What "Waltz With Bashir" can teach us about Gaza: The stunning new Israeli film reveals painful parallels between one of Israel's darkest moments and the current conflict.
By Gary Kamiya
The Israeli slaughter in Gaza is continuing into a third week under the approving gaze of the Bush administration, both political parties and the mainstream media. A U.N. Security Council resolution, worldwide protests, cries of outrage from human rights groups and the Red Cross, petitions by academics, and televised images of civilian deaths have no effect on Israel or on the American establishment. Nearly 900 Gazans have been killed, the already-desperate strip has been devastated, whole families wiped out. It is clear that Israel has no strategic vision, no idea of what its onslaught is supposed to ultimately achieve or how to end it. When it finally ends its assault, Hamas will emerge from the rubble, Iran and Hezbollah will be empowered, Egypt and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will be weakened, and America's standing in the region will be lower than ever.
Yet in America the war might as well not even be happening. This Sunday's New York Times' "Week in Review" section, that snapshot of the American intelligentsia's collective brain, contained not a single word about Gaza. The ongoing carnage is clearly passé.
Yet in a strange case of art imitating life, at the same time that Israel is blasting a defenseless population enclosed in a tiny area, an Israeli film has appeared that depicts an earlier war in which Israel was complicit in an appalling massacre. America's cultural gatekeepers have rightfully hailed Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir" as a tour de force and cinematic breakthrough. On Sunday night, as Israeli warplanes carried out 12 bombing raids in Gaza, "Waltz With Bashir" won the Golden Globe Award for best foreign film. Most people who see Folman's stunning film will probably not connect it with Israel's current war. But if they dig a little deeper, they might realize that the film's moral lessons apply not just to the terrible events that took place 28 years ago but also to what is happening today.
"Waltz With Bashir" is about Folman's attempt to recover his lost memory of his experiences as a soldier during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and in particular the Sabra and Shatilla slaughter of Palestinian civilians in two refugee camps. Carried out by Lebanese Christian militiamen, under Israeli protection and with its leaders' complicity, it was one of the most notorious massacres of the 20th century. "Bashir" is an extraordinary work, whose hallucinatory animated imagery and unflinching moral honesty offer an intense depiction of the horrors of war and its devastating psychic consequences. A dreamlike combination of "Apocalypse Now" and "Maus," it is at once the idiosyncratic story of one ex-soldier's attempt to heal his hidden wounds and a damning indictment of the Israeli leaders who enabled the slaughter. In the end, by interviewing other soldiers, talking to a psychiatrist and sharing his anguish with friends, Folman succeeds in putting together a fragmentary picture of the terrible events he witnessed and had blocked out for so long. Whether he himself gains any catharsis from his quest is not clear, for at the very end of the film he abruptly abandons both his personal narrative and his animated technique and simply shows filmed images of the slaughtered Palestinians heaped up like cordwood in the alleys of the camps.
Folman's film is not political. It does not preach or pass judgment. Yet in its artistic integrity, it unintentionally reveals the grim parallels between Israel's invasion of Lebanon and its complicity with the Sabra and Shatilla massacre and its current onslaught -- parallels that, if Israel and the U.S. heeded them, would lead them to understand that the Gaza campaign is both morally appalling and politically self-destructive. Israelis justifiably regard their leaders' role in enabling the Sabra and Shatilla massacre as one of Israel's darkest moments, a permanent stain on its character. Of course, Israel's moral culpability for the 1982 massacre is not the same as its moral responsibility for the civilians killed in the current war. But there are painful similarities. Sooner or later the patriotic war fervor will fade, and Israelis will realize that their leaders sent them to kill hundreds of innocent people for nothing. And perhaps in 2036, some haunted filmmaker will release "Waltz With Hamas."
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