A Waltz With the Dogs of Memory

A Waltz With the Dogs of Memory

Vicious hounds of repressed memory haunt Waltz with Bashir, a deeply flawed depiction of the harsh truths of a war no one can forget.


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.

The depiction of West Beirut in the film is a classic example of absolutely fantastical constructed memories, particularly in its depiction of ubiquitous portraits of Bashir Gemayel, whose iconography was most certainly not to be found almost anywhere, let alone everywhere, in that part of the city, which was the stronghold of opposition to his Phalange party and militia. What is presented as a painfully recovered memory is, in fact, a constructed memory of the most symptomatic variety that has both personal and political imperatives–and indeed that may be the point.

The film’s director, Ari Folman, recognizes that these processes may be at work, most notably in his skillful explanation of how childhood “memories” regarding events that never took place can be retrospectively constructed in the individual psyche, and–although entirely imaginary–even assume the role of defining moments in any given, and perhaps every, narrative of a childhood. The passage in which the principal Israeli soldier protagonist finds himself wandering through the wreckage of the Beirut International Airport imagining himself to be a traveler in a normal, well-functioning airport on some sort of adventurous vacation, only to realize that what he is traversing is in fact a devastated, bombed-out wasteland, also hints at the extraordinary tricks of perception the mind can play on itself both at the time, and, by implication, in retrospect, at the command of a self-serving personal and collective imperative. The gesture of making the movie as an animated documentary lends it a surrealistic quality that further amplifies this alienating effect, and creates additional space between the film as text and cinematic experience, and the reality it purports to represent.

As for the treatment of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, the film is to be commended for its forthright, albeit often implicit, acceptance of Israel’s responsibility for the carnage. In effect, it repeats the finding of the official Israeli Kahan Commission of Inquiry, which found Israel’s government and leaders to be “indirectly responsible” for the massacre, particularly then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who was assigned “personal responsibility.” This concept of “indirect responsibility” is expressed in the very title of the film, Waltz with Bashir, which suggests a dangerous engagement with certain unsavory elements in Lebanon, more than a calculated Israeli action that could only have led directly to ghastly consequences.

The film acknowledges that Israel was in control of the area of the camps, and that it made the deliberate and well-informed decision to allow enraged and heavily armed followers of the recently assassinated Gemayel and others direct access to the camps, and lit the night sky continuously with flares in order to facilitate the killing. It is also frank in acknowledging that Israeli officials were in early possession of detailed information about the ongoing massacre and chose to allow it to continue, presumably because they were fully aware that this was the only possible outcome of their initial decision to introduce ultra-right-wing Lebanese Christian forces into the Palestinian refugee camps. Like the Kahan Commission, Waltz with Bashir at least has the moral decency to repudiate the repulsive, cynical and frankly racist comment of Israel’s prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, that “goyim kill goyim, and they blame the Jews.”

But the missing element of the basic history of the invasion, in which, in spite of an onslaught of incredibly destructive bombardment, Israeli military efforts to enter Beirut were successfully repulsed by the PLO and allied Lebanese forces, is still entirely repressed in this narrative. So are the circumstances under which Gemayel was “elected” (in effect at Israeli gunpoint) by the Lebanese parliament as the president-elect, and the bitter history of the Lebanese civil war, in which Israel was heavily implicated, that led up to the invasion, election, the assassination and the ghastly aftermath in the camps.

It is not enough to say that the film does not purport to be a history of Israel’s involvement in Lebanese politics, a history of the civil war or anything of the kind. In effect, these telling omissions are a conscious or unconscious act of historical denial as pathological as any other interrogated in the film, since the central events represented for Israel, Lebanon and the individual Israeli soldiers in question cannot be understood in any meaningful sense without at least a cursory acknowledgment of that essential context. To ascribe any kind of personal or political “meaning” or to construct a coherent “narrative” of these events absent this context is in itself an exemplary act of psychic repression.

Another stunning omission is the complete absence of any account of the evacuation of the PLO and its fighters from the camps, and from Beirut in general in August, which set the stage for the massacre in September. Under a US-brokered agreement, while the PLO left the Palestinian civilians undefended, Israel promised not enter West Beirut and the refugee camps around it. The notion, referenced in the film, that the massacre could initially have been sincerely rationalized as an effort to root out “terrorists” in the camps is, of course, belied by the fact that the armed Palestinian factions had already left Beirut, and that following the assassination of Gemayel, Israel broke its word, seized control of the area and then allowed the most bitter enemies of the Palestinians in Lebanon into the now defenseless camps to do their worst.

One could go on listing the psychic repressions, historical omissions and constructed and distorted memories that characterize so much of what is missing (and some of what is included) in the film. But there is no need. As an exercise in the recuperation of individual and collective memory and the reassertion of an accurate account of historical events, Waltz with Bashir is less of a cure than an index of how these symptoms play themselves out over time at both the individual and popular culture levels–especially when people are traumatized by fear, guilt or shame.

Whether it is a sly effort to demonstrate the slipperiness of any exercise in the recuperation of constructed memory and repressed history, or an unwitting illustration of the ineluctable cunning of self-deception, the filmmakers have succeeded admirably in revealing a universal fallibility of human psychology. If this film is viewed as a frustrated, thwarted or self-defeated effort–no matter how sincere–to overcome psychic distortions, mental blockages, historical and personal repression, and what the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once called a “memory for forgetfulness,” then it is an entirely successful and highly instructive project.

Waltz with Bashir must be read against the grain of its own marketing as an exemplary instance of the impossibility of overcoming the inexhaustible human reliance on psychic distortions and imagined realities that allow us to avoid, or cope with, the pain of intolerable truths.

The marauding pack of dogs (vengeful specters of the watchdogs an Israeli soldier was assigned to kill during assaults on Lebanese villages in the early stages of the invasion) that chase and attack during the harrowing and dreamlike opening sequence of the film has not been exorcised in any sense at its conclusion. Vicious hounds of repressed memory, with an animalistic and primal wrath, plainly continue to haunt the narrative, and the individual and collective psyches represented, as much at the end of the film as at its beginning.

The only useful lesson Waltz with Bashir can teach any viewer is never to ask who those terrifying dogs are chasing: they are always chasing you.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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