Just after seeing Waltz With Bashir at the Semadar Cinema in the German Colony, Ilana and I ran into our 17-year old son, Niot, with two friends. They had been at the pool, at their twice-weekly get-in-shape-for-the-army swim class. “You’ve got to see this film,” I told them. “Every kid who is dying to be a soldier should see it. So should every Israeli who loves his country.”
In Waltz With Bashir, director Ari Folman conducts a personal journey to recover his lost time and lost memories of the first Lebanon War. He knows that in September 1982 he was an Israeli soldier in Beirut. He was there when Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen, outfitted in IDF uniforms, massacred Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, two refugee camps that had become neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital. But, except for an odd vision of himself and two friends swimming naked in the sea at the time of the massacre, he can remember no details—what he was doing at the time, how he felt, who was really there with him.
At the encouragement of a high school friend who is now a psychotherapist, Folman, who has made several documentary films, set out to interview old army buddies and other Israelis who were in Beirut at the time. Little by little, the pieces come together and the memories return. Finally, Folman places himself on the rooftop of a Beirut high-rise, part of an Israeli team that sent up flares that provided light for the Phalangists to carry out their slaughter of an estimated 3,000 men, women, and children in the camps.
I wasn’t in Beirut in September 1982. I had begun basic training a month earlier. But I remember the anger, frustration, and shame I felt when news of the massacre became public. I was not the only one. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens massed in Tel Aviv’s central square on a Saturday night soon thereafter to demand that Prime Minister Menachem Begin establish a national commission of inquiry. Home on a weekend’s leave at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, I donned civilian clothes and drove with a friend to Tel Aviv to attend the demonstration.
Even before the massacre, the public had been betrayed by its leaders. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan had concocted a grandiose plan to evict the Palestinians from Lebanon by installing the young, handsome, and merciless Phalangist chief, Bashir Gemayal as president. The plan called for sending Israeli forces deep into Lebanon, up to Beirut. Sharon and Eitan knew that even Begin’s hypernationalist cabinet would never approve such a megalomaniac operation, so the plan they submitted called for a short-scale, modest incursion into southern Lebanon to clean out the Palestinian bases from which rocket attacks were being launched against Israel’s northern settlements. Once the army had crossed the border, Sharon and Eitan sent the troops onward and northward. Gemayal became president, but was soon assassinated. His Phalangist followers demanded revenge, and Israel’s military decision makers gave them the opportunity in Sabra and Shatila.
Israeli hands did not spill this blood, but a small number of Israeli hands and voices could easily have prevented it. In not doing so, they betrayed their country and the trust of the soldiers who, like Ari Folman, became unwitting and unwilling accessories to a war crime.
As he conducts his interviews, Folman puts together a portrait in which uncaring Israeli leaders, civilian and military, used their soldiers as pawns in an ill-advised and ill-planned military adventure. The culmination of the war’s ugliness, to my mind, comes not in the scenes of exploding shells, machine guns, and death—though these are numerous and difficult to watch. It’s the scene where a paunch-bellied brigadier sits, shirt unbuttoned, on an expensive armchair in a requisitioned Beirut mansion watching a German porn movie, as he orders Folman to take his squad out to sit in ambush all night for an expected car bomb. In my time in Lebanon I served under many dedicated, morally upstanding commanders—but also under no few ones like this perverted colonel.
Folman’s chose well to use animation this documentary. Since so much of his story involves memories, true and false, and fantasies, good and bad, his characters, and his battle scenes, are more effective as drawings than they could ever be as putatively real people and events on film.
The only thing that doesn’t fit is the way he chooses to end–with live footage of Palestinian women as they bewail the destruction and death in the camps. We already know that an awful thing has happened. What we want to know is what conclusions Folman draws from his journey through his memory–what he has discovered about himself and the country for which he fought. After subjecting us to these horrors, he owes us a statement.
I told my son and his friends that they must see this film because they must know that in setting out enthusiastically to defend their country, there may well be times when their lives and their country’s moral standing will be in the hands of perverted colonels and megalomaniac politicians. Defend their country they must, but they should avoid the tendency, all too common in Israel, to over-idealize the IDF and our legitimate struggle for our survival. Fighting to defend our country, we—soldiers and civilians—must fight at the same time to ensure that the shame of Beirut, September 1982, is never repeated. That’s what you do if you love your country.