Waltz with Bashir: Drawing a Massacre from Memory

By Ryan Rodrick Beiler 2-16-2009

090216-waltz-with-bashirEach time I write about the Middle East, I feel compelled to repeat three concepts.

First, casualty counts. Currently, 4,908 Palestinians have been killed and 1,062 Israelis have been killed since September 2000. (That's according to B'tselem, the Israeli Human Rights organization, whose breakdown of these totals are even more illustrative.) The cliche "cycle of violence" rubrick so often applied gives a false impression of symmetrical "eye for eye" retaliation when in fact, by this count, the eye ratio is about 5-to-1.

Second, related to the first, is a clear and consistent condemnation of terrorist violence and affirmation of Israel's right to exist. These should go without saying, but on issues of such sensitivity, it is important to be clear. As a Christian who believes Christ calls us to be peacemakers, I abhor all forms of violence. Terrorist violence is unique because it deliberately targets civilians. State violence is unique because it tends to kill many more civilians than its terrorist enemies while claiming to defend noble goals. Again, we must reject any false equivalence. Both forms of violence are abhorrent, but for different reasons: one particularly because of the depravity of its goals, the other particularly because of the depravity of its means.

Critics often assume that condemning terrorism and affirming Israel's right to exist are politically correct lip-service warm-ups for a session of Israel-bashing. Which leads me to my third concept: Discourse regarding Israel's policies and actions is far more diverse and sophisticated within Israel (overwhelming public support for the recent war against Gaza notwithstanding) than what is tolerated by U.S. gatekeepers of discourse. Just read Ha'aretz. And then go see the Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated Israeli film, Waltz with Bashir.

The film portrays an Israeli soldier's struggle to reconstruct suppressed memories of his role in the invasion of Lebanon, when Israeli forces surrounded the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps as residents were massacred by Christian Phalangist militias in 1982.

The use of animation is an especially appropriate device, as it heightens the sense of memory as a constructed part of our consciousness -- malleable and easily manipulated. It took me about halfway through the film to realize that this was essentially a series of interviews with former Israeli soldiers. And though in that sense it is highly documentary, the animation weaves compelling threads of conversation with reconstructed memories, visions, and literal and figurative nightmares.

Though making a powerful statement, Bashir does not deliver the blunt-force trauma of a Michael Moore documentary dope-slap. It pulls no punches, but neither does it preach nor shout. It chats. Building slowly in measured tones of Hebrew, we listen, as if to a patient on a therapist's couch. But the soft-spoken story that begins with a bad dream arrives at a very real atrocity.

As a Christian, the actions of the Christian Phalangist militia members particularly disturbed me. The film describes their fanatical support for Bashir Gamayel, leader of the Phalangists, and their atrocities at Sabra and Shatila as a reaction to his assassination. Beyond the horror of the massacre itself, they tortured some of their victims by using knives to carve crucifixes on their chests. I had to comment to friends afterward at how disturbing it was to see my own religious symbols so horribly desecrated by such actions. A Muslim friend who watched the film with me said that's how she feels when Islam is distorted by terrorist portrayals.

Of course, atrocities have been committed by Christians throughout church history, but this example graphically reminded me that even in recent history no religious tradition in the Middle East has a monopoly on victimhood or depravity.

Ultimately, Bashir is about more than memory. It's about responsibility and culpability. The primary character speaks with a psychiatrist friend about "circles" of complicity around Sabra and Shatila, and, as only a child of Holocaust survivors can effectively suggest to his own community, draws parallels with the Warsaw ghetto and the Nazis.

This is a sobering reminder for the viewer. We who might be quick to accuse others must consider what "circle" of complicity we inhabit around the bull's-eyes of our time -- be it Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, or violence and tragedies closer to home. An Israeli government's Kahan Commission found Israeli forces "indirectly responsible" for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. We may not be suffering from repressed memories or post-traumatic stress disorder, but we must confront our role, however indirect, in someone else's nightmare.

[One caution: This film contains one relatively brief pornographic scene that seemed rather unnecessary to the overall story. Graphic violence is also present, but this story could not be told without it.]

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web editor for Sojourners.

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