Wednesday, March 11, 2009
telling whose stories?
This short video, Closed Zone, is animated by Yoni Goodman, the director of animation for the recent much ballyhooed Israeli animated film, Waltz with Bashir. The Closed Zone video was made with Gisha - the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, a human rights group in Israel: "Gisha calls on the State of Israel to fully open Gaza's crossings and to allow the real victims of the closure - 1.5 million human beings - the freedom of movement necessary to realize their dreams and aspirations."
On the Gish Closed Zone site, if you scroll down a bit you can watch a clip about the making of the video and listen to what Goodman relates about his methods in making it.
One of the things Goodman says is that he deliberately made the animated character ambiguous, in that he could be either a boy or a young man.
Perhaps, addressing from a child's perspective and through a child-like medium (animation) a message that is actually meant for adults is a good way for opening a space for talking about the issue of Israeli occupation, that no one wants to own or see themselves in (I'm thinking here of an Israeli or non-Palestinian/pro-Israeli viewer). So, through a child, one can come to some realizations in a way that is less accusatory.
By Goodman making him a boy, and an animated character, to boot, the issue that is addressed -- the barriers of Israeli occupation as thwarts to Palestinian boys' dreams -- can be approached in a way that reduces personal finger-pointing and allows the issue to be opened up for discussion rather than shut down.
Interestingly, too, the video clip has no dialogue, only animation. Animation makes it more child-like, too, as it harkens back to comic books and cartoons. Also, as Goodman notes, the boy could be a young man and also he could be either Palestinian or Israeli--it's hard to tell. Is this ambiguity to show that we are more similar than we are different? that it is larger systemic forces that create barriers between us?
But as it is Palestinians who are caught and blocked behind the closures, the ambiguity of the boy's may-be Israeli-ness, is but an introductory hook for the Israeli viewer to identify with the boy as he leaves his home. For he then has to reconcile his identification with the blocks that surface inside Gaza, created by Israel, and hence, revealing the truth of who is hemmed in by who. There is no ambiguity now.
Goodman was a soldier during Israel's bombing of Qana, Lebanon in 1996, what Israel called the "Grapes of Wrath operation" but was revealed to be the Qana massacre. During this military offensive to "get Hezbollah", the Israelis bombed a UN compound--one that had been there for years and is clearly marked-- where civilians had taken refuge. Sound familiar? UN building, with civilians sheltering, yet Israel "accidentally" hits it?
106 civilians were killed and 116 injured, including 4 UN soldiers.
When Waltz with Bashir came out, a number of viewers gushed about it--like Gilad Atzmon, who was an Israeli soldier during the 1982 invasion and killing fields of Lebanon. Atzmon tells us that
"The film is a smashing success in Israel. The Israelis love to weep collectively, and to express regret for the Christian Phalangists who killed on their behalf. They apparently come out of the film saying, ‘Only here, in our wonderful free country, can we confront our past so bravely.’"
Wonderful free country? For who?
Confront the past so bravely? Much of Israel WIPES out the history of how that country came to be. Isreali websites and geographic places are replete with not looking at the past beyond Zionist re-writing.
I haven't seen Waltz with Bashir yet, nor do I intend to. When I first heard about it I thought oh, it sounds like just the kind of film that liberals will flock to. I'm sure it will be very popular, I thought. It sounds like the kind of film that liberal-minded folks can watch and then exclaim about its 'fairness of portrayal'. It sounds like the kind of film that doesn't enter certain grounds that would make for more difficult examinations and troubling realizations; the kind that allows for whole issues to be left out, such as whose stories get told and how and by whom and who promotes them and why and what that then reinforces.
Further, I find very problematic films and stories that humanize soldiers and give them a life that the viewer can sympathize with yet which in that doing leaves their victims voiceless, silent, an afterthought, misunderstood, re-stereotyped, and, in the end, re-victimized. The power relations are not even disrupted, never mind dismantled.
It's the story of "our boys" that I find so problematic, as too often what ends up being reproduced is a division between 'us' and 'them.' Those faceless, nameless, have-no-lives-no-communities-no-dreams-no-families-no-struggles-no-joy-no-laughter not-us Others.
Others have been critical of the film for many reasons. Below are some excerpts of film reviews of Waltz with Bashir that talk about its problematic humanizing of Israeli soldiers at the expense of Palestinians, decontextualizing of political and historical contexts, its focus on the Shabra and Shatilla massacres and its avoidance of looking at the almost 18-20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians who dies in 1982 AT THE HANDS of Israel, and what that implies:
"To say that Palestinians are absent in Waltz with Bashir, to say that it is a film that deals not with Palestinians but with Israelis who served in Lebanon, only barely begins to describe the violence that this film commits against Palestinians. There is nothing interesting or new in the depiction of Palestinians -- they have no names, they don't speak, they are anonymous. But they are not simply faceless victims. Instead, the victims in the story that Waltz with Bashir tells are Israeli soldiers. Their anguish, their questioning, their confusion, their pain -- it is this that is intended to pull us. The rotoscope animation is beautifully done, the facial expressions so engaging, subtle and torn, we find ourselves grimacing and gasping at the trials and tribulations of the young Israeli soldiers and their older agonizing selves. We don't see Palestinian facial expressions; only a lingering on dead, anonymous faces. So while Palestinians are never fully human, Israelis are, and indeed are humanized through the course of the film.
As Folman and those he speaks with recount what happened when they were in Lebanon, there is a lot of "while they're shooting at us from all directions," "we are attacked, we retaliate." There is no sense that Israel invaded Lebanon -- the word "invasion" is barely used in the whole film. The soldiers are young men going off to war in fighting spirit, fantasizing about women, wondering at how to prove their masculinity, licking the wounds of being dumped by girlfriends. They are singing songs with upbeat tunes and lyrics such as "Good morning Lebanon ... you bleed to death in my arms," "I bombed Sidon," "I bombed Beirut, I bombed Beirut every day." These lyrics are supposed to grate, but one nevertheless gets a sense of naive hapless kids who have no sense of the trauma that they are unwittingly walking into. One imagines that Folman would respond to the criticism that Israel's role is not made clear in the film, that these hapless kids are also members of an invading army committing acts of aggression, by saying that this would be going into the realm of politics, and rather this is intended to be a human film. One of the more disquieting views coming from admiring quarters is that the film is great for a general audience because one doesn't need to know any background information to appreciate the film. That Israel launched a brutal offensive that led to the deaths of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians is apparently not relevant. With "politics" and the "background" rendered off-limits, we are left with something that is misleading and inane. Its principal message becomes "war sucks." And why does war suck? Because it is traumatizing -- principally for the soldiers. When Waltz with Bashir won the Golden Globe for best foreign film in January, while the force of the Israeli military machine was being unleashed against Gaza, while war crimes and atrocities were being committed by Israeli soldiers, Folman could only muster, "My film is anti-war, and therefore would, sadly, always be relevant." Given the evasion of responsibility and decontextualization that lie at the core of this film, this was hardly surprising."
"The film doesn't want to speak of history. It doesn't want to speak of suffering. Even when Zionist liberals touch upon suffering, they mean the suffering of the murderers. The nightmares of occupation soldiers are more important than the suffering of the victims of Sabra & Shatila. The soldiers speak of only their suffering, and don't allow Arab victims to speak about their own suffering. The nightmares of occupation soldiers were more horrible than the killing of children in brutal Israeli bombardment before and after Sabra & Shatila.
Read Zionist literature from the beginning to find in their representation—if they were there at all—backward peasants or lowly bedouins or nondescript refugees without citizenship, later transformed into "saboteurs" (and this is the same name that the Phalangist "Voice of Lebanon" radio used in the course of the war) in the 1960s, until Zionist propaganda finally settled upon the description "terrorist". The film doesn't deviate from the formula, even with regard to that splendid boy when he fires an RPG launcher in the face of the occupier.
But, the (im)moral standard of the film is evident from the beginning when the narrator suffers from nightmares because he killed some dogs in South Lebanon. And in another scene, an Israeli soldier bemoans the plight of the horses in Beirut's hippodrome, for the animals are more valuable than the Arab according to a racial hierarchy that doesn't differ in its essentials from Nazi hierarchy. There is a liberal American organization—which has been utterly indifferent to the lives of the people of Palestine—that ran a campaign to care for the animals in Gaza. The Arab and the Muslim in the liberal standard of the white man is of a lower rank than the animal. The Western viewer will sympathize with the Israeli soldier because he seemed the most affected by the killing of animals at the hands of the Arabs in the devastation of 1982.
If a Hamas writer were to shoot a film about his experience in Gaza would the Hollywood community welcome him with open arms, and would the liberal media shower him with praise? With or without the "anguish" of the Israel soldiers."