Rasha: So, I’ll start by saying two things: One, since I haven’t seen Birth of a Nation, this might be the most racist film I’ve ever watched. Two, even on its own terms, I’m not sure what this film is trying to accomplish.
Gemma: What would you say “its own terms” were?
R: That’s a good question. I assume its terms are not speaking with or to Palestinians.
G: Well, that’s certainly true. It’s very much inside his head/inside the head of An IDF Soldier.
R: I guess the dance for me is between who this film is for and what it’s trying to perform for that audience. That audience is clearly not Palestinians or the Palestinian diaspora, or probably even other Arabs, including Lebanese Arabs of any affiliation. Is this film for an international audience, to prove what Henry Kissinger said about the Kahan Commission that ever-so-politely asked Ariel Sharon to “resign”… to another ministerial post? Or is it for other Israelis to ask them to only half-remember the long invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and in Shatila? Because it feels clear to me, given the vast omissions in the history of the story, that this film is only allowing just enough bad feelings in to give the people involved a way to feel better about themselves.
G: The film read to me as very domestic, very about the internal trauma of the soldier(s). I felt like someone like Kissinger would be completely overlooked in the framework of the film. The protagonist can’t even connect himself to a wider political structure, much less connect any more public political figure to things that he experienced.
R: Yeah, it felt like a failure in telling his own story to fail to zoom out or give more context. Every time he starts talking about “who else will remember, I have to go talk to the only other people who know what happened there” I started screaming at the screen about how he should go talk to the Palestinian survivors. Or the Lebanese who were invaded and bombed. I think those folks, the ones who managed to survive, probably remember a lot. But I imagine that would be inconvenient for his therapeutic process and would probably lead to him losing funding from the Israeli Film Ministry.
G: Both of those seem likely, yeah.
R: Which leads me to draw out comparisons between this film and The Gatekeepers: both very slick production values, both behind a serious pay-wall to watch, both funded by the Israeli government to produce. The production values, rather than seduce me or impress me, make me hella wary.
G: The production values spoke to me, actually. They would have been great if he was telling the story he thought he was telling. But he wasn’t.
R: What kind of story do you think he thinks he was telling? I have a hard time having any faith that he thinks he was telling something other than an apologia.
G: Oh, it wasn’t an apologia because he didn’t actually take responsibility. That was where the heart of the racism was, for me: “It wasn’t REALLY my people’s fault, I just FEEL responsible. It’s only a FEELING.” I thought he was trying to get at something about the youth and inexperience of those who carry out the bidding of the power brokers, but in failing to zoom out, he couldn’t make that happen (AND THE END SO DOES NOT COUNT AS ZOOMING OUT). He seemed still stuck in the blindered indoctrinated vision of his youth, wasn’t doing anything with his age, artistic maturity, anything to get beyond How He Felt When He Was Part of Committing Atrocities. Because the people destroyed, as you said, weren’t real to him. They were cartoons or bodies.
R: Ok, give me a moment here because I need two parts to respond. On the “I just FEEL like something bad happened”: I did want to punch his stupid therapist for making some kind of emotional mobius psycho-pretzel out of: Your Parents Were At Auschwitz so You’ve Heard About Terrible Things All Your Life so You Feel Guilty for Doing Terrible Things. Totally leaving out of the equation that HE ACTUALLY DID TERRIBLE THINGS. I was amazed at the way the Holocaust narrative got deployed in this bizarre evasion of responsibility for taking part in genocide. Actually, I’ll wait for the second part, because it’s about where I think the heart of the racism in the film lies.
G: Yes. That was disturbing, and more disturbing that we were asked to accept that.
R: Do you have more thoughts about that? How many pretzels can be made out of using the Holocaust as a narrative to escape the reality of murdering Palestinians? When does this end?
G: It had me thinking about the PTSD narrative that dominates the way the American left is supposed to view American soldiers these days, actually. Which goes to what you said–we care so much about how people feel about having done terrible things that we skip over the actual terrible things and the actual humans who were the victims of these terrible things. When you add in the Holocaust narrative, the notion that Horrific Things Happened To My People and Therefore Everything Horrible That I Do Prevents That From Ever Happening Again, I don’t even know where you land.
R: As someone who has actually appreciated meeting and talking with soldiers, particularly members of IVAW and Veterans for Peace, I’m still holding on to hope that soldiers who are sent in as cannon fodder have sometimes a greater opportunity for empathy with the people impacted by the violence than do people who’ve never seen war. And yet, and yes, I do join folks who critique the lack of resources for refugee and immigrant peoples who are suffering from just as much PTSD as any soldier because they too came from war zones and they probably weren’t as well-armed. So yes, Waltz with Bashir failed on all counts to engage with any of those narratives that thoughtful reflections by veterans have unearthed.
G: I think it’s very hard to have empathy when you’re trained out of it, and I thought that was almost in the film, in a few of the moments with Carmi saying, “I don’t know who we were shooting at, I don’t know why were were shooting” and then seeing the soldiers taking selfies on horribly destructive weapons. I thought he also came close to talking about the questions of masculinity and violence that seemed to be hovering at the edge of the film. But what he never got at was why one SHOULD have empathy, why the problem of being trained to lack empathy goes beyond stills of bodies that you don’t really have the right to put in your film.
R: Yeah, so, now I’m going to talk about racism.
G: Go for it.
R: I was fuming the entire time I was watching this film. From the very first series where we watch animation of snarling, angry [Palestinian] dogs running through the streets terrifying everyday [white, Israeli] people. So, according to this film: Palestinians are dogs. And the soldier who claims he-totally-couldn’t-ever-shoot-a-real-human-person-no-way talks about being haunted by these [Palestinian] dogs, whose only actual crime in his actual memory is that the dogs barked and warned people when soldiers were invading villages in the night. I’m so hot right now I can barely type. And this soldier, of course, FEELS SUCH REMORSE for shooting these dogs, these poor, innocent dogs. But no remorse for the Palestinians, who are clearly symbolized by the dogs in the film. I could not believe what I was watching. And then the horses in Beirut.
G: Yes, I was just going to say the horses. That’s in my notes: “twice animals, not people.” We don’t get anyone who actually has regrets for killing people.
R: This sh*t was so beyond dog-whistling to the racism. It was both the symbol of the racism in the dehumanization of people as animals, and the actual racism in that the soldiers only have feelings for killing animals. This movie must have hired a team to make fucked up and hateful mobius-pretzels.
G: He simultaneously felt he/his battalion (or whatever) was/were responsible for the massacre and was/were not responsible for the massacres because it was really the Phalangists that did it, it was really Arab in-group fighting, he just regrets that he stood aside and let it happen. There’s no nod to the clear collaboration and strategy that led to the massacres. Which I understand that a cannon-fodder soldier doesn’t know, but it’s something that the director twenty-five years later could figure out.
R: Well, he even interviews a journalist who clearly knows. The film establishes that plenty of people knew, even if they claim they “didn’t see it themselves.” Which, well, I hold reservations about.
G: Yes, true.
R: And let’s be clear, this was not someone’s home movie project or MFA thesis. This was a feature film, funded by the Israeli government and internationally lauded. This is where I have a problem with just taking it on good faith that this director is bad at storytelling or his job. He is not bad at his job, his job just happens to be hateful propaganda. I can’t read this film as anything other than that.
G: Well, I was looking at his IMDB, and most of what he’s done is very internal, psychological work, very domestic-drama TV shows, etc.
R: Which would make him a great candidate for professionally failing to tell the stories of the Israeli adventure in Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. Who funds navel-gazers? People who benefit from their navel gazing.
G: I was inclined to be more generous with him, less with the Israeli government and the critics, because of that. I still think he failed, for all the reasons above, but I do chalk it up to more of a failure through idiocy, a failure to look beyond the societal bullshit he was handed all his life.
R: I was also angry at the soundtrack and how manipulative it felt through the whole movie. Watching it felt like being given stimulants or sedatives to mediate the emotional processing of the events being shown.
G: I wondered about the sources of a lot of those songs, especially the ones recorded or dubbed in English.
R: They’re recorded by an Israeli band/singer. One is a reworking of a Cake song “I Bombed Korea,” which is much clearer in its dire satire and lacks the rollicking musical arrangement of “I Bombed Beirut.”
G: That was one of the ones I was wondering about.
R: You can find them on Youtube. The soundtrack to that movie is really popular! Which is sickening, actually.
G: But there it is, kind of. I mean, I’m making an assumption about the Cake version because I generally like Cake, but he thought he was getting a greater distance, a more complete social picture, than he actually was. He thought he could use a song like I assume the Cake song is and have it actually be commentary, and it really wasn’t exactly.
R: No, the altered lyrics are straight up glorification. If he had matched the song with something other than literally cartoony images of things exploding and soldiers hanging out on beaches, maybe even that jingo-istic song would have had a different or more jarring effect. I haven’t heard the Cake original, but he would have been better served to look to Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Which is, humans, let’s get this straight: not a patriotic song.
G: Noooooo kidding.
R: Okay, a sample list of moments that outraged me: 1. Naked soldiers cleaning themselves of the horror of war. As a city is lit by their rockets. So genocide can happen. We see this image over and over. 2. The therapist who describes memory experiments done with children about trips to the fair. Anger that the memories of most children in Palestine do not look anything like balloons and ferris wheels.
G: I read both of those as images of how memory works, at first, and I liked them very much as that. Then over time they became what you are talking about.
R: 3. Therapist says: memory protects you, you only remember what you want to. AND THEN NO ONE INTERROGATES THIS AS THE PREMISE FOR THE WHOLE FUCKING FILM. It is a story of only what the soldiers, the government, the society, wants to remember.
G: Well, it was interesting, because I started by watching a dubbed version, which translated it as, “Our memories will take us only as far as we are capable of going.” Which would have a slightly different gloss on that, I think.
R: Still. Only capable of going to something that wasn’t actually the truth. 4. Carmi gesturing to “all this land that belongs to me.” Which he got by selling felafel. This is why cultural appropriation matters. Seriously, you slaughter a people and then steal a recipe and retire? 5. Carmi again: I sleep when I’m scared, and then I hallucinate. Lucky you. 6. WTF with the giant naked Arab woman? 7. They shoot up a car and ask *what* was in it, not *who*. Sigh, I could go on. I’m not even done with page 1 of 3.
G: Eep. Do you want to go on?
R: I don’t need to just list it on my own. We diablog for a reason, so it doesn’t just turn into someone’s ranty listicle.
G: Some of the pieces on your list, #4 and #7 specifically, I would argue that he was aware of as a filmmaker. Which doesn’t ultimately get us that far in the whole context of the movie, but I did see those bits as self-aware.
R: Dude, this guy is not self-aware enough for me to be able to tell what he’s aware of as satirical commentary and what is straight racism. Dogs and horses are used as symbols for murdered people. This is Big Red Dog territory here: nothing that he thinks he means outweighs everything that this film so blatantly and relentlessly is.
G: I don’t disagree on the Big Red Dog front, but the lines between what he was self-aware about and what he wasn’t actually struck me as bright and clear. He can do psychology, and very well in some ways, he just can’t link it to how his society works.
R: When you’re dealing with racism, those things can’t be separated and still be valid. I can’t believe that the Electronic Intifada’s review of this film was so mild, and that the EI’s review was one of the more critical ones out there. This is a film that manages to make the deaths and murders of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian people about the fear that their killers had for their own lives and the lingering guilt those killers feel for not actually being heroic. No one should pay to see this movie again. Let this be the last review of it ever. Do you have other closing thoughts?
G: I don’t think so, because I do feel milder about it than you do overall. There’s something about craftsmanship I want to trace out, because I felt like I didn’t really say what I meant re: Five Broken Cameras in that respect, but I’m just gonna let that play out over the next few movies.