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.