those camps, there was always the declaration that, despite everything, including the green light given to our lackey – the Phalange- to execute the slaughter, and the fact that it all took place in Israeli-occupied territory, the cruel and brutal hands that shed blood are not our hands. Let us lift our voices in protest against all the savage Bashir-types we have known. And yes, a little against ourselves, too, for shutting our eyes, perhaps even showing encouragement. But no: that blood, that’s not us. It’s them, not us.

Singing and wrecking

We have not yet made a movie about the other blood, which we have spilled and continue to allow to flow, from Jenin to Rafah – certainly not a movie that will get to the Oscars. And not by chance.

In Waltz with Bashir, the soldiers of the world’s most moral army sing out something like: ‘Lebanon, good morning. May you know no more grief. Let your dreams come true, your nightmares evaporate, your whole life be a blessing.’

Nice, right? What other army has a song like this, and in the middle of a war? After they go on to sing that Lebanon is the ‘love of my life, the short life.’ And then the tank, from inside of which this lofty and enlightened singing emanates, crushes a car for starters, turning it into a smashed tin can, then pounds a residential building, threatening to topple it. That’s how we are. Singing and wrecking. Where else will you find sensitive soldiers like these? It would really be preferable for them to shout with hoarse voices: Death to the Arabs!

I saw the Waltz twice. The first time was in a movie theatre, and I was bowled over by the artistry. What style, what talent. The illustrations are perfect, the voices are authentic, the music adds so much. Even Ron Ben Yishai’s half-missing finger is accurate. No detail is missed, no nuance blurred. All the heroes are heroes, superbly stylish, like Folman himself: articulate, trendy, up-to-date, leftwingers – so sensitive and intelligent.

Movies as psychotherapy

Then I watched it again, at home, a few weeks later. This time I listened to the dialogue and grasped the message that emerges from behind the talent. I became more outraged from one minute to the next. This is an extraordinarily infuriating film precisely because it is done with so much talent. Art has been recruited here for an operation of deceit. The war has been painted with soft, caressing colours – as in comic books. Even the blood is amazingly aesthetic, and suffering is not really suffering when it is drawn in lines. The soundtrack plays in the background, behind the drinks and the joints and the bars. The war’s fomenters were mobilised for active service of self-astonishment and self-torment.

Boaz is devastated at having shot 26 stray dogs, and he remembers each of them. Now he is looking for ‘a therapist, a shrink, shiatsu, something.’ Poor Boaz. And poor Folman, too. He is devilishly unable to remember what happened during the massacre. ‘Movies are also psychotherapy’ – that’s the bit of free advice he gets. Sabra and Shatila? ‘To tell you the truth? It’s not in my system.’ All in such up-to-the-minute Hebrew you could cry. After the actual encounter with Boaz in 2006, 24 years later, the ‘flash’ arrives, the great flash that engendered the great movie.

One fellow comes to the war on the Love Boat, another flees it by swimming away. One sprinkles patchouli on himself, another eats a Spam omelette. The filmmaker-hero of Waltz remembers that summer with great sadness: it was exactly then that Yaeli dumped him. Between one thing and the other, they killed and destroyed indiscriminately. The commander watches porn videos in a Beirut villa, and even Ben Yishai has a place in Ba’abda, where one evening he downs half a glass of whiskey and phones Sharon at the ranch and tells him about the massacre. And no one asks who these looted and plundered apartments belong to, damn it, or where their owners are and what our forces are doing in them in the first place. That is not part of the nightmare.

And cut

What’s left is hallucination, a sea of fears, the hero confesses on the way to his therapist, who is quick to calm him and explains that the hero’s interest in the massacre at the camps derives from a different massacre: from the camps from which his parents came. Bingo! How could we have missed it? It’s not us at all, it’s the Nazis, may their name and memory be obliterated. It’s because of them that we are the way we are. ‘You have been cast in the role of the Nazi against your will,’ a different therapist says reassuringly, as though evoking Golda Meir’s remark that we will never forgive the Arabs for making us what we are. What we are? The therapist says that we shone the lights, but ‘did not perpetrate the massacre.’ What a relief. Our clean hands are not part of the dirty work, no way.

And besides that, it wasn’t us at all. How pleasant to see the cruelty of the other. The amputated limbs that the Phalange, may their name be obliterated, stuff into the formaldehyde bottles; the executions they perpetrate; the symbols they slash into the bodies of their victims. Look at them and look at us: we never do things like that.

When Ben Yishai enters the Beirut camps, he recalls scenes of the Warsaw ghetto. Suddenly he sees through the rubble a small hand and a curly-haired head, just like that of his daughter. ‘Stop the shooting, everybody go home,’ the commander, Amos, calls out through a megaphone in English. The massacre comes to an abrupt end. Cut.

Then, suddenly, the illustrations give way to the real shots of the horror of the women keening amid the ruins and the bodies. For the first time in the movie, we not only see real footage, but also the real victims. Not the ones who need a shrink and a drink to get over their experience, but those who remain bereaved for all time, homeless, limbless and crippled. No drink and no shrink can help them. And that is the first (and last) moment of truth and pain in Waltz with Bashir.

Gideon Levy is a correspondent for Haaretz

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook


7