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Waltz with Bashir: Do perpetrators tell better stories than victims?

Waltz with Bashir is a serious animated film which tells the autobiographical story of an Israeli soldier during the Israel attack on Lebanon.  This was a serious film tackling important questions in an innovative way.  imageAt the same time, I was uncomfortable with how it dramatized  political events. It raises an interesting ethical and aesthetic question: is the Israeli soldier’s perspective a good vantage point for  viewing a historical event (and  constructing a narrative)?

In the film, Israeli soldiers are semi-innocent bystanders who watched Lebanese murder one another. Poor Israeli soldiers are stuck in Beirut while barbarian Lebanese fire at them.

In reality, Israeli attacked a peaceful nation (where yes PLO used to hide out).

Israeli soldiers  attacked and invaded and attacked some more. They cut off food and water and electricity from the city. Israelis  used overwhelming force to put this country in turmoil.

The reason why Bashir was assassinated was that Israeli forced Lebanon to accept a leader they did not want.

Israeli originally said they wanted to drive back the PLO 10 or 20 miles. But after they did that, they said, what the hell, let’s take over the capitol (which they did in a bloody way).

Ironically the defense minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, who was basically responsible for this mess, did the EXACT SAME THING in the Palestinian territories around the year 2000, with pretty much the same success (and  the same degree of support from the US government). (See note 1).

I think the Israeli army deserves the lion’s share of the blame for starting this conflict, aggravating this conflict and attacking the enemy in a way that resulted in  civilian casualties.

In the film, soldiers  didn’t like what they were doing, but  never wavered from the belief that what they were doing was necessary and right.  They never really appeared to question the judgments of superiors and never allowed for the possibility that the solution they were helping to implement was in fact a bad one  (even later on, when reflecting on the incident).  The film  takes place as a series of scenes in flashbacks and present time, so characters  in the present do and should have the opportunity to make these kinds of reflections. But they don’t. There was no sense of guilt, only a sense that injustices were committed, and Israeli was only trying to do the right thing.

If anything, the film shows how it is hard for a person of one country to look honestly at the actions of his own government.

from an IMDB poster

At first i accepted it when people told me that this is ONE person’s experience, but on second thought, i think that this is quite an exaggeration. the war scenes in the film are actually mostly from people other than ari folman. as a matter of fact, for at least half of the film the only memory ari has is of walking out of the ocean naked, all the other memories come from different people, and quite a few of them don’t even have Ari in them.

in bluedoctor’s defense, i think that this movie is slanted, at the very least to an israeli audience. its one thing to say war is horrible because atrocities are committed, its quite another thing to say war is horrible because sometimes foreign countries decide to invade, occupy, and kill the civilians other countries that are in civil war in order to improve security in their own peacetime countries.

i personally wouldn’t call this propaganda, but it certainly has a biased view on the war – i think folman could have made his point about war more poignant if he wrote a fictionalized account that left out all these politics, although perhaps it would be weaker seeing as it wouldn’t be a true story.

Moviegoing friend & critic Michael Barrett.  responded to my original remarks:

One thing that strikes me forcibly about this movie is that long before it ever gets to the actual massacre, when it’s only showing the daily actions and reactions of the ordinary soldiers, the Israelis are portrayed casually doing shocking and brutal things (firing at the oncoming car, for example, and firing seemingly at random from the top of the tank). Perhaps it’s easy for some to overlook this while analyzing the massacre. I absolutely did NOT receive the impression of poor Israeli soldiers being fired at by barbarians, although I clearly saw them fired at by people who wanted them to go home.

The director exonerates  himself of such omissions in an interview with Salon’s  Andrew O’hehir:

I remember hearing some interesting exchanges between you and some Arab journalists at Cannes. As a total outsider, it was great to see Arabs and Israelis having a civil conversation about a movie, and about such a painful subject. But many of them seemed upset with you because they felt you didn’t take responsibility or express guilt. Was that frustrating? I mean, from your perspective it must have seemed as if they were missing the point.

You know, I can understand the point they were making. The only criticism I got back home was from very left-wing Israelis saying exactly the same thing: I didn’t take responsibility as an Israeli, in the film, for what happened. And frankly, I didn’t feel responsible. I was a soldier; we were clueless. We didn’t know what was happening until it ended. Then we knew. Of course the government was found guilty. They didn’t send the troops in there, but they didn’t stop it for three days. They could have stopped it. They could have reduced the casualties. They could have done something. They did not. But I didn’t feel that I was a government representative who should take the blame for them. I couldn’t care less about Ariel Sharon and his government. I have nothing to do with them, not then and most of all not now.

Ari Folman’s statement (and the interview itself) show that Folman is well-aware of culpability issues and made an artistic decision not to cover it. In a way, I can respect that decision (because he can only write about what he knows and whatever is  interesting to him personally). On the other hand, the creator has a  responsibility to portray things truthfully…not just truthfully to the characters themselves but to the audience watching it. Folman should ask himself: would a person watching this film leave the theatre with  misimpressions about the historical event? I applaud Folman for taking chances  and having the courage to tackle history;  on the other hand, couldn’t he have dropped clues to indicate that  the point of view from the remorseful  ex-soldier is still not giving the whole story?

Should important and traumatic events be narrated by oppressors or victims?

Victims probably have more right to use the event for their personal narrative.  But it’s not clear cut. For example, it is hard for a victim to tell the story in a way that  transcends victimhood. Victim stories can be honest and compelling, but they  make for lousy art.  Often, these victim’s stories have only one insight: Pain! Injustice! Suffering! Transcendence! Readers and viewers react strongly. Why? Is it because the story is so  well done? Or are they simply applauding the story because of the positive emotions summoned  (i.e. outrage, compassion, etc)?  In a way, all art is about suffering and victimhood.  Writers of fiction need to justify their subject matter; it is important therefore to give a voice to a victimized person. Over time though, I have started to reject this notion. Art is more about giving pleasure  than bearing witness. Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankl,  Harriet Beecher Stowe, Primo Levi…to say nothing of Toni Morrison. These people are writing great things about important matters. But were they creating great art?

The ambivalence you get from humanizing the bad guy raises deeper issues: how  did this person become this way? How much is the individual to blame? Is fiction supposed to be playing the blame game  or  teaching  forgiveness? I can think of multiple cases where the bad guy in literature has almost no redeeming qualities (Smerdyakov from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov or Huguenau from Broch’s Sleepwalkers  come to mind). Citing Brothers Karamazov is almost apropos. Not only does Karamazov center around a murder trial, the book itself is one big trial where the reader is the jury member.  But in that case, Dostoevsky made sure to provide a story from multiple vantage points so it was possible for the reader to  construct an objective reality from the conflicting accounts. 

When you tell a story from a perpetrator’s viewpoint, you add irony, detachment, levels of meaning and  humor. When a victim writes, he aims to tell things as he experienced them.  The victim (and the author trying to depict him)  is trying to evoke an objective reality in order to provoke a moral response.  The victimology genre (for lack of a better word)  can be compelling and have beautiful moments and profound insights,  but it is morally  unambiguous. That is because evil is unambiguous  and deserves an immediate response.  The perpetrator genre is more focused on culpability and artifice. The reader or viewer’s job is to put together the pieces and  step outside the perpetrator’s perspective at the same time that the narrative  invites you into it. From a purely dramaturgical perspective, there’s a lot more potential in Perpetrator literature (as long as the writer retains a strong moral compass). (See Note 2). 

The stream-of-consciousness narrative in Morrison’s Beloved might be the exception here.  D.G. Myers provides  insight:

The truth is that the stream-of-racial-consciousness interlude is a display piece, a verbal stunt that is connected to the rest of the novel by the thinnest of fictions—and by the ambition to leave a monument to the suffering caused by black slavery. The odd spacing and lack of punctuation, the fragmented phrases, are little more than an attempt to familiarize what are, to be honest, scenes and images that have been familiar since the first photographs of Hitler’s death camps were published in the United States. The dead, heaped in a pile, are nothing new. Only the typography is new.

I agree with Myers that Morrison’s technique doesn’t work, but maybe it is because Morrison wants to convey a dissolution of  a society through the dissolution of the narrative.  It is hard to use a disjointed stream-of-consciousness style to keep the reader engaged – though  I can hardly blame Morrison for trying.  (Her earlier novels experimented with style on a smaller scale and did not face this problem).  Perhaps her aim is not to tell a story but to express historical sorrow. I’ve actually seen this technique before; in some victimology literature (fiction or memoir), the victim-protagonist retreats into an incoherent  world of language and imagery; formlessness goes hand-in-hand with hopelessness.   Contrast Beloved with another  novel about suffering like  Camus’  The Plague. Camus’s novel describes unimaginable horrors, and yet there is no stylistic experimentation (aside from the ruse of using  3rd person  narrative to describe events). Yet the Plague is not really a victim’s novel. It is the story of  a doctor who takes care of these victims and learns about compassion and the meaning of suffering.  I don’t think Morrison could have written that kind of novel; Beloved is not really making a  moral judgment (although one is certainly implied).  The book is simply a modern woman’s imagining of historical atrocities. I’m guessing it is cathartic for some, incomprehensible for others.  But one thing is clear: the novel’s main focus is not on the simple task of  creating a compelling and readable story. I read it as a meditation on history even though  the story itself doesn’t seem tied down to a specific historical timeline.

Beloved won’t be mistaken by anyone as a historical document. Unfortunately, I think  Waltz with Bashir offers an interpretation of an actual history (rather than an imaginary one). That means,   Waltz with Bashir needs to answer to facts.  Facts are the film’s  ambition and strait  jacket. Ultimately it becomes the  basis by  which Folman’s work would be judged. If that is so, then the work is a failure because it only takes into account  the Israeli point of view.

But did  Folman have any better artistic choices? Couldn’t  he have created a political allegory with a parallel timeline and a generic and unnamed   invasion?   Using an imaginary-but-parallel episode would be less complicated, but also less meaningful.     Waltz with Bashir exists on an actual timeline, in relation to a specific  historical event.

Perhaps I could accept this viewpoint if the film hinted at its own incompleteness  or at least undermined the narrator’s version of events. There are several ways to do this: the narrator can show an obtuseness about what actually happened or his remarks could reek with unintentional irony. The camera could linger on visual details that subtly remind the viewer of what exists outside the narrative. Or the camera perspective can make temporal and spatial  jumps to establish a detached or  impersonal   perspective.  I don’t think Waltz with Bashir  does this. Aside from  flashbacks and extended  scenes in modern mundane settings to reflect on what really happened, the film doesn’t try to try to undermine itself.  The protagonist and his buddies have thoughtful discussions about the past – and maybe express  reservations about the role they played in it, but in general they never really acknowledge Israeli’s great mistake in getting involved and  triggering the cycle of violence.

Would  a simple reportorial point of view  provide the same insight more effectively?  If you read a journalist’s account of a rape or murder,  this  account can touch you in a way that never really happens in fiction; you can shed actual tears over an actual event rather than have a  aesthetic and cathartic  response.  I don’t mean to suggest that the “authenticity”  of journalism provides a richer way to experience a story than an artistic rendering. The reporter labors under the   unreasonable standard of requiring all  details to be factual. If you restrict a narrative  to the factual and verifiable, you limit your ability to tell a story and convey  states of mind. Besides,  some facts are inherently unknowable;  if there are no cameras or eyewitnesses around, it becomes hard to insert  a guess about what might have happened into the narrative. At the same time, a good journalist has the ability to explore a character’s past from the vantage point of the present. This retrospective vantage point still lets a reporter weave  an intricate narrative  with characters and   dramaturgy. Indeed, the journalist can mix a person’s subjective reflections about a past event with editorial commentary from the present and  footnote it with facts which were later established or verified. A perfect example is David Grann’s  Trial by Fire piece about the controversy surrounding the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.  You begin with the deaths from the fire, the evidence supporting the conviction, Willingham’s protests throughout the trial, the attempt to overturn the conviction  and finally a reflection on  the social issues  raised by the case.

Grann’s remarkable piece  reads like a detective story, an exploration of human guilt and justice and the implications of human fallibility. Although Grann probably paraphrases the statements of people he interviews,  we can assume that he  tries to depict their accounts as faithfully as possible.  Yet it is great drama. Grann’s sympathies lie with Willingham, but  Grann’s goal is simply to record all sides of the story. At the same time, Grann has no direct personal connection to the story; he has no stake in the outcome except perhaps to further his journalistic career.  Despite its stated aim, I don’t think Waltz with Bashir’s aim is to  uncover the truth about what happened;  its (ultimate) aim is to examine the narrator’s own culpability and how his perception of it changed over time.  The film is a plea for understanding. It is a plea for the audience not to judge the conflict’s minor characters too harshly but to understand the historical context in  which  these Rosenkrantz and Guildensterns found themselves.  This is a worthy subject for an artist to investigate. But don’t confuse it with history.  Indeed, the viewer has to wonder how much the narrator’s emotions and observational  biases interfere with understanding what really happened. Can Folman ever approach the subject as though he were not Israeli?

How much do national biases interfere with perspective? Consider  the  Israeli’s army recent attack on the peace activists on the freedom flotilla. Despite overwhelming evidence  to the contrary, after  the world condemned what Israel did, Israel fed itself lies about their right to capture a ship on international waters and shoot civilians.  Perhaps some liberals in Israel  acknowledged that tactical mistakes were made, but few of these Israelis  denied  Israel’s right  to take action against the ship – to take it over and fire all sorts of artillery at it.  In many ways, a filmmaker’s unedited footage of the whole episode of Israel’s soldiers attacking a boat full of  peace activists provide the kind of objective perspective  missing in Waltzing with Bashir.  How would Israeli soldiers be regarded in a context where  they were not automatically assumed to be right-acting and law-abiding?   The freedom flotilla film depicts  spontaneous reactions from  peace activists (so of course their sympathies are not with Israel). But when you are filming the event amongst the other peace activists as they are being attacked, the actions of Israeli soldiers seem inscrutable and even heartless.  Later  the Israel Defense Force (IDF)  broadcast  self-serving and    intelligence-insulting video propaganda about the event (which  American media  rebroadcast uncritically). Israel put out  various  lies about the incident:  that  people on the boat had Al Qaeda links, that they had lethal weapons, that they were saying derogatory things via radio. All lies – not even subtle lies, but clumsy and transparent lies.

In the digital era, a simple flip camera has the ability to undermine the self-justifying lies of an oppressor. But would  anyone want to  watch it?

Ultimately the most redeeming thing about Folman’s film is its use of animation and urban colors to convey past and present events. Floating in dreams and memories4The film depicts an imagined past.  From a practical perspective it makes sense; how can you animate foggy memories except with the shapes and colors of a  cartoonist’s pallet? Thematically these artificial effects call attention to the fact that the memories are constructed and dabbed with subjective colors. It is not quite reality; I don’t think the film aims for verisimilitude but uses brighter colors to call attention to  visual details which linger in the narrator’s  memory (See note 3).

Imagine if the film were a straight first person documentary. Sure, you’d get  people’s faces and a sense of what happened in Lebanon through  photographs and news footage. But other events would be hard to depict; when the soldiers were swimming in the sea to avoid detection, how could you capture the immediacy of what was happening – the lights, the isolation, the fear? You can reenact some  events, but frankly the animator’s canvas is less cluttered and easier to control.  Ultimately such a documentary film would be unlikely to arouse much interest.  Israel, oh yes, another political documentary  film, that’s nice. Put it on my list, and maybe some day — or some decade – I’ll get around to watching it. 

Ultimately we can fault the animator for failing to depict history accurately and fairly. At the same time we can commend the animator for using comic book effects to keep us engaged. It’s an interesting effect even though it’s certain to be overused. It’s already easy enough to falsify history through video, and new animation tools will probably make it easier. Ultimately the success of such a video  depends on persuading  the viewer  to enter the  world at that historical moment.  If animation makes this easier to accomplish,  so much the better.


Notes:

1. It is odd that this film has received so much prominence at a time when Israel is embroiled in other actions which have invited international scorn. Gary Kamiya writes:

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…. 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."

2.Another work by Camus, The Fall, tackles  the question of guilt, hypocrisy  and the responsibilities of bystanders to intervene. The nobility of sentiment and mission in  Camus’ The Plague will probably make it more endearing to readers, but  The Fall bears more relevance to daily life.  The protagonist is not so much a perpetrator but someone aware that just in living he falls short (and adds to the general suffering of the world). Some might say this is a cynical view of the world;  I would argue that it shows an understanding (and even sympathy) for human imperfection.

3. Michael Barrett comments about how the film jumps from this comic book mode to the stark newsreel reality: 

Aesthetically, the movie is often an astonishingly beautiful collage of documentary-like passages and the fantastical imagery of the characters’ dreams. However, filmmaker Ari Folman realizes that aesthetics are as much of an escape or a distancing effect as amnesia. That’s why the film’s most powerful image (beware the possible spoiler) is the aesthetic face-slap of the finale: ugly, raw video footage of women confronting the camera in grief and anger. All the film’s pretty displacements are themselves displaced into a recognition of reality and responsibility that abolishes all fantasy.

(Review, Video Watchdog, #159, 2010 issue).

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • B Habibi 9/4/2015, 1:48 am

    This isn’t even a review of the film. Its just the repetition of age old anti-Israel lies, most of which were debunked decades ago.

    Robert Responds:
    Thanks for your comment. First, it doesn’t NEED to be a review. It is what it is. Second, I am moderately well-informed about the time period. I don’t think you can call this anti-Israel lies. What lies do you mean specifically? If you want, you can make another comment with links to sources. I’ll keep an open mind, but I keep my skeptic’s hat on whenever I read something about Israel.

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