A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Waltz with Bashir

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 24, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write about Waltz with Bashir for the past two weeks or so, but my good intentions have gone nowhere. Thank goodness for my friend N, who had a piece about its screening at a Beirut non-profit in this past week’s Variety:

Lebanese auds have finally been able to “Waltz With Bashir” despite the fact that Israeli helmer Ari Folman’s Oscar-nommed pic is officially banned in the country.

UMAM, an org that archives Lebanon’s history and war memory through written and audiovisual materials, screened the film at its cultural center, a restored warehouse in a southern suburb of Beirut that is home to Hezbollah’s headquarters.

UMAM’s name is derived from the Arabic word for “nations.”

Banned by the censorship board of Lebanon’s Security Directorate, Ari Folman’s film also passed under the radar of Hezbollah at the semi-private Jan . 17 screening, to which 40 people were invited by the nonprofit org but about 90 attended.

(You can read the rest of the article here.)

I’m not surprised that there was so much interest in the film, but I would love to have heard what viewers said about it afterwards. For me, the biggest shock was partly self-induced: I had been thinking of Waltz as a film about Lebanon. But it isn’t: its a film about Israel, in which Lebanon is merely a foil for national reflection.

Its an interesting film, although “documentary” is not the word I would have chosen for it. Folman plays with the backgrounds of the people he interviews – some are reproduced faithfully, putting them in normal contexts that suggest their professional or domestic worlds, while others are not. The ones whose backgrounds are not reproduced appear to be in prison, or perhaps a hospital – which they are not. In other words, Folman’s choice regarding what to include or exclude from the interviewee’s surroundings frames how the viewer interprets his or her words.

Nor is the history told fully accurate. For example, there is an extended sequence at the Beirut airport, which shows it occupied exclusively by Israelis. As an American, I consider this a historical injustice: when Folman was there, the U.S. Marines were very much a presence at the airport.

In another sequence, repeated several times throughout the movie, Folman “remembers” walking through a group of chadored, mourning women. This makes no sense, historically or geographically: in 1982 women in chadors were not roaming the streets of Ramlet el-Baida. His “memory” reflects his own inability to separate later fears of Iran and Hizbullah from actual history; which is fine, except that as a documentarian he should frame his narrative more carefully – i.e., more accurately.

(FYI: small spoiler alert ahead)

Those of you who have read the reviews and/or seen the movie know that it ends with actual footage of Sabra and Shatila, post-massacre. I don’t find this a terribly compelling cinematic choice: the footage is early 1980s, and as grainy and choppy as war footage of that era seems to have been. Also, it was clearly filmed after the massacre was known, so while the mourning is real, the immediacy of shock has been lost. (I’m leaving aside here my comments on the totally rubbish portrayal of the Israeli role in this, in which the massacre stops because a heroic Israel commander finally drives up to the camp and yells at the Kataeb through a bullhorn.)

The camera follows several women as they walk through the camp, crying at the loss. Palestinian women, speaking – unsurprisingly – in Arabic.

Yet my latest copy of the New Yorker notes that the film is “In Hebrew, German, and English.” When the characters speak in Hebrew, their words are subtitled in English. When they speak German (don’t ask), their words are subtitled in English. When they speak English, obviously, there are no subtitles.

And when the women speak in Arabic?

No subtitles – and no sign from any U.S. media critic that this is an injustice. But it is: the lack of translation reduces these women from mourning women to screaming animals, with meaningless noises.

What they say is actually very interesting: they speak directly to the camera, and ask: Where are the Arabs? Why is it only foreigners here? And they tell the cameraman: Film this; film all of this.

Folman makes several irresponsible decisions as a “documentarian”, but for me this is the worst of all. By choosing not to translate their words, he denies them – the victims of a massacre the Israeli Army helped perpetuate – their voice. And he confirms that this is not a film about Lebanon.

8 Responses to “Waltz with Bashir”

  1. jtothemo said

    Wow, thank you for this. I haven’t seen Waltz with Bashir yet, but I am glad to know about the footage at the end and the lack of subtitles. I wrote my senior thesis in college on the invasion of 1982, and a great part of it was about the massacres at Sabra and Shatila.

    I can’t believe that the Arabic isn’t translated. And that this film could be viewed in any light as a documentary with that glaring omission (and it sounds like there are others, too.) This makes me very, very sad.

  2. M. said

    I actually don’t know why it has been called a documentary. I’ve listened to or read (I forget, it was a while back🙂 an interview with the guy, and he says something about this being based on his (and other people’s) memory of what happened, which is why he chose to make it animated, as opposed to it being a historical documentation.

    I enjoyed the movie, but I thought the ending was really lame. Interesting note about the Arabic not being translated – I didn’t even notice because I understood what was being said😛

  3. qussa said

    I have been meaning to write about Waltz with Bashir as well (saw it on vacation in the Netherlands), but I couldn’t make up my mind about it. I spoke about it with several Israeli friends, and specifically brought up the fact that the Arabic of the women in the end is not translated. They explained it as being just another aspect of ‘portraying the Israeli experience in Lebanon.’ I don’t think that’s a satisfying explanation at all, though.

    I found it extremely telling that it wasn’t translated, because the women are asking/screaming to the one who’s filming “where is the world? where is everyone? show this, come see this!” – if I remember correctly. So not only then are were they unheard and unseen, even in a ‘documentary’ that deals with this trauma they remain unheard and not-understood.

  4. qussa said

    (PS. Sorry, I just reread your post and saw that in my hurry to comment I actually skipped your last paragraph. My apologies!)

  5. Leila1000 said

    This may be a naif question, but what is the rationale provided (or if none, what is your interpretation) for the ban on this movie in Lebanon?

  6. Jtothemo, M, Qussa, and Leila + 1000, thank you all for your comments! Jtothemo, your thesis must have been a very interesting one – and I’m guessing a very emotionally involving one as well. M, I probably noticed the lack of subtitles more because I was with a friend who doesn’t speak Arabic, and it made me really angry that Folman was denying these women the chance to speak to her like he and his characters were. As for the documentary thing, he’s the one who has described it as that. And I suppose all documentaries involve some framing, but … the omissions bother me.

    Qussa, I’m so glad you added your translation, since after waiting two weeks to post about this I was a little concerned about the quality of my memory. One of my wonderings was whether the absence of Arabic translation was just a goof for the US version; your experience confirms that it was not an error. ugh.

    Leila1000, hello neighbor! My understanding is that the film is banned because it is an Israeli production, and proceeds would benefit the Israeli economy and ultimately the state. Beaufort was also banned, or perhaps no distributor tried to bring it to Lebanon. I don’t think its anything special to this particular film; The Band wasn’t shown in Lebanon either, and it isn’t about Lebanon at all.

    I’ve been tempted to wonder whether the Kataeb had a particular hand in the ban, but honestly I think its just the standard boycott.

  7. Kheireddine said

    On September 15, 1982 in the evening, two security general agents assigned to Agriculture minister Mustapha Dernaika who was our neighbor told us that they heard that convoys of Lebanese Forces militiamen entered West Beirut from Fouad 1er (the Museum) and headed toward the camps of Sabra Chatila. We knew what was going to happen…that evening, the IDF reach International Hotel (Ramlet El Baida and Corniche Chourane intersection) 100 meters from our building. They were sniping on our street.
    On September 16, an Israeli commando came to the building next to ours (Fallaha bldg), they gunned down everybody who were in the lobby with Dom Dom explosive bullets. The Janitor, A Somali servant, and an 8 year old girl got killed. Her father, a wealthy Palestinian Mr. Khatib got injured. Actually, the girl did not die instantaneously, she crawled to basement and died for massive loss of blood.
    Yes, Israel committed war crimes and I was witness. That was the first time in my life I see dead people…

  8. Nimrod said

    I was contacted by one of the production’s researchers a while back. They were looking for war stories, and I gave them two. Unfortunately, they did not think my contribution was significant enough, and never used them, so I’ll share with you a “cutting room floor” version if you will.

    I was stationed in Bhamdoun up to the end of October 1982.
    One day we rode in a Jeep on the Beirut-Damascus road, headed back to base. There was a small detour you could take from the main road into town, where excellent falafel could be bought. Many soldiers frequented the place, and we were planning to have lunch there that day. Right before the intersection, we found one of our unit’s trucks had collided with a local vehicle. Nothing serious, but that detained us for about 15 minutes. While we were just about to leave (the falafel was waiting, remember?) we heard a loud explosion and saw a smoke mushroom emerging above the rooftops. We rushed to the spot, finding a scene I will never forget.
    Right next to the restaurant, a car-bomb had exploded. It had disintegrated so thoroughly, that only the engine and chassis could be recognized as automotive scrap. All the rest of the car had shredded into shrapnel that had torn apart several unfortunate people: the falafel salesman, a shoe peddler with his cart, and a few passers by. The remnants of the shoe seller were especially gruesome, and had to be piled on a stretcher and retrieved from a nearby ditch.
    The bomb was intended for us soldiers. Not me specifically of course, just Israeli soldiers in general. Had I not been detained by the accident, I might have been the body on that stretcher. War is seldom fought personally. Most people find it difficult to kill a person they actually know, while killing “the enemy” is quite easy. Nobody takes into account that this “enemy” is a person who might be very dear to someone.

    In my second story, we were the ones doing the killing while “the enemy” was the one getting killed. I was moving with a truck convoy, when we stumbled into crossfire. The two parties engaged in military dialogue were a disabled Israeli tank (broken track), and what appeared to be a lone gunman, who chose to challenge a tank’s firepower from a residential building three or four stories tall. The tank was a sitting duck, but still very capable, while the gunman had only his rifle. I took shelter behind the tank, where an interesting discussion was going on. Some of the soldiers thought that firing a few shells into the building would probably end the problem and we could move on; while others pointed out that there might be uninvolved civilians in the building. After deliberating for a while, a few of the soldiers crossed the street under a spray of bullets, stormed the building and killed the gunman. As it turned out, one floor below was a family stuck in the middle of a conflict they had no part of.

    Having grown up and wised up ( I hope), I think that war in general is a very stupid way to resolve differences between people, and is usually done to promote political ambition or personal greed under the pretense of ideology or plain fear. When I was small, my mother used to tell me that when I’ll be an adult, there won’t be need for an army. Today, as I see my eldest son soon completing his service, I know that we are still a long way from getting sense – on both sides of this conflict. Deliberating whether a movie is representative of this view point or another, is missing the point entirely: There is always an alternative to war, but it requires all parties to want it.

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