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Exhuming the Sabra & Shatila Massacre
'Waltz With Bashir'
It's been nominated eight times, but Israel has never won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar the 67 times it's been awarded since 1947. Lebanon has neither won nor been nominated. The two countries were set to win their first two weeks ago with "Waltz With Bashir." Somehow, "Departure," a Japanese "Six Feet Under," staged a coup and took the award, though in my book "Waltz With Bashir" is still the winner, as were Lebanon, Israel, and a shred of that thing so elusive in stories out of the Middle East: truth.
Lebanon had nothing to do with the film. It's officially banned there. It also had everything to do with it, not just because it's Lebanon's most popular underground film these days. The movie, by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman is an animated documentary about Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. More particularly, it's Folman's personal investigation of the most traumatic consequence of that war: The massacre of up to 3,000 Palestinian civilians by Christian militiamen, under Israeli supervision, in the refugee sprawls of Sabra and Shatila on Beirut's fringe.
The events should be distant history. Folman's movie shocks us into realizing why they can't be, and why there is no such thing as an "intractable" problem in the Middle East. There's dishonest (and repressed) memory, the mother of intractable problems. Then there's the reality of human suffering bleached of the distorting loyalties to god and country. That's the suffering Folman comes to terms with, starting with his own. It's the movie's universal language, touching all that Froman finally remembers - Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, and even, by extension, the Americans who were dragged into the entirely preventable madness at the heart of his story.
On June 6, 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Three months and about 18,000 deaths later, Israel, stopping just short of entering Beirut, the capital, had achieved its objective. The Palestine Liberation Organization was defeated, at least in Lebanon, and its fighters dispersed through the Arab world. Bashir Gemeyel (the Bashir of the movie's title) was a Christian militia leader allied with Israel. He was as genocidal toward Palestinians and Muslims as he was revered in Lebanese Christians' eyes. Rigged into the presidency in the shadow of Israeli tanks, Bashir was assassinated days before he took office. Israel immediately invaded Beirut, besieged Sabra and Shatila, mobilized bands of Bashir's men, and set them loose inside the Palestinian slums, supposedly top "mop up" remaining Palestinian militants. No one with the barest knowledge of local bloodlusts, with which Israelis were patently familiar, could doubt what would happen next. It did. There were no militants in the camps. Only a massacre.
Ari Folman was an Israeli soldier in the battalion responsible for sending up flares at night, from rooftops just outside the camps, so the Christian militiamen in the Palestinian camps could go about their slaughters uninterrupted. For more than 20 years Folman had no memory of the massacre, and only shattered memories of the weeks of wanton violence leading up to it. He had chosen to repress it all. Who could blame him? The documentary was his attempt at reconstruction through interviews of men he served with and a friendly psychiatrist who finally puts it to him bluntly: "You can't remember the massacre because in your opinion, the murderers and those around them are the same circle. You felt guilty at the age of 19. Unwillingly, you took on the role of the Nazi. You were there firing flares, but you didn't carry out the massacre." He just helped make it a little more efficient.
It was as a consequence of the massacre that President Reagan ordered U.S. Marines back to Beirut, on a more permanent assignment than their brief supervision of the evacuation of PLO fighters weeks earlier. There's a direct link between Sabra and Shatila, the October 1983 bombing that killed 241 Marines, the rise of Hezbollah in place of the PLO, and the transformation of South Lebanon into a cyclical launch-pad and target of vengeful paybacks. That, too, was preventable. Israelis didn't have to equate occupation with brutality. Americans didn't have to take side. They did, and still do.
The truth of the massacre has never been fully reckoned with, least of all in Lebanon, so it's ironic that an Israeli movie is bridging both countries' memories, and being embraced by both. It's not a solution, of course. It doesn't repair damages or "heal" anything (as if loss of that magnitude and the bleeding since can ever heal). It's still only a movie. But it demolishes convenient assumptions that Arabs and Israelis don't understand each other. They do, plenty, as first cousins usually do. But they usually see each other through the lens of official lies, which for both depend on dehumanizing the other side than seeing it like the equal that it is. Ari Folman's lens prefers recognition to dehumanization.