Monday, January 12, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

Memory takes us where we need to go.
Waltz with Bashir

The plan this week was to stay true to the blogger code and talk about my summer holidays. But the images and the reports from Gaza have painted me into another diarist's corner: whether to add my own trite, futile and ultimately perhaps self-congratulatory ounce of outrage and dismay, or determine that it's outside of my job description, that this is no way to help, and move on. If you happen to be a political activist, you can act, organise and channel the outrage and the dismay somewhere else, perhaps, and hopefully (in the fullest sense of the adverb). But one's regular place of public writing, however small the audience, is a privilege that requires confronting the topics of the day, and measuring what it would mean not to mention them - even when it serves no apparent concrete purpose.

But of course it's not only a dilemma for idle bloggers. When September 11 happened, American show business turned its back on one of its favourite maxims and went into a prolonged collective hiatus. This included shows that were as much about the political and cultural commentary as the entertainment, chief among them The Daily Show, which went off air for ten days and when it came back, after a tearful introduction by Jon Stewart which has been doing the rounds on YouTube ever since, proceeded to show old clips. Some years later, that same programme showed an animation of the numbers 9 and 11 having sex in a Rudolph Giuliani wet dream. But that was then, and the self-censorship of Stewart et al. - some might say their necessary restraint - ensured that only trained, authorised personnel were allowed to talk in the media about the attacks and their aftermath.

The most notable of the alternative voices to break this particular silence was perhaps The Onion, which went to press with its 'Holy Fucking Shit' issue, as lucid and insightful a piece of commentary as I have seen before or since. These days unfortunately the issue can only be pieced together from the magazine archives, and then only if you happen to know which articles it comprised - which I do. So here's the list. You'll get a pretty good idea of the thrust by reading the titles alone, but do click on the links if you haven't come across the material before. It's well worth it.

What The Onion demonstrated on this occasion was a willingness to break the code. Perhaps a mainstream publication simply could not go there, I don't know, but the value of alternative voices is also to break the deadlock of the mainstream pundits, with their endless rationalisations, and to interfere with the decorum and the established way of doing things - including when is the right time to stop caring about a humanitarian emergency. As another Onion headline later proclaimed: 'A Shattered Nation Longs to Care for Stupid Bullshit Again'. But we're not quite there yet.

And while we're not there, the focussed attention of the world's audience represents (yet another) opportunity to comprehend the history of - as per Hanoch Marmari this week- this 'ancient dispute'. After all, as Avi Shlaim writes in The Guardian 'the only way to make sense of Israel's senseless war in Gaza is through understanding the historical context'. Except it isn't a history, and thus a context, of course, but as many histories and contexts as there are commentators vying to tell them. It is developing into quite the art form. And amongst so many competing voices, asserting authority becomes a matter of credentials, not just in terms of what you know and how you came to know it, but also the ideology that filtered this knowledge. Thus The Guardian prefaces Shlaim's contribution by informing us that he is 'Oxford professor of international relations,' 'served in the Israeli army,' and 'never questioned the state's legitimacy'. Here we have the perfectly pitched voice, then: a scholar trained in the technology of establishing fact, and one whose conclusions are unassailable by accusations of anti-Israel(i) or, worse, anti-semitic bias. And these conclusions truly are devastating, pointing the finger against Israel's expansionism past the Green Line as the ruthless root cause, the injustice whence all other injustices, grievances, martyrdoms have come.

I'd encourage you to read Shlaim's piece, and though you might disagree with it, in whole or in part, hope that you'll concur with me that we need more dissenting voices. We need more peace demonstrations in Tel Aviv, more Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews coming together around the world to say that this needs to stop.

(We also need fewer stupid, revolting stunts such as this one in Wellington. How we try to comprehend, our behaviour on the sidelines, the influence and pressure we bring to bear on our governments, in our societies, does matter.)

We need dissenting voices, too, to do the necessary work of memory, to call into question the official lines and reconcile the impossibly antithetical histories that are also at war. It is this kind of work that Ari Folman takes upon himself in the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir.

'Upon himself' indeed, for Waltz with Bashir is the story of Folman's own journey back to memory, the reconstruction of his role as combatant during the war in Lebanon of the 1980s and in particular of his involvement in the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. Here in September 1982 troops of Christian phalangists murdered anything between 400 and 3,500 Palestinian refugees - a number that has always eluded official reckoning - with the acquiescence, and in effect complicity, of the Israeli troops then in charge of Beirut. But at the film's outset Folman has no recollection of those days, and of the role he might have played, if any, save for the knowledge of having been there, in Beirut, at the time. That he was amongst the soldiers stationed outside the camp, and who lit the scene with flares so that the militiamen could continue their work at night, is a truth that gradually reforms in his mind as he talks to former comrades and others (look out in particular for the role played by reporter Ron Ben-Yshai's account), and that preludes to the chilling transition, in the film final's sequence, from animation - which itself served up to that point to cloak memory, distort, displace and to an extent attenuate its horrors - to the archival footage shot by the first reporters entering the camps. Thus too the personal story of Folman and of his publicly worn guilt turns into an interrogation of collective memory, asking us what it is that we know, what it is that we remember.

Each chapter of this, or any other conflict, is a duty to memory that extends beyond the theatre of events. Down the road there may be trials, commissions of inquiry, censures and amnesties - means of establishing officially sanctioned truths - or none of these things, but in the meantime how do we, the world's spectators, stop ourselves from looking away, and remember Gaza in 2008 versus Gaza in 2006, then Ramallah and Beirut and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and so on rewinding, as discrete events, chapters in a story that needs a resolution, as opposed to the same page written over and over, or the endless rerun of a docudrama? A state of crisis always in the present tense, after all, becomes normalcy and something to be preserved, for fear of what might happen should that equilibrium be broken ('we have always been at war with Oceania'). The timeliness of Waltz with Bashir is that its search for the past, and the obstinate, unrelenting manner in which it is conducted, restore a perception of history, of beginnings and endings, giving a context to the outrage, and to the desperate urgency of today: this needs to stop.

Waltz with Bashir (Wals Im Bashir, Israel 2008, dir. Ari Folman).
Go see this film. I owe my own prodding to the review on Philip Matthews' blog, and I thank him for it.


Giovanni Tiso said...

I’d argue that there’s no ethics without memory, and that the prospect of a peace that is negotiated on the basis of the strength of the moment - as opposed to principles of fairness, justice and redress - would be an incubator of more grievances and no lasting peace at all. My feeling is that the two sides will have to meet also on the grounds of a common sense of past, and for that we need dissenting voices capable of honesty and compassion, as opposed to cold partisan calculation. And if you don’t think that the latter could be applied to the episodes such as Sabra and Shatila, you'd be wrong.

In Haaretz today Gideon Levy asks how shall these days - and the statesmen responsible - be remembered, applying again the perspective of a history shot through with compassion that I hope will win the day.

backin15 said...

A wonderful piece of writing Giovanni. I entirely understand the approach you've taken. I also feel almost mute, almost overwhelmed but guilty should I not acknowledge the significance of these events.

Thanks for the link to Shlaim's piece too, I'd not seen it and it's a telling commentary. Taking sides seems largely irrelevant if, as is the case for me, that support does nothing to alleviate the situation. But seeking to understand how and why this tragedy has developed and is sustained is critical to our everyday political experience and engagement (however unconcious that might be). Thanks for your words, I may attempt my own, but I appreciate the sentiment you have taken the time to express.

Anonymous said...

Nos habebit humus, nos habebit humus

Inside the doll is another doll,
and inside that another, and
inside that, finally, a knot of wood and metal.
Outside the doll is home, made, or a rocket.

Gaudeamus igitur juvenes dum sumus

Would you have back 1938,
the allied soldiers firing on the Munich agreement,
raze to the ground those ghosts that every day
are here razed, pre-emptive, yet now post hoc?

Nos habebit humus, nos habebit humus

Behind that mother are the Levantine weapons,
or behind that boy are Occidental dollars,
or behind that father, another dozen martyrs,
kids gone to their deaths who won't swallow crow.

Gaudeamus igitur juvenes dum sumus

These pretas here will eat us all to death,
These asuras bring our houses down about us,
At boundary's edge, the barbed-wire sea coast,
At sea coast's edge, the ancestral, roiling sea.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you backin15, and HB: as always. I was wondering whether you would contribute this time (until you told me that you were going to earlier in the week, I mean), suspecting you might share my reluctance. And I'm not trying to make it about me or about us, don't get me wrong - but I've already made my point about the importance of writing through these events, so I'm glad you did.

Poetry, too, art we need to de-banalise, to make Gaza in 2008-9 stand out, not disappear behind the screen of other horrors seen on the news, dissected and rationalised by the usual names, spoken about with the requisite gravitas by the usual voices. Art: and I almost wrote about that in the post, asking where is the Picasso that will paint Gaza the way that he did Guernica - but for the trap of the historical parallel, I would have.

And that's another thing about art, and honest writing: they seek with precision to comprehend and account for experience. Few things I find less helpful - not least in that they are lazy - than the comparisons trotted out these days, with the ghetto of Warsaw, with Apartheid. Or the labels: "racist state", "terror state". They mean to shock the conscience, but hide more than they reveal. And will not change the minds that need to be changed. We need to use proper names, and the proper name here is Gaza, and has very precise meaning.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the illusions of 1930s & 40s modernism--and one which there may well have been no way of recognising at the time--was that the terrors it documented so well were unrepeatable in terms of their horror if not their circumstances. Or perhaps it's rather the way in which the post-modern era recirculates continually the images of those modernist works (in the same way as you describe the recirculation of the language of war and suffering) that distances us from their original setting.

This is not to deny the unique political and social contexts that produced Guernica--the bombing or the painting--but more to say that the expense of emotional energy on that story, that art work, can make it more difficult to see events in our own time in just these terms. We are left with not much other than our proper nouns and we need, as you suggest, to insist on their exact meaning.

Anonymous said...

I don't know guys; some days I feel we should let them (Israel and Palestine) be. Yes, it is sad, yes the Israelis ought to be ashamed of themselves, yes Hamas is not a solution for the Palestinians, blah, blah, blah. I am a bit sick of filling the already besieged space in my brain with them. Has anything ever been different? Will the conflict be resolved before the end of the world? Is it true that we should remember so that we try avoid making the same mistakes? Honestly, I wish I could become totally desensitized to the whole matter, and not even bother reading about it, let alone dropping my paragraph’s worth in a learned blog like this one! But I can’t, and I don’t fully understand. There are considerably more important events in the world… What about the 5 million kids that die every year from preventable diseases? A holocaust every year!
Humanity owes a great deal to this area of the world, and yet today they are far from being civilized. (Yes, I know, a nation that elects the likes of Bush can hardly be called civilized, but it is also a nation that has elected Obama!) In a global world Palestinians and Israelis are fighting for a space the size of my backyard! An area that is still to separate Religion and State, and doesn’t respect basic human rights; well I am sorry, but you can’t help thinking their history has stopped ticking a long time ago. The only thing that ticks there now is bombs.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I don't think I'm supposed to go along with anything you just wrote, especially not the "they're not civilised" bit. But I'll (uncomfortably) admit that you might have a point or two, regarding our besieged mental spaces and the disconnect between history seen as something that progresses and the local history of this particular part of the world, which does just the opposite. But of course I refuse the idea that we should therefore ignore, even as we know that there are other crises demanding of our attention. That history has stopped still ca. 1948 in the Middle East is no accident, and the complicity of Western governments, of our societies with their insatiable demand of energy and geopolitical dominance, cannot be something we allow ourselves to forget about. We are very much implicated and have a duty to make it stop.

A lot of the voices in the most mainstream of media - could it be that are they being drown out this time? - have spent decades pushing the very line you espouse, that this is a local conflict with pre-modern roots, nothing to do with us.

You also may want to consider the extent in which winning the US presidency goes through uttering such phrases as "we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests". No prizes for guessing who said that earlier this year.