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January 25, 2009

New Tomdispatch

Tomdispatch is publishing two excerpts from the graphic novel based on the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre.

I highly recommend this. Part I is now available here, with Part II coming out next Saturday.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at January 25, 2009 06:04 PM

Nice. The guy who shot the dogs reminds me of all the trees I blew up in Iraq.

Posted by: tim at January 25, 2009 07:04 PM

To use my most polite words, I'm disconcerted that Mr. Folman accepted the Golden Globe award for this movie right in the middle of the horrific crime against Gaza that, in my view, is even worse that Sabra and Shatila (not that attempting to weigh atrocities is necessarily the most useful endeavor) and, according to everything I've been able to read chose to remain completely silent about it.

Can someone explain that to me? (I'll be pleased to be wrong here, but couldn't find his acceptance speech)

And, does this mean that the soldiers that massacred the al-Samouni family can make a heart-wrenching film about that in twenty years and be feted for it in Israel and the US while the Israelis are razing Bethlehem at Christmas with American weapons?

Posted by: Rojo at January 25, 2009 08:17 PM

If it convinces even one young person from joining the military then maybe it will have done some good.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 26, 2009 12:34 AM

I dunno. I think I'm with Rojo. It's well done, but it looks to me like another installment of the the Myth of the Beautiful Killer. Norman Finkelstein wrote about this in "Sentiment, Not Conquest," singling out a book called The Seventh Day, an oral history of the Six Days' War: "The ethical qualms of The Seventh Day arise not from what Israel may have done to the Arabs, but from what it may have done to itself." (Myth and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, 115) Even if it weren't appearing here in the immediate wake of Israel's Shrecklichkeit in Gaza, I'd be wary of it. I think I'll reread Joe Sacco's Palestine instead.

Posted by: Duncan at January 26, 2009 09:42 AM

I saw Waltz With Bashir this weekend and I'd agree with Rojo and Duncan. It was a very close analog to films about Vietnam that focus on the psychological suffering of American soldiers, with Vietnamese suffering relegated to the background (and portrayed mainly in terms of how it affected the American soldiers who inflicted it). I'd put it on the low end of even that scale, since the psychological trauma of the Israeli veterans in the film seemed relatively mild—they were generally well-adjusted people with occasional nagging doubts or recriminations or nightmares.

Setting aside the political angle, I (and the friend with whom I saw it) found the film surprisingly lightweight. There's just not much to it. It's basically a war travelogue without enough of a context or a critique to give it substance.

I'm glad to see a film shine a spotlight on what happened at Sabra and Shatila, but I'd second Duncan's recommendation to read Joe Sacco (either instead of or in addition to).

Posted by: John Caruso at January 26, 2009 05:54 PM

My purpose in life is not to defend this film but aren’t soldiers victims as well? They get their heads stuffed with propaganda and go off believing that they are doing something noble in the name of patriotism, mother, and apple pie and the glories of war only to find something different. Perhaps some of them figure out that they are just cannon fodder for the ruling classes to be ground up, used, and thrown away and perhaps some of them don’t. I’m not trying at all to defend what soldiers do but I don’t think it is just a simple case of me good you bad. And after all some of the most outspoken people against war and militarism are vets themselves.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 26, 2009 08:26 PM

Rob, I'm not even talking about the film, which I haven't seen and probably won't. I can only go by the excerpts from the print version which were posted here. That's what I reacted to, and while in principle I agree with you, in this case not so much. As John says, the characters don't seem that traumatized. Nor do they show any sign of being those antiwar veterans you're talking about, and of whom I'm well aware, but the antiwar vets haven't repressed all memory of the wars they fought, like these characters did. (The echo of the American repressed-memory / Satanic-abuse witch hunt of the 1980s may not be there for Israelis, but I couldn't help thinking of it as I read.)

The beautiful-killer thing I referred to, by the way, doesn't treat Israeli soldiers as victims of the Israeli government that makes them kill; rather, it depicts them as victims of the dirty Arabs that make them kill them, and that's something else again. (I think I remember a quotation from Golda Meir saying basically that: you [Arabs] are bad because you make us kill you.) Have a look at Norman Finkelstein's essay, which can be found in Myth and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

Posted by: Duncan at January 26, 2009 10:46 PM

Rob is treading on dangerous ground here in suggesting that any Israeli soldier bears the faintest human trace.

Posted by: Seth at January 26, 2009 10:47 PM

So what did you think of Munich, John?

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at January 26, 2009 11:50 PM

Hi there, Seth! How the hell are ya doin'?

Of course you're misrepresenting what's going on here. No one has so much as suggested that Israeli soldiers do not bear "the slightest human trace." Of course they bear quite a bit more than a trace. So do all other soldiers.

So, how about you? Are you willing to say that Hamas "militants" bear the slightest human trace?

Posted by: Duncan at January 27, 2009 12:36 AM

John Caruso and Duncan,

I wasn’t really disagreeing as much as just trying to discuss a point. Yes I oversimplified what I was saying as there are many circumstances under which people join the military though all of them are cultural either directly or indirectly. My sympathies lay mainly with the victims as well and in fact I often have a problem with having sympathy for soldiers who participate in war. I also understand where you are coming from regarding how effective this film might be. The way I see it is the real problem lies with Western culture such as it is. Again to both John and Duncan I don’t really disagree with you I just thought the film had some value and perhaps I am wrong in thinking that it might dissuade anyone from joining the military but that would depend on the viewer I suppose.


Think about what you are saying. Israeli soldiers are not human? That is exactly the kind of propaganda used on soldiers to make it easier for them to kill. History is full of it – slope heads, hajis, towel heads, wrap heads, animals etc. I would have to say you are the one who is treading on dangerous ground.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 27, 2009 12:36 AM

Yep, Rob, I'm sure we'd agree on much of this. I was mainly mentioning some of it because (as I said) my friend and I spent a long time mulling it over after watching the film.

StO: Never seen it. Are you recommending it?

Posted by: John Caruso at January 27, 2009 01:15 AM

aren’t soldiers victims as well?

I don't think you can call someone who committed terrible crimes, has never been punished for it, and is occasionally suffering from remorse a 'victim'. He is a hypocrite.

Let him go and surrender to some international tribunal or something, testify against himself and his associates, give all his property away to the real victims, spend some years in jail - then I might agree that he is a victim too.

Posted by: abb1 at January 27, 2009 05:38 AM

Huh, I'm disappointed to hear this. I haven't seen the movie, but I thought the first excerpt from the book was promising.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 27, 2009 08:51 AM

The excerpt from the book looks very nice, Jon. I will check out the second excerpt when it becomes available. But I still think my objection, and Rojo's and John's, is pertinent, especially since the syndrome I'm talking about is a popular one in Israel.

It's not just Israel, either. There's a book called "The Remasculinization of America: Gender and Vietnam" by Susan Jeffords, which holds basically that America's manhood took a major hit when we "lost" in Vietnam, and traces this thesis through various well-known movies. It's pretty well-known in American cultural studies, and even inspired a book called "The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema" by Kyung Hyun Kim, which claims that modernization has done bad things to Korea's manhood, but that Korea's manhood has come back swinging since the 1980s. Over the past several I've read a fair amount of gender studies, and especially masculinity studies, and have gotten really tired of the repeated assertions I encounter that American (or whatever) manhood is in crisis because of various things: wimmin, feminism, the gay movement, the Economy, the war in Iraq, Vietnam, the Rat Race, etc. In particular, the fact that American men were somehow damaged because killing 2 or 3 million Southeast Asians didn't bring us victory fails to win any sympathy from me.

Now, the same goes for Israel's war in Lebanon. There was, as you no doubt know, a lot more to that war than Sabra and Shatila, and it would still have been a vile, criminal enterprise even if the massacres at Sabra and Shatila had never happened, with thousands of innocent people killed by a murderous aggressor, thousands kidnapped to Israeli dungeons, and of course a brutal occupation that lasted until Israel was finally expelled by Hizbollah in 2000. No doubt many Israeli soldiers were traumatized by their experiences, just as no doubt many German soldiers were traumatized by their experiences in World War II. But until the invaders and aggressors can admit that the great harm was their doing, not their victims' -- and to their credit, many individual soldiers in various countries, including the US, have done just that -- then I'm not going to expend a lot of energy feeling sorry for them/us.

If, as the gender studies people say, men's manhood is put in crisis by losing wars, maybe they should stop fighting them. Since war is a zero-sum game, where one party is supposed to win and the other is supposed to lose, then war inevitably results in damage to someone's manhood. Of course, as long as We beat someone else, We're not worried about the damage to their manhood -- indeed, victors glory in getting the enemy's pecker in their pocket, sometimes literally. And all this talk completely ignores the non-men, the women and children who are also hurt and traumatized by war, which is more evidence that it is in bad faith from the start; who cares about the "manhood" of women, and of children, who are killed and maimed and terrorized by the Big Boys and Their Toys?

Posted by: Duncan at January 27, 2009 10:34 AM


I was speaking about this in more general terms not this case specifically. Maybe you are forgetting that there used to be a draft here in the states. Under the draft during the Vietnam War you had the choice of being forced to join the military against your will or going to prison. By the way that is what young Israeli’s face right now. There are some Israeli who refuse to participate in the war against the Palestinians and have chosen to go to prison instead. So yes, some soldiers are victims.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 27, 2009 01:36 PM

John: I was curious if you'd had the same reaction to it as you had to this Waltz with Bashir thing. I thought it was remarkable to see a major American filmmaker implying that there was anything wrong with Israeli policy, at any point; but reflecting on it, it does seem to largely be about what murdering people does to the murderers, not to the murdered. I'd be interested to hear other people's viewpoints.

Jon, Rob Payne, Duncan, abb1, and Rojo: What did you think of Spielberg and Kushner's Munich?

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at January 27, 2009 09:26 PM

I didn't see it.

Posted by: abb1 at January 28, 2009 08:18 AM

Re: Munich Never saw it. Do I have to? The fact that Kushner wrote was always a plus, but I just never got around to seeing it.

What do you think of Park Kwang-su's A Single Spark and Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy?

Posted by: Duncan at January 28, 2009 04:25 PM

I guess I just assumed that if I saw it, other people would have, since other people tend to be more aware than I am. I haven't seen those. I've seen Oldboy, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Isle, Shiri, and Joint Security Area fairly recently, but I haven't seen the movies you mention. Are you recommending them?

Posted by: StO at January 28, 2009 06:00 PM

JSA and Oldboy are two of my favorite Park Chan-Wook films (though Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance might edge out the latter). I've looked at the others on your list but haven't ever picked them up, but I might give them a try if you're recommending them.

I'll keep an eye out for Duncan's as well.

...reflecting on it, [Munich] does seem to largely be about what murdering people does to the murderers, not to the murdered.

Yes, that and Steven Spielberg (and the mainstream sensibility that implies) kept me away.

Posted by: John Caruso at January 28, 2009 07:30 PM

I actually would recommend The Isle. The other two, not so much. I felt like Shiri had been so popular I ought to see it to find out why—which is perhaps odd, because I feel no such obligation in the analogous situation with American films—, but I was somewhat disappointed.

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at January 29, 2009 12:17 AM

Yes, I recommend both of them. Unfortunately you're not likely to be able to find A Single Spark in your video store, because it was never released on DVD in the US. Peppermint Candy has been released here on DVD, though.

A Single Spark is the story of a real sweatshop worker, Jeon Tae-il, who set himself on fire in 1970 to protest the government's refusal to enforce workplace safety and health laws. His death inspired a wave of labor activism. The film, which is basically a docudrama, is mostly biographically accurate.

Peppermint Candy is a fiction film about a man who was crushed by life in the South Korean dictatorship and its aftermath, from the Kwangju massacre of 1980 to the economic crisis of the late 90s, and took his misery out on the people around him. It makes him a sort of Everyman figure without losing his individual humanity.

Joint Security Area is pretty good, I think; it may just be my outsider point of view, but I think that even many commercial Korean films integrate politics and history into their stories better than most American films, even those that are trying to be political. (Even Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, which is pretty horrific, is partly about Korean politics and the economic crisis.) Shiri is just a Korean Die Hard, but made on a fraction of the budget. It's more interesting if you look at it that way, I think, than if you expect it to compete with Hollywood. Still, it made a lot of money in Korea when it was released, outgrossing Titanic there if I recall correctly.

The other Korean films mentioned here may be worth watching on their own terms, but they dont' interest me much. I hated OldBoy, for instance. Unfortunately, the kinds of Korean films that get released here tend to be geekboy fountains-of-blood "extreme" cinema, because there's a reliable niche market for such things. Unless you are willing to look for the movies that don't get released here, and probably to spend money for the Korean DVDs (so you'll also need a multiregion player), you're not going to see the most interesting Korean films.

You can find good reviews of the films we've mentioned here at, by the way; it helped me immensely in my initial exploration of Korean movies, and now I contribute the odd review there myself.

Posted by: Duncan at January 29, 2009 11:00 AM