Dance With Honesty

Coincidentally, after writing yesterday’s post on Israel and the United States, I went to see the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir. The animated documentary shows filmmaker Ari Folman’s quest to rediscover lost memories about his military service in 1982.waltz

Just a teen at the time, Folman was part of the Israeli forces sent to Lebanon as that country was going through another of its periodic crises. The PLO was the main Israeli nemesis then, using southern Lebanon as its base of operations. The Israelis supported Christian Lebanese, the Phalangists, who helped battled the PLO. Syria also had a major presence in the country at the time. The fighting that went on between the various groups ultimately led to the arrival of an international peacekeeping force and the 1983 bombing of their barracks that left more than 300 dead, including 241 U.S. Marines.

Some 20 years after the fact, Folman interviewed people he served with, hoping to understand what he saw and did in the army. The film’s climax comes as he remembers watching the Phalangists massacre Palestinians – women, children, the elderly – at the Sabra and Shatila refugees camps. The soldiers saw what was happening, reported it, but they were not ordered to take action. The killing finally stopped after almost two days of violence.

A body in the rubble at Sabra

A body in the rubble at Sabra

Folman has said that the Phalangists were totally responsible for the killings, but he doesn’t know to what extent the Israeli government knew about the massacre in advance and condoned it. So, at worst there was complicity, at best – what? Apathy? Tolerance? An Israeli commission said that “no energetic and immediate actions were taken to restrain the Phalangists and stop their actions.” (Read more about the massacre here.) Others have claimed, though the commission rejected this, that high-ranking Israeli did know about the massacre beforehand. And Folman’s film shows the Israelis launching flares throughout the night, illumination that helped the Phalangists carry out their gruesome task.

The Lebanese War (“Operation Peace for Galilee”) divided Israelis. They debated, says scholar Fred Skolnik, whether the incursion was “a ‘war of choice’ rather than a ‘war of necessity.'” Today, Folman’s film has brought attention to that bloody and divisive period, winning accolades in the process.

Watching the film reminded of something I’ve read many times: Israelis have no trouble arguing over their country’s military actions and treatment of Palestinians. But Americans, Jews and gentiles alike, seem to take a “My Israel, Right or Wrong” approach, and some seem willing to stifle meaningful debate. As I said yesterday, the search for truth, honest answers, sometimes get waylaid by charges of anti-Semitism and a sort of blind faith that the United States must always support Israel. Folman’s engrossing film suggests that examining and debating the past is a good thing. It helps us understand who we are and where we are. And of course, debating the present is helpful too.

The unrepentent scapegoat; click to read more

The unrepentent scapegoat; click to read more

So Folman wins awards for his work, and Waltz with Bashir is chosen as Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. Would Americans honor a film that made them confront the moral transgressions, or even ambiguities, of their past? I doubt it. Where’s the film about My Lai?, I wondered as I began writing this. Surely 40 years is enough distance? Well, Oliver Stone hoped to answer that question, announcing his plans to film the story of Calley, the massacre, and the cover-up. It was to be called Pinkville, the U.S. military’s nickname for the village because of its color on American maps. Was to be, but perhaps now will never be. The writer’s strike of ’07-’08 killed it, along with the production studio’s change of mind about the project. Was it just about money, or perhaps the sense Americans don’t want to see their less-than-heroic actions on the big screen? Don’t know. But asking for a dance with the past, with truth, might be a good thing.

A postscript – Just learned there is a 1970 documentary called Interviews With My Lai Veterans and it won an Oscar for Best Short Doc (22 minutes). Cool. Too bad it’s not better known, and did not cover larger issues, like the cover-up and Calley trial. A Hollywood treatment of the story now, done right, would still be a good thing.

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~ by mburgan on February 11, 2009.

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