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FILM: 1982 Massacre Rendered Through Dark, Distorted Lens

WASHINGTON, Jan 5 2009 (IPS) - Recently opened in wide release in the United States, Ari Folman’s new animated documentary detailing Israeli involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre sheds new light on the Israeli side of that conflict, as well as the one unfolding today.

“Waltz With Bashir”, already an award-winning documentary and the official Israeli submission for best foreign language film to the U.S. Academy Awards, gives the perspective of Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers and their involvement in the events in West Beirut in 1982.

It’s a harrowing tale of post-traumatic stress disorder. And while the events of Sabra and Shatila are distinctly different than the current situation in Gaza, there are lessons to be learned from a quarter-century ago.

The film opens with pack of 26 snarling dogs running down a street. They collect below a balcony with a lone figure smoking – Folman’s friend and fellow IDF veteran, Boaz Rein-Buskila.

Cut to a bar in Israel in 2006. Folman is chatting with Rein-Buskila over drinks. The conversation and the nightmare shown moments before are rendered in dark and brooding animated sequences.

The viewer quickly learns the modus operandi of Folman’s creative documentary: audio interviews are animated, as are the recollections and flashbacks described. (All the interviews are real, though Beiz-Buskila and another of Folman’s friends elected to have theirs re-voiced.)

Rein-Buskila connects his nightmare to another animated memory from his participation in the Israeli occupation of West Beirut in 1982, where he was assigned to shoot barking neighbourhood dogs as Israeli troops silently moved into Lebanese villages under the cover of night.

Listening to his friend, Folman realises that he remembers nothing about the events, and Rein-Buskila only remembers in bits. Driving back from the meeting, however, Folman has his first flashback of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, though he even can’t be sure if the visions are real flashbacks or hallucinations.

Named for the West Beirut Palestinian refugee camps where the slaughter took place, the Sabra and Shatila massacre saw the occupying Israeli forces surround and seal off the camps before allowing Phalangist militias through their checkpoints.

Most versions say that hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees were murdered by the Phalangists, who may have been exacting misplaced revenge for the assassination of the Maronite Lebanese President Bashir Gamayel. (The film takes its name from a scene of Folman’s IDF pal spinning around in circles blindly firing a machine gun, while surrounded by Gamayel posters.)

Public outrage led the Israeli government to form the Kahan Commission. The report found Israel bore “indirect responsibility” and personally blamed and called for the removal of, among others, then-Israeli Defence Minister and later-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is portrayed in an unflattering light in the film.

According to the report, while Israelis did not carry out the killings themselves, the choice to allow Phalangists into the camps was clearly too risky given the recent political atmosphere surrounding the loss of their leader.

But Folman and his buddies remember little of it. They all have bits and pieces, but, for the most part, the memories of Sabra and Shatila have been repressed. The film then turns into a journey to put the memories, or some semblance of them, together again.

Folman begins to reconstruct his entry into Lebanon; the wild shooting from the backs of tanks while aiming at no one in particular and everyone around at the same time.

But again and again, Folman returns to his flashback of Sabra and Shatila. He doesn’t know what happened, and he’s not even sure if his memories are real or hallucinations.

He and several fellow soldiers are bathing nude in the Mediterranean at night. They emerge from the water looking Zombie-like with sunken eyes and slumped shoulders, and get slowly dressed and walk away from the sea with their guns.

In front of them are the slums, completely lit up by flares fired by the Israelis. Later, the same flares would be used to place blame for the massacres on the IDF, which illuminated the camps for the Phalangists.

The director sets out to interview more friends from the IDF, sees a psychologist, a professor who specialises in post-traumatic stress, and gets hold of a video reporter who was there on the scene.

None of the pictures the audience gets from any of the sources is complete, but together they provide a portrait of the Israeli side of the events – although only the Israeli side. That’s because the film is more about remembering the events surrounding those atrocities rather than the massacres themselves.

Finally, after searching, Folman does create a composite picture. And, eventually, a real picture as well. In a Wizard of Oz-like moment, the drab animation suddenly gives way to real video from the checkpoints surrounding the camps.

It happens just at the end of the film: as Folman and his fellow nude-bathers approach the camp, they round a corner and are – suddenly in real video – in front of a crowd of screaming and grieving Palestinian women.

Because of the events of recent weeks, comparisons are inevitable between the film and the current crisis. Gaza has been reduced to a glorified refugee camp, and again the Palestinian camp is under siege by the IDF.

Video of IDF tanks readying for the ground assault on Gaza aired on Al Jazeera English last Friday are eerily similar to reconstituted images of the siege of Sabra and Shatila as shown in Waltz.

The notion of going in on the ground to root out fighters from one group was done in Sabra and Shatila as well – the goal is to wipe out Hamas “terrorists” now, and then it was the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, though in that case it was Phalangists aided and abetted by Israel rather than the IDF. Nonetheless, the result of that assault doesn’t bode well for the similar one today.

But Folman’s perspective is still an enlightening one.

It serves two functions for observers of the ongoing conflict today: one is a fair reckoning of history and the other is showing a rarely divulged side of Israeli scars of their own acts within that history.

The film lends credibility to calls from pro-peace Jewish and Israeli groups who insist that this latest assault is not only bad for Palestinians, but also bad for Israel.

Watching “Waltz With Bashir”, one wonders whether today’s 19-year old IDF soldiers will be dealing with post-traumatic stress in 25 years as they try to piece together their memories of the Gaza invasion of 2009.

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neil bockian