Monthly Archives: February 2009

A Waltz with the Dogs of Memory

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

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

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, assassination and the ghastly aftermath in the

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

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