Originally meant to be a review of “Lebanon,” currently in its first commercial run in the US, my pending article in Tikkun became a film essay about both “Lebanon” and “Waltz with Bashir.” The following are non-finalized snippets from my initial submission, to be published in a somewhat different version in Tikkun in September:
After being mauled by King Hussein’s Jordanian army in September, 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization ensconced itself militarily in southern Lebanon, in a de facto occupation that helped trigger the Lebanese civil war in 1975. This area became known to Israelis as “Fatahland,” for Yasser Arafat’s dominant PLO faction. The PLO’s heavy hand drew the ire of both Shiites and Christians living in the south.
Attacks were launched from Fatahland, including the spectacular raid that killed 38 civilians and wounded 71 along the Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal road in 1978, and the massacre of a family in the Galilee town of Naharia in 1979. But an informal truce had been reached with the PLO, when the Begin government seized upon the wounding of Israel’s ambassador to Britain in an assassination attempt, in England, by a dissident PLO faction, as the trigger for its massive offensive in June, 1982. [In a recent radio interview, “Lebanon” filmmaker Maoz revealed only the vaguest knowledge, even now, of why he was sent to war as a 20-year old.]
Israel’s initial armored thrust in ’82 was greeted warmly by some Shiites and with enthusiasm among most Christians. But the Israelis soon overstayed their welcome and their initial political gains proved illusory. …
Hezbollah began its rise as a dominant force in Lebanon and the Shiites became hardened enemies of Israel—for the first time. Israel lost hundreds of soldiers during its 18-year occupation of the “security zone” along its border; it suffered over 150 more deaths (mostly civilians), plus widespread damage and dislocation to northern Israel, during the ill-fated second Lebanon war in 2006.
Driven both by their need for personal catharsis and the economic necessity of small budgets, two veterans of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon have made innovative feature films about their war experiences. The first, “Waltz with Bashir,” a 2009 Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language film, told filmmaker Ari Folman’s story in the only way it could without incurring production costs on a massive Hollywood scale—by animation.
The second, “Lebanon,” conveyed the experience of writer-director Samuel Maoz as part of a tank crew in an astonishingly apt way—almost entirely from within a tank. ….
Both “Lebanon” and “Waltz with Bashir” have been criticized by pro-Palestinian partisans and some left-wing Israelis as part of a long tradition of yorim ve’bochim–of liberal Israelis “shooting and crying,” as if they were the victims. What would be courageous, this criticism goes, is for an Israeli filmmaker, perhaps teaming up with Palestinians, to make a film from the perspective of the Palestinians and Lebanese who lived through the invasion, or perhaps creating a film that alternates the experience of Israelis with those of Lebanese and/or Palestinians. Otherwise, (these critics argue) the Israeli invader is the only one given subjectivity, and the Lebanese and Palestinians are wholly “other,” without voice or feelings, and the terror that they experience is rendered invisible.
Since these films do not flinch in depicting the carnage Israel inflicted on Lebanon, this last point seems to be unfair on its face. …[I omit mention of a powerful scene from “Lebanon” here.]
In “Waltz With Bashir,” Ari Folman suddenly jumps from animation to actual footage to depict the horrendous aftermath of slaughter and grief at Sabra and Shatila, with which he concludes his masterpiece. Perhaps this event was too true in its monstrous reality for the filmmaker to bear approaching it from the remove of a cartoon, however artful his work was with this form until that point.
To respond more completely to the “shooting and crying” charge, one needs to consider what makes a war movie into an anti-war movie. In “Saving Private Ryan,” the bloodletting (especially at its beginning and end) is so unrelenting and so realistic, that in no way can it be depicted as pro-war propaganda. I wonder how many actual lives were lost or shattered (say in Vietnam) as a result of youngsters being seduced into uniform by the war movies of John Wayne and other cardboard action heroes who starred in such films in the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. One would hardly expect that “Saving Private Ryan” motivated young people to want to go to war. The same is true of HBO’s recent TV mini-series, “The Pacific,” co-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the star and director respectively of “Saving Private Ryan.”
These works [of Hanks and Spielberg], quite properly, honor the fighting men who served their stint in hell to defeat Hitler and his rapacious Imperial Japanese ally. By way of contrast, there is nothing in the least bit redemptive or even patriotic in how the filmmakers Folman and Maoz have presented their material—surely representing their verdict on the war that they fought. …