What shocks me (in a good way) the most is Israeli directors’ culture of confession, which is by no means intended to create a peaceful image for the sake of promoting an agenda. Every film on the subject is a real pain, a symphony of sincere feelings.
The Lebanese-Israeli war is an event that modern Israeli filmmakers give a lot of attention to. It is evident from those films that some Israelis, especially soldiers, feel moral responsibility and shame, still bearing it like a heavy cross after many years, because the Israeli army killed innocent people during a military operation in Lebanon in 1982, and that the nationalist Kataeb Party massacred Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps with Israel’s assistance. According to Ari Folman, the director of Waltz with Bashir (2008), the Lebanese war is not only a trauma of individual soldiers, but also a collective trauma of the Israeli people.
Israeli filmmakers’ confession films are acts of cleansing and repentance. Therefore, the Israeli army is not portrayed by Jewish authors with heroic pathos, their films do not look like a political manifesto or a study of history, they mainly raise the moral and ethical problems and problems of individual existence against the backdrop of war. If the films on the subject in the 1980s and 1990s offered a critical view of the war and its political consequences (films by Haim Bouzaglo, Eran Riklis), the wave of renaissance that swept Israeli cinema in the 2000s changed the perspective. The main object of research of modern films is the severe psychological effects of war on soldiers, its consequences, and the conclusion that war is unnecessary.
Here is some background information for those unfamiliar with the 1982 Lebanon War. As early as in the 1970s, the weakening of the Lebanese government as a result of the civil war allowed the Palestine Liberation Organization to turn southern Lebanon into a stronghold against Israel. In 1981, Israel bombed PLO facilities in southern Lebanon. In the ensuing process, the Israeli government began preparations for an operation to drive the PLO out of southern Lebanon, but it was suspended under pressure from the US, and an informal ceasefire agreement was brokered. Israel warned that the agreement would be broken if the PLO transported weapons to southern Lebanon and committed terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. The PLO did continue to commit terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens, and in June 1982, Israel launched military operations to destroy PLO facilities in Lebanon. As a result of those operations, the PLO left Lebanon in September. After the war, the Israeli army established a security zone in southern Lebanon and controlled the area until 2000.
As for the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, in mid-September 1982, Bashir Gemayel, one of the leaders of Lebanon’s newly elected Kataeb Party, was assassinated by the PLO. The next day, the Kataeb Party, an ally of the Israelis, brutally massacred civilians, believing that there were PLO members in Sabra and Shatila, and the Israel Defense Forces helped them by surrounding the camp during the massacre. That is, the massacre ordered by Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was carried out by the Kataeb Party. According to some reports, about 3,000 people were killed in the camps.
One of the most impressive films on the subject is Ari Folman’s 2008 animated film Waltz with Bashir. The film is based on the Israeli army’s activities in Lebanon and the killing of innocent people in the bombing of the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila. Ari Folman himself fought in that war and he shares very personal experience in his documentary drama. Folman, who goes to a therapist after resigning from the army, discusses his military history with him. During the discussion, he realizes that he has completely forgotten the war and has not thought about it since he was 22. Visiting his fellow soldiers, the director finds out that they in fact do not remember the war either. However, this amnesia is caused by the need to return to normal life after trauma, rather than by actual memory loss.
It would be more accurate to call Waltz with Bashir a nightmare film based on soldiers’ damaged memory. Because the recollection of the Lebanese operation comes to the characters who have experienced that war at the expense of horror and pain, and they do not remember much because they have been pushing those memories into the recesses of their subconscious for a long time. The main reason Folman uses animation to convey the horrors of war is to offer the audience a view of the Lebanon War from the soldiers’ broken, chaotic memory. In the images from the soldiers’ memory, the boundaries of the real and the unreal are sometimes blurred, because it is the unstable memory that has deliberately isolated the war. The specifics of the animation genre allow the author to create unreal, phantasmagoric reality, paranoia, scary fairy tale aesthetics. The author resorts to surreal aesthetics in the very first scenes of the film. Ari’s friend tells him that he keeps having a recurring dream of being attacked by 26 angry dogs. During the Lebanon War, he was ordered to shoot all the dogs in an Arab village, so that the barking of those dogs wouldn’t wake up the terrorists. The story of his friend reminds Ari that he also has a memory from the war: he comes out of the sea naked, arms himself and goes into battle. He visits his former comrades-in-arms and talks to them to study the impact of the Lebanon War on their lives. The main motive that unites ex-servicemen is the killing of innocent people, fear and horror. The Lebanon War is a nightmare for the soldiers. In the film, they do not even remember what the war was for. That is why the explosive, rhythmic composition “Beirut”—”I bombed Beirut every day, we were killing innocent people”—playing throughout the film sounds more like self-blame and punishment for a person suffering from mental illness.
The title of the film is ambiguous. In one scene, a soldier keeps firing angrily at the snipers targeting them from buildings, and the trajectory of his movements is reminiscent of a waltz. The “shooting dance” of the soldier, who wants to put an end to all this horror and moves as if in a trance, takes place against the background of the portrait of Bashir Gemayel. The camera focuses on Gemayel’s portrait at the end of the scene—soon his party would take revenge on the Palestinians. The title also fits with the style of the story, the technique of narration: the visual arrangement of nightmare memories that suddenly leap into the subconscious of the characters turns into a kind of dance. The final scene ends with a horrifying actual footage of the massacre of Palestinians.
In one of his interviews, the director says that the Lebanon War started by his country was its first non-defensive war because Israel invaded the territory of a neighboring country.
The atmosphere of claustrophobia is strong in Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort (2007, Beaufort is a territory on the Lebanese-Israeli border). The Israeli army is protecting the security zone in southern Lebanon from Hezbollah. The film depicts the boring, dull daily life of those Israeli soldiers rather than battle scenes. They clear the area of landmines, they stand guard, they occasionally respond to enemy fire, and yearn for civilian life. When their friends die in front of them, they inevitably question the war and the purpose of their being there. One of the soldiers even calls the area they are guarding “a shitty road that only we use”. Based on Ron Leshem’s novel If There Is a Heaven, the film gives an airtight, claustrophobic impression because it is shot from constrained angles, in cold colors. In the contrasting depiction of weapons and ammunition against the backdrop of the idyllic nature, the beauty of nature loses to war.
Lebanon, the film that won the first Golden Lion award in the history of Israeli cinema and had a mixed reception in its home country, is also based on the personal experience of director Samuel Maoz. The protagonists of the story taking place in Lebanon in 1982 are the crew of an Israeli tank. Civilians are being killed in the process of clearing the Lebanese territory of Syrian troops and Palestinian militants, and the crew are always tense. The young gunner is terrified of what he sees, sometimes having difficulty hitting the targets he is ordered to hit, and sometimes firing at random targets out of stress. In other words, there is a war going on inside the tank as well: in the actions of the soldiers living in fear of death, in the escalation of emotions every time a civilian is killed.
A farmer transporting chickens in his car waves at the Israeli soldiers, indicating “don’t shoot”, but the car takes devastating fire anyway. The soldiers cannot take the agony of a man with a part of his body missing, and the last bullet to deliver him from suffering is a visual description of the harshest face of the war.
The film was shot almost entirely in a tank. The viewer sees what is happening through the sight of the tank’s gun and the sight acts as a camera.
My own exposure to Israeli cinema began with Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit (2007). The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives in Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. However, instead of traveling to a city whose name means “opening of hope”, the Egyptians through a miscommunication end up in a town whose name means “guarantee of hope.” Since there is no bus out of the town that day, they have to spend the night in the quiet town. At first, the Arabs and the Jews are cautious, correct, tentative with each other. But the warmth and hospitality of the townsfolk bring them closer together…
The Band’s Visit is a purely peace-loving and humane film. According to the director’s interpretation, these people have many things in common, and their expectations and desires in life are minimal: a small joy, a moment of happiness. The film does not discuss the conflict or political issues. The author understands the possibility of different peoples living together in this geography normally and safely, and sends the message that people should not live for the sake of a damaged history, but should overcome the past for the sake of peace.