'Waltz with Bashir' breaks barriers in Arab world

Beirut screening of Israeli film draws both curiosity and criticism.

folman bashir crew248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
folman bashir crew248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The Israeli film Waltz with Bashir is already sending ripples through cinemas around the globe, but the curiosity it is drawing in the Arab world is what the film's director, Ari Folman, finds most fascinating. The film has been awarded the prestigious Golden Globe award for best foreign-language film and has been nominated in the same category for an Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony taking place on Sunday. Despite it being an Israeli production, the film was granted a rare and exclusive screening last month in Beirut, where most of the film takes place. The screening drew both curiosity and criticism, but Folman is convinced it was a positive step and will soon be copied in other Arab capitals. Waltz with Bashir is a striking animation film depicting the horrors of Israel's first war in Lebanon in 1982, and the events leading up to the killings in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Israeli forces were not directly involved in the massacre, but a subsequent government commission found Israel to be indirectly involved because it did nothing to stop the killings. The protagonist of the film is Folman himself and it follows his efforts to track down former fellow combatants who help him paste together his fragmented war memories. Most of the interviews are authentic, using the real voices of the people involved, while a few preferred to have voice actors play out their parts. The film deals a virtual punch to the stomach when it reaches the shattering climax. Pictures of wailing Palestinian women mourning the loss of their loved ones in the massacre turn into real footage taken at the time, with bloodied corpses strewn on the streets. The target audience of the film was not geared specifically towards Israelis, Folman says. "I was aiming for a young audience," he told The Media Line (TML), "which is one of the reasons I chose animation, the design and hyped music. I was hoping that young people, especially teenagers, would watch the film," he says. "I wanted to show young people what war really looks like without glam and glory, without brotherhood of man and all the stupid things you might see in big American anti-war movies. Maybe that will convince them not to attend the next war that our leaders are cooking up for us." The fact that the movie was screened in Lebanon is a source of great pride for Folman. "I was overwhelmed and excited. I wish I could have been there," he says. "I wish one day I'll be able to present the film myself in Beirut. For me, it will be the happiest day of my life." Monika Borgmann, who initiated the controversial screening in the Lebanese capital, says she first saw the film in France and felt it was important to be shown to Lebanese. Israeli films, as well as any other Israeli products, are banned in Lebanon for political reasons, and this posed a problem for Borgmann but also piqued the curiosity of the locals. Invitations to the private screening were sent to 30 friends, but they all brought curious acquaintances and the audience eventually inflated to 90 viewers. "Since we screened the film on January 17, I've been receiving almost daily phone calls from people asking if we'll screen it again. Unfortunately, my answer today is no," she told TML." "It provoked a polemic in Lebanon, and if we screen it again today it will look like a provocation." Borgmann's audience was very diverse and included Lebanese, Palestinians and foreigners. "People were extremely touched. The film ended and there was a huge silence. Viewers left the place with tears in their eyes. This invasion is a crucial moment in Lebanese history and a lot of memories came back," she says. "The initial reaction of a very good Lebanese friend was, 'I'm extremely jealous. Why are we not producing these kinds of films?'" she relates. Shortly after the screening, the London-based A-Sharq Al-Awsat confronted the Lebanese Information Minister Tariq Mitri about the ban on Israeli films. The minister admitted the law was archaic, since so much information was available these days on the Internet. Borgmann agrees the law is no longer relevant to the current burst-of-information reality. "In Lebanon, you can read Israeli Web sites, you can go to Virgin in Lebanon and buy the autobiography of [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon translated into English or French. So it's absolutely ridiculous. "People who are against screening say that by doing this, you're allowing a cultural normalization with 'the enemy.' I'm against this. This film is still touching a chapter of common history. Everyone is free to make up his own mind. You should at least have the possibility to know the so-called 'other.'" Lebanese concerns about cultural normalization with Israel are understandable, given the complex structure of Lebanese society, Folman says. "But we all have to confront demons from the past," he says. "Maybe this film is a good opportunity." Apparently the Lebanese are not the only Arabs who have expressed interest in the film. Folman confirmed the screening rights have been purchased by a distributor from Saudi Arabia for circulation all over the Middle East, including Jordan, Morocco and the Gulf. "I've been receiving emails from Palestinians living in Europe and I attended screenings in Europe that were flooded with Palestinians," Folman says. "Some of them came literally from the camps. I think it's one of the great achievements of the film." Arab responses to the film have been mixed. For many, Folman says, it was the first time they saw Israeli soldiers in a more personal light. Others criticized the film, saying it did not assume enough responsibility for Israel's part in the massacre. German-born Borgmann has dual German-Lebanese nationality and directs a non-profit association called UMAM, which encourages Lebanese to confront memories of their violent past. Lebanon, similar to Israel, has a lot of cultural content, art and especially literature that deals with war and Lebanon's violent past, she says. "The Lebanese civil war was not only a civil war. Israel, Syria and others also played a role, so there's a lot of common history between Lebanon and Israel, even if it's a very painful history. "The last war was in 2006 and the interest in Waltz with Bashir proves what I'm saying - people would like to know the other side. I've no idea if the Israelis are interested to know the Lebanese side, but at least I know that in Lebanon there is a need to confront themselves with the past." "I think a lot of Lebanese regret very much that they are not able to see this film," she says. "I hope in the future that Lebanon will change its censorship law and the film will be allowed, because a lot of Lebanese are waiting to see this film."