Waltz without us
The sound of explosions and the ra-ta-ta of machine gun fire mingles incongruously with the gentle rhythmic whoosh of a cocktail shaker behind the bar of the Art Lounge in Beirut. In a typical Lebanese way the gallery shows the Israeli animated documentary Waltz with Bashir that is banned in the country and that deals with a particularly black period in Lebanon’s history.
While the fighting rages on the screen, waiters serve drink to the audience, nestled in easy chairs and sofas. On the first martini, the Israelis invade Lebanon in 1982. By the third drink on average, the movie reaches its climax with the massacre of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.
It is not the first time that Waltz with Bashir is shown in Lebanon, despite the ban on all Israeli products. A secular cultural organisation screened it in its venue in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which are controlled by the anti-Israeli Hezbollah movement. And shops there sell the DVD. But Art Lounge is a relatively prominent venue that reaches a sizeable audience.
“I would not have shown it first,” says Ziad, the organiser of the screening who says that he does not fear repercussions but nevertheless prefers not to give his last name, “just in case”. His was not an idea logical decision, to show a banned film, but a marketing one. He’s starting a new series of screenings at Art Lounge and figured that Waltz With Bashir would “generate a buzz” and attract some people. The screenings are free but the gallery makes money on the drinks.
At the end of the movie, the audience is divided, literally, so many journalists have descended on the screening that one half of people end up interviewing the other half. Opinions on the movie vary with one criticism standing out, that, despite having missed out on an Oscar, it is “too good”. Particularly the young viewers resent what they see as the manipulation of their history.
“I first saw it in Toronto and was very upset afterwards,” says a young graphic designer. “I identified with the main character, an Israeli!” Seeing it a second time in Beirut, she says that she sees more flaws in the movie. She and her friends particularly accuse the movie of whitewashing the Israeli role in the massacre. Even though the movie goes some way toward showing Israeli culpability, they feel that it does not go far enough.
But one older viewer, a dentist who lived through the events in Beirut, comes away feeling that the movie was actually “quite realistic”. He and his wife voiced similar concerns, over an Israeli whitewash, before the film. But afterward they say, “this is how it was. It shows that they sent scared young boys to invade us and they shot at everything that moved.” He recalls the atmosphere at the time, “it was crazy, also for us. Everything could set off the violence, a rumour, an incident.”
The most difficult aspect for most Lebanese was the involvement of the Christian militias in the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla. But a couple of young viewers batted that away. “It is not as if we didn’t know about it. People talk about it, we don’t need an Israeli movie to show us that.”
Yet in a country where civil war leaders still call the shots and where very little hard-hitting analysis is dedicated to what happened between 1975 and 1990, being confronted with part of that history is rare. Again it was the older generation that seemed less complacent. “It is something that all Lebanese should see,” said the dentist.
The premise of Waltz with Bashir is that the main character, representing the director, has no recollection of his own role in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and in particular has repressed memory of the massacre among Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, at which time he served in Beirut. But did he really forget or did he just not want to deal with it until now, is one of the questions that Haaretz journalist Gidon Levy also poses in a critical piece.