Until a matter of months ago, very few Israelis realised that their
army fired flares to light up Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps
while Lebanese Christian militiamen committed the notorious massacre of
Palestinian civilians there in 1982.
But Ari Folman, who as a 19-year-old soldier fired some of the flares, makes
their descent through the sky over Beirut's beachfront one of the recurring
images of Waltz With Bashir, his "animated documentary" that
premiers in Britain this week.
In Israel, the film has rekindled discussion about the divisive invasion of
Lebanon that was initially billed by Ariel Sharon, who was defence minister
at the time, as a limited push to halt PLO rocket attacks, and the extent of
Israeli responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre where the
estimated number of victims ranged from 700 to more than 3,000. Folman has
said he had no idea the massacre was being committed when he shot the
The killings by Phalangist militiamen dispatched into the camps by Israel came
after their leader, Bashir Gemayel, president-elect of Lebanon, was
assassinated in a bombing wrongly blamed on Palestinians. An Israeli state
commission of inquiry set up as a result of a tide of public protest in the
massacre's wake found that Mr Sharon, today comatose from a stroke nearly
three years ago, bore "personal responsibility" for not having
foreseen the danger that the Phalangists would commit the slaughter. He was
forced to give up the defence portfolio, something that did not prevent him
from being elected as premier in 2001 and re-elected in 2003. Lebanon, for
its part, has never seriously investigated the massacre.
The film has been widely acclaimed in Israel. One reviewer, Eitan Weitz,
writing for the website Parshan (Commentator), termed it "required
viewing" for those aged 16 and 17 nearing their mandatory military
service, for army reservists in their thirties and for mothers of soldiers.
But not everyone is happy about the film's screening abroad. Gerald
Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University with right-of-centre
views, voiced concern even though he has not seen the film. "The
Israeli audience knows the atrocities were committed by Lebanese Christian
militiamen and can sort out how much responsibility is ours and how much is
theirs. Foreign audiences will be blaming Israel for everything and this
could reinforce that."
A flaw in the movie is that it gives the impression that the massacre lasted
only one night and was stopped the following morning. It began the evening
of 16 September 1982 and ended on 18 September. Some Israeli viewers say
Folman lets Israel off too easily. "The Israeli soldiers are shown as
being good, as being people who are tormented by what is going on,"
says Ronit Shpiner, 35, a psychologist from Jerusalem. "Ultimately, the
moral responsibility is taken off of them even though those who saw the
slaughter should have stopped it."
She added: "The movie depicts the soldiers as the victims of the massacre
because they were traumatised by it." A bartender, Lidya Ophir, 26,
said: "I think the movie is saying that probably the Israeli army is
just as responsible as the people with the guns inside the camps."
Folman says the movie aims to dissuade young people from fighting in wars. "I
hope that young people, when they watch Waltz With Bashir will see how
stupid all wars are, a useless idea, a creation of tiny little leaders with
big egos," he wrote in an email response to The Independent. "They
will see in Waltz With Bashir that there is no glory in war, no bravery in
war, nothing. They will never want to be the guy in the movie. And that is
unlike a lot of American anti-war movies, where they show you that war
sucks, but the guys in the movie are so cool."
Mr Sharon is shown only briefly in the film, wolfing down steak and eggs, his
nose twitching as he talks on the phone to the Israeli prime minister
Menachem Begin and to a commander in Lebanon.
His former spokesman, Raanan Gissin, takes issue with the depiction. "He
never gave orders while eating," he said. Mr Gissin denied Israel had
any responsibility in the killings, saying they were "probably a
Syrian-instigated plot" and recalled a statement by Mr Sharon that the
inquiry's findings put "a mark of Cain" on Israel's forehead.
For many people, the most powerful part of the film is the recollection by an
Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Ishai of a conversation he had with Mr Sharon
during the massacre. Mr Ben-Ishai, stationed in Beirut as Israel
Television's war correspondent, had heard from army officers at a dinner he
hosted that a massacre was being committed. Disturbed by the reports, he
called Mr Sharon at his ranch in southern Israel but the defence minister
showed little interest and did not act to stop it. Regarding Israel's degree
of responsibility, Mr Ben-Ishai says: "It is like the Allies in the
Second World War who could have stopped the slaughter in the death camps but
For the Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg, the movie brought back memories
of the protest in which he participated to press Mr Begin to implement the
inquiry commission's findings. "The fact that under public pressure
Israel created a commission of inquiry and Sharon was dismissed indicates
there was a significant degree of a country insisting on an accounting,"
Mr Gorenberg said. "The movie raises for us the question of whether
that accounting went far enough."
Watch a Trailer of The Film: