The Middle East is famous for being a battleground. Throughout history, wars have been staged towards this corner of the world to gain control over religious Holy Land. Much of the modern conflict in the Middle East centers on the nation state of Israel and the responses of other countries to the presence on Israel. The Israeli film industry's portrayal of past ethnic conflicts present intimate points-of-view from which the audience can learn both the truth behind the events as well as the director's message. In the case of both Lebanon (2009) and Waltz with Bashir (2008), applying a human face to tragedy makes the conflict more personal and allows the audience to relate more to the events and to understand the inherent futility of violence and warfare and the damage to the survivors as well as the deceased.
History of the Conflict:
The 1982 Lebanon War, also called Operation Peace for Gallee, began on June 6, 1982 when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) invaded southern Lebanon. This attack was purportedly in retaliation of an attempted assassination against the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov. A relatively short military conflict, by September of 1982, the PLO withdrew must of their forces from Lebanon, leaving the Israeli forces in control of the area. The intent of the invasion never really had anything to do with the country of Lebanon. The Israelis were far less interested in acquiring lands than in showcasing their nation's dominance of the PLO. To this end, the Israeli forces allied with the Lebanese Christian Militia, also called Phalangists, led by Elie Hobeika. This group would be directly responsible for the massacre of more than 1,000 people at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in an act of retaliation for the assassination of their president Bashir Gemayal (Shahid 38).
III. Waltz with Bashir:
In the film Waltz with Bashir, writer/director Ari Folman tells a semiautobiographical account of his experiences in the Israeli army during the 1982 conflict with Lebanon. The story begins with some old friends discussing a nightmare where one of the men is being chased by dogs and feeling it links back to what happened in 1982, a time Folman realizes, of which he has no memory. On the surface, the story is something of a mystery wherein the audience tries to discover what role Folman had in the attack and what perspective he will have once he makes his realization. By placing the audience in the shoes of a former Israeli soldier who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has blocked out the events of the war, the audience becomes that soldier. As he has yet to rediscover his first-person knowledge of the massacre, so too the audience lacks any knowledge about the events. As Folman discovers the secrets of his youth, so does the audience.
The film begins in June of 1982 during the First Lebanon War. A small troop of soldiers are sent into examine the aftermath of a bombing of a local town by the Israeli Air Force. The intrepid antagonists in the film remain in their tank, awaiting their enemies and their impending death. What makes the film such a powerful message to the audience is that the would-be killers, who are themselves awaiting death at the hands of their enemies, are barely more than children themselves. The four men in the tank are inexperienced in a war zone and they make mistakes which a more hardened soldier would never make. This brings the audience in by placing the viewer inside the tank with these men, all young and none of the group really understanding what it is they need to do. In the film, the soldiers are ordered to use a weapon which is forbidden through international treaty. The use of these phosphorus grenades despite their illegality brings up an important component to the general disarray; the question of culpability and where blame should be centered for the horrors of the Lebanon War and the slaughter of innocent Palestinians.
The depiction of the IDF in the film is a very important component of the media understanding of the Lebanon War. The western world almost always portrays its allies in positive light and dismisses or detracts from positive iconography of the enemy. In Lebanon, a very controlling commanding officer, Gamil, feels no real compassion for his men who are trapped in a tank in a small Lebanese town full of hostile inhabitants. Instead this man's sole motivation is the continuation of the mission and moving closer to the eventual goal of the political machine. A good soldier will not question his or her commanding officer. Instead a good soldier will do his or her duty without any qualms or considerations of the ramifications. As the film progresses, some of the soldiers forget their place as warriors and instead become young men interested in their own personal survival, even daring to ask the C.O. why they are in Lebanon at all when their fight is with the Palestinians.
In an interview with The New York Times, director Maoz, whose film counterpart is the gunner Shmulik, was quoted as saying:
There is a metamorphosis, first physical, when you lose your sense of taste, you don't need to eat, you suddenly hear and see everything sharp and clear…When you fall into such an extreme situation, when the basic rules of life are not there, you can't continue thinking with the logic of normal life. If you do, you'll probably end up dead. At the end you don't fight for your country or your kids, you're fighting for your life. And if you survive -- and most who died, died in the first day -- after the second day you become a soldier of the war (Erlanger).
This metamorphosis takes place not only in the characters of the film but, through them, in the audience as well. By placing the viewer inside the tank with these frightened men, the audience relates to them and sees the change take place from child to man, from innocent to soldier and they, in turn, come to the same realization as the characters.
V: Alterations Between Media and Reality:
Historians have put nearly all blame for the Sabra and Shatila massacres on the IDF. Also the murders were committed by the Phalangists, the camps were surrounded by IDF forces. They had control over who had access to the camps and, according to some commentators, it would have been impossible not to have an understanding of what was going on inside the camps. In two separate investigations, one independent and one conducted by the Israeli government called the Kahan Commission, Israel was found to be indirectly responsible for the massacres and Ariel Sharon was held personally accountable for allowing the Phalangists into the camps (MacBride). By doing nothing to prevent the massacres, the IDF was equally responsible for the crimes. In the films, the perspectives the audience are allowed to share are from individuals who did not participate first-hand in the murders. This allows the audience to share in their disgust without feeling their protagonist(s) have any culpability, or if they do it is only because they are young men in soldier's uniforms. The thesis of the films then is that warfare is violent and the atrocities, though committed by men like the protagonists, are the fault of the members of the higher echelon who give the orders. Soldiers are placed in a moral quagmire, whether to follow orders which their indoctrination in the militia requires them to do, or to listen to their own sense of morality and in so doing not only disobey the commanding officer but commit an act of treason to their homeland.