Initial reaction to the surprising failure of the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir to win this year’s Academy Award for best foreign-language picture has suggested that it confronts harsh truths and painful realities, especially about Israel, too unflinchingly for the Hollywood mainstream to embrace. As a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz put it, this year’s Oscars demonstrated that “Hollywood knows exactly how it likes its Jews: Victims.” Waltz with Bashir obviously provides little to feed that narrative. However, the key to the film’s artistic merit is ironically more a function of its failure than its success as an exercise in the recuperation of intolerable memories and the reassertion of some sort of “truth” in the face of psychic denial.
The film makes no overt claim to be an accurate historical account of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and is most certainly nothing of the kind. Instead, it presents itself as a psychodrama focusing on the long-term traumatic effects on some individual Israeli soldiers (and, by definition, to some extent on Israeli society in general) of the experience of the invasion.
Waltz with Bashir is an effort to interrogate the vagaries of human memory and their role in the development of both personal and collective narratives. It focuses especially on the distortions caused by constructed and retrospective memories based on events that took place long ago–even those that never happened at all and are only imagined (but deeply believed)–and the important role they play in the retrospective construction of these narratives. It is also an extended rumination on the process of personal and historical repression of memories, events and facts that are too painful to be successfully incorporated into the personal narratives of well-adjusted human beings and the collective narratives of well-functioning societies, especially those that may be suffering from subtle forms of post-traumatic syndrome. That apparently inexplicable amnesias and constructed memories based on imaginary past realities can come to define personal and collective narratives is, essentially, the subject of the film.
Insofar as viewers take the film as a useful historical account of what happened in 1982, it does a significant disservice to its audience. The narrative is far too personal, fragmentary, subjective and historically inaccurate to provide any coherent sense of what happened either politically or militarily during the conflict. However, the danger that it may be taken as such by ill-informed audiences is significant and deeply unfortunate, and has been encouraged by a marketing campaign that has promoted the idea that it bravely and successfully recovers suppressed histories. At the same time, the marketing of the film, at least in the United States, has itself been anything but unflinching, systematically downplaying the massacre that is at the heart of its narrative.
In its purported project of interrogating and clarifying the effects of distorted and constructed memories and the power of repression, both individual and collective, the film–at least at the surface level–is a spectacular failure, since its narrative faithfully and almost exhaustively reproduces all of these neurotic symptoms.
The war depicted in Waltz with Bashir bears little resemblance to the exhaustively documented trajectory of the conflict as it actually happened. The vast chunks of crucial missing history in the film, and the lacunae regarding what Israel’s military unquestionably did during the conflict, render it virtually meaningless as a historical document and unmistakably neurotic.
One of the most striking acts of psychic and historical repression in the film is its absolute disinterest in the effects of the war on the people of Lebanon–who are represented mainly, if at all, as distant shadows–with the exception of the massacre at the Palestinian camps, which were only the culmination of one of the most destructive wars in recent Middle Eastern history. Viewers of this movie will be left with no sense at all of the astonishing scale of death and destruction the invasion brought upon Lebanon and its people. An estimated 17,000 Lebanese were killed, many if not most of them civilians, and the Israeli army caused over $2 billion in damage to property. There is no gesture whatsoever to include the Lebanese people and their experiences as humanized subjects in this film about a major war in Lebanon. One almost gets the sense that, from the point of view of this movie, if the massacre at the camps had not taken place, nothing of abiding historical significance really took place in the summer of 1982.