Waltz with Bashir out of step with Lebanese
The people were most affected by Israel’s 1982 invasion, as documented in the Oscar-nominated film, are unable to view it in their own country
As the dust settles and the blood dries in Gaza, Waltz With Bashir, an animated Israeli memoir of military service in the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war, has unmistakable contemporary parallels. Awarded a Director's Guild award in Los Angeles last month and nominated for two Baftas this weekend, Ari Folman's film explores his suppressed guilt about complicity in the notorious killing of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in September 1982.
Hundreds were massacred when the Israeli Defence Forces allowed Phalangist militiamen to enter the two Beirut camps, following the assassination of the Christian-backed Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayal just days before he was due to become president. Folman, then a soldier in the IDF, was only 19 when he witnessed the atrocity.
Illicit copies are already circulating among students and journalists
But while a global audience draws parallels between Israeli operations in Lebanon and the recent Gaza conflict, two inglorious moments in Israeli military history, the people of Lebanon itself cannot make such comparisons. The film is banned in Beirut, as are all Israeli films.
The dreamily drawn fields of banana trees, which conjure south Lebanon with the force of a nightmare, and Folman's sense of remorse, could find powerful resonance here, where relations with Israel are more tense than usual. But Lebanese government censors have remained resolute.
This is not to say that no-one in Beirut has seen the film. Particularly among the literati, interest has been high, and recently a small private screening was organised at Umam, a cultural centre and archive documenting the 1975-1990 civil war. Thirty people were invited and around 90 turned up. As Umam director Monika Borgmann put it: "If you don't want to make peace that is your own problem, but you should have the right to understand the other side."
In the wake of the screening, and as critical acclaim for the film has grown, a consensus is emerging that the film ought to be shown. Tarek Mitri, the Information Minister, who was responsible for the lifting of the ban on Persepolis last year, said it was "absurd" that the film was illegal. He pointed out that it could easily be downloaded and added, "We need to abolish that law so that we can see films like this and any other film." Illicit copies are circulating among students and journalists, and it is reportedly already possible to buy a pirate copy with Arabic subtitles.
However, not everyone wants it to be publicly shown. Many, on principle, boycott all Israeli products. "In my opinion," said Elena, a media student, "it should not be censored but it should be boycotted. Not because of its content, but because two Israeli foundations funded it... If the director was critical about Israeli politics, he should not have accepted money from Israeli institutions."
Mahmoud Zeidan, a Palestinian who grew up in Ain el-Helweh refugee camp, and was 15 when the massacre of his compatriots took place, said he had "mixed feelings" after the Umam screening. "It is good to have the soldiers telling the truth," he said, "but I expect in 26 years after Gaza there will be some soldiers being treated for trauma, too." He says Lebanon's refugee camps are still "full of victims suffering post-trauma... but these refugees who experienced the massacre, nobody looks at them. And nobody holds anyone responsible".
Beirut can feel like a city full of liberal intellectuals who drink all night and embrace relaxed Mediterranean culture more than conservative Arab attitudes. But when it comes to Israel, many are utterly implacable. Poets and authors often refuse to be included in compilations or literary festivals with Israelis. Although this attitude is frustrating for those passionate about the power of cultural exchange, the very subject matter of Waltz With Bashir shows that while such atrocities may be hard to remember, they are near-impossible to forget. ·
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