Movies on Monday: Waltz with Bashir
This week's Music on Monday is a movie. It's called Waltz with Bashir, and I haven't seen anything quite like it before.
The film represents director Ari Folman's efforts to deal with his memories of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He was a teenage soldier in the war. Folman told the International Herald Tribune last year:
The film talks about lost memory and how you may have a different memory from what actually happened. It asks the question I had to ask myself: where does memory hide? And I hope that audiences will start wondering about themselves. Hopefully, when you've seen it, you think about yourself - not about the guy in the film.
My goal here is not to review the movie. Watch it in the theater if you can. It's amazing.
(Watching the movie also resulted in Public Image Ltd.'s "This is Not a Love Song" being stuck in my head in a continuous loop for the last two days. See if the same thing happens to you.)
As powerful as the film was, I left the theater feeling unsatisfied. I knew I had to blog about it. [Spoilers below.]
At the core of the film is the massacre of Palestinians by Phalangist militiamen at the refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. The Israeli army knew about the killings as they were happening and initially did nothing to stop them.
Aside from massacres like Sabra and Shatila or genocides like Rwanda or the Holocaust, there are other ways people die in wartime:
1. Direct killing of enemy soldiers by your soldiers.
2. Direct or indirect killing of enemy civilians by your soldiers, incidental to military objectives or due to accident or negligence.
3. Killing of enemy civilians by third parties, or deaths from starvation or disease, made possible or facilitated by an invasion or destabilization that your soldiers caused.
The calculated aspect of a massacre of unarmed people, and the inability of the victims to defend themselves, heightens the culpability of perpetrators of a massacre. The observer feels instantly that the systematic killing of defenseless people based on some group characteristic is perhaps the gravest sin that humans can commit.
But the other three types of actions I've listed kill far more people than massacres.
The massacre at Sabra and Shatila depicted in the film killed somewhere between several hundred and a few thousand people.
Perhaps a million people died in the Lebanon War. The more mundane causes of death in wartime routinely outpace the Srebrenicas or Katyns that make the headlines. How many people know that some 200,000 people were killed in Burundi during the 1990s, right next door to Rwanda? How many people know that the number of people killed in Congo over the past 10 years is an order of magnitude higher than the number of victims of the conflict in Darfur?
Also, what constitutes a "massacre" often depends on where you stand in relation to an event. British military history enthusiasts refer to the Isandlwana "massacre" of some 1300 British soldiers at the hands of the Zulus they were trying to colonize; I'd imagine the Zulus didn't see it that way. Most Americans wouldn't characterize the obliteration of civilian populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the only wartime use of nuclear weapons in the planet's history as a "massacre"; I would.
Folman's long-buried guilt over his role, however indirect, in the massacre, comes into sharp focus at the end of the movie. Putting that guilt onto the screen was a brave and moving act stemming from his own family's history.
what [Israeli soldiers] saw, even before the discovery of the full-scale massacre, was horrific: old people, women, and children forced out of their homes, marching at gunpoint, just as in photos from occupied Warsaw.
The fact that Forman's parents had been interned at Auschwitz, he says, was what drove him to make the movie. "You can't come from a home of survivors and not be aware of where you come from: it's in your DNA. In a way, it influences everything in your life. It's a belief, a deep story. Your whole existence is about survival," he says. "And it's in the movie."
When he was younger, he thought he could escape his heavy inheritance. "Now I realize that any massacre, Bosnia, Iraq - it's not just about this massacre - it's about something you always had in you," he says.
Folman has produced a political statement that is also an enduring work of art. This is rare. But . . . but . . .
. . . I'm left wondering, what about the enemies killed in self-defense? What about the 10 year old in the orchard with the RPG, or the 18-year-old Lebanese and Palestinian soldiers Folman and his friends killed? Folman said this about his film:
He sees it as a nonpolitical film. "It doesn't deal with the other side, or what we do or not do to them. The basic statement is: war is useless.
That's a good take away.
But war doesn't happen by accident. It is planned, it is calculated, always for someone's benefit. The massacres are roundly condemned. Politicians proclaim "never again."
What politician says "never again" to war, which kills far more people and causes much greater destruction than the massacres that are taught in history class? Which nations say "never again" to the suffering they have created for their enemies? Sometimes, at least temporarily, the ones that committed the worst atrocities do.
Is that what it will take for us? For each country that takes pride in its military?