Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Some things never change.

Israelis have been killing Palestinians for most of my life (although to be honest not much longer).

Back in 1982 when I was in high school, the Israeli Army under Defense Minister Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon. In 1982 Lebanon was not yet dominated by Shiite Muslims and Hezbollah. It had a powerful Christian fascist movement called the Phalangists led the charismatic Bachir Gemayel. Lebanon was also the military headquarters of the PLO (the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the secular Hamas of its day) that Gemayel the Christian fascist and his Ariel Sharon the Jewish fascist wanted to get rid of. Not surprisingly the Israeli Army and their Phalangists allies easily defeated any military resistance and quickly occupied Beirut.

Then horror.

On 14 September 1982, Gemayel, who had long been enemies with Lebanon’s Muslims, was assassinated along with 26 other Phalangist leaders by a by gigantic explosion in the Phalangist stronghold of Achrafieh. Phalangist soldiers, who looked up to Gemayel as a rock star, naturally wanted blood. At Sabra and Shatilah, a place that like Srebrenica or Wounded Knee will forever live in infamy, they got their blood. First the Israeli Army moved into West Beirut trapping thousands of Palestinian refugees –at this point mostly women and children — in a killing zone. Then Ariel Sharon decided to look the other way as their vengeful Christian allies moved in and started slaughtering everybody in sight. When it was all over 3500 Palestinians were dead and the PLO’s presence in Lebanon effectively over. It was a great military victory for the Israelis and, having removed the threat from the north, opened the West Bank to Jewish settlers from Kiev, Brooklyn and New Jersey.

Genocide works.

I’m always surprised at the poverty of Israeli cinema. American Jews of East European descent along with Southern Italians dominate American cinema. Quick. Name a great WASP American auteur who isn’t Howard Hawkes or D.W. Griffiths. You can’t. John Ford. He’s an Irish Catholic. Robert Altmann? German American. Close but no cigar. Part Irish and raised Catholic. Yeah yeah. Orson Welles before he got fat.

Even idealized Hollywood WASPs like Ashley Wilkes are often played by Jewish actors. You really thought Leslie Howard was an Anglican didn’t you? He looks far more Anglo Saxon than Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart, two Mayflower descendants. Needless to say there are so many great Jewish American directors it would be impossible to list them all. East European Jews and African Americans have contributed more to American culture than any other two ethnic groups. In 500 years, when historians want to talk about that great American civilization that collapsed in the 2020s and 2030s they’ll talk about Jazz and Hollywood.

So why does Israeli cinema barely seem to exist? The answer is actually pretty easy. The American Jews who created pre-Code and classic Code Hollywood were socialists. What do you think the McCarthyite purges were about. Israel is essentially a fascist culture. No introspection is allowed. And there’s nothing specific to Israel about it. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when the United States retained a few traces of New Deal liberalism, we got Apocalypse Now and the Godfather. In the 2000s and 2010s, in the post 9/11 era, we get the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Waltz with Bashir by Israeli director Ari Folman is an exception to the rule. Similar to classic Vietnam era movies like Platoon or The Deer Hunter it examines the destructive effect on a psyche soldier who serves a genocidal war machine. Yeah. Yeah. The Palestinian victims barely exist but how many speaking lines do the Vietnamese get in Apocalypse Now? It’s a “shoot and cry movie” but a good one. Folman, who as a 19-year-old private took part in the invasion of Lebanon, is the lead character. We first meet him chatting with his old friend Boaz Rein-Buskila, a fellow soldier who has been suffering from nightmares of a pack of 26 wild dogs ramping through Tel Aviv killing random people. As it turns out, Boaz, who was a bad soldier unable to kill his fellow humans, had been assigned to shoot the guard dogs every time their company advanced into a town, and he had killed exactly 26.

Folman himself doesn’t even have nightmares. Quite the contrary, he can’t even remember if he was in Lebanon or not. In Israel, I suppose, there’s none of the “I killed babies in ‘Nam” extroversion. IDF vets who enabled the Phalangist killers at Sabra and Shatilah simply don’t talk about it. They don’t even think about it. Folman’s amnesia is part of what gives Waltz with Bashir’s animated cinematography, which at first seems crude, it’s astonishing power. Yoni Goodman’s Adobe flash animations perfectly express the world of a man who sees the past “through a glass darkly,” who imagines the truth, but can’t imagine it with the clarity of 35mm film or 4K video. The demonic wild dogs that open the movie are more than just dogs. They are the souls of the Palestinian victims Folman refuses even to remember.

Waltz with Bashir has the same narrative structure as Citizen Kane. When Folman finally realizes he can no longer deny the atrocities he was a part of, he embarks on a quest to interview everybody he still knows who served in the IDF in Lebanon. As he gets closer and closer to the horrible truth, we learn something that I, as an American brought up to think the IDF was not only the most moral army in the world but one of the most formidable, have never quite realized. It’s all propaganda. The Israeli soldiers who invaded Lebanon weren’t supermen, they were cowards and lazy hedonists. They never stopped to think why they were in Lebanon in the first place. Not only were they “just following orders” they barely even try to aim their weapons. They just slaughter everything in sight, firing randomly out of a compulsion that if they stop, they’ll get killed by terrorists. They are tiny cogs in an amoral death machine.

And well, they’re in Gaza as we speak….

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