A Waltz for a Forgotten People

By Brian Till

February 17, 2009 5 min read

"Waltz With Bashir" will most likely win the Academy Award for best foreign language picture this weekend, and it certainly should. Hopefully along with the hardware it will pick up the hype it deserves and expand its reach beyond 46 theaters. Perhaps it will even bring America to question the fate of those refugees whose haunting image the film closes with. The animated Israeli film follows director Ari Folman, as he attempts to reconstruct his lost memory of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Folman was 19 at the time, a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force, and a witness to the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

The film wades into complicated territory. The audience is left with newsreel images of the massacre, while questioning the veracity of the lead character's conclusion: that the young Israeli soldiers had been turned into the metaphorical Nazi, having overseen the slaughter of innocence.

It's intricate, rarely traveled subject matter, but Folman approaches it with both nuance and authority. The film, despite being animated, is a documentary. Folman tackles the matter as an Israeli, as a Jew, as veteran of the '82 campaign, and as a talented artist.

Far from the computer-generated imagery that dominates the animated field today, "Waltz's" $1.5 million budget delivers a minimalist product that is comfortably two-dimensional. Dark hues and simple lines capture the spoken word, rather than seeking to wash over it. Only when the character slips into hallucinations or fantastic memories do the images usurp power from the dialogue, and then only briefly.

This is a film driven by narrative, by dialogue, and complimented by imagery that, though in motion, remains only slightly more vibrant than the lifeless images of a graphic novel. Nonetheless, it bears far more weight than most feature films dare to shoulder, and carries it without misstep.

The massacre was one of the war's glaring tragedies — death tolls are uncertain, but Christian forces likely killed between several hundred and several thousand Palestinians — but the atrocity's singular weight can hardly compare to the sum of smaller tragedies amassed over the war's 15-year course. Over 150,000 died in Lebanon during the nation's suicidal purge.

Just as importantly, it's worth recognizing that the massacre that "Waltz" highlights was neither the first nor last atrocity that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have endured.

The picture brought me back to a bridge in northern Lebanon, upon which I stood last summer, overlooking the ruins of Nahr El-Bared. The camp was leveled by 14 weeks of shelling by the Lebanese army in 2007 in an attempt to eradicate a jihadist group led by Saudis and Iraq veterans. Now, nearing two years later, it remains ruinous, its 30,000 surviving residents still dispersed among previously overflowing camps nearby. Reconstruction will cost over $400 million, only $120 million having been raised thus far. The global financial collapse, and the likelihood that foreign aid flows will dry up incoming years, all but guarantee the U.N.'s promises to rebuild will go unsatisfied.

The brutality subsided for most Lebanese when the war ended in 1990, but for the Palestinians it continues almost daily in the nation's 12 official camps. They are home to smoldering mini civil wars. Lebanese law prevents Palestinian ownership of land, thus keeping even affluent residents from moving out of the camps, which were originally built as temporary housing.

Lebanese forces are barred from entering the territories as a result of a 1969 accord between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Lebanese government. But the power vacuum left by the collapse of the PLO has left the camps lawless enclaves, in which warring factions lay siege to one another frequently. There is no rule of law, there is often no electricity; these are islands of absolute despair in the heart of a region plagued by the jihadi ideology.

Ironically, Folman's film is banned in Lebanon as an Israeli product; the two nations remain formally at war. Nonetheless, pirated copies are available and have been met with warm reception, and a hope that the work might remind the world that — though the war has ended — the camps, and their suffering, remain.

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at [email protected] To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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