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Banned Israeli film draws a crowd in Beirut

"Waltz with Bashir," about a massacre in a Lebanese refugee camp, proves a hit.

Pirated DVDs of "Waltz with Bashir" bought in Beirut for about $2. (Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

BEIRUT  — Every chair, sofa and stool was filled at a Sunday night screening of the banned Israeli film “Waltz With Bashir” at an art gallery in Beirut.

But the doorbell kept ringing.

It wasn’t the police. It was 50 or so latecomers, looking to find a seat. None could be had, as more than 100 people had already arrived to view the film on a screen hung on the former warehouse’s bare wall. 

“I tried to warn the owner here to get more chairs,” said Ziad, the organizer of the screening. “He didn’t. He thought 15 people would come.”

Ziad didn’t want his full name used in this article because it is illegal to sell, show or promote any Israeli products, including films, in Lebanon. The two countries have technically been at war since 1948.  

Despite the ban, "Waltz with Bashir" has attracted a lot of attention in Beirut. The animated documentary details the experience of the film’s writer and director, Ari Folman, as he tries to recall his experience as a young soldier who took part in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Folman eventually remembers his role in the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in September 1982, in which an estimated 800 to 2,000 Palestinian civilians were killed at the hands of Christian militiamen allied with Israel.

For two days, the Israeli army watched from nearby, firing flares at night to light the militia’s way. The Israelis deny they ordered or had knowledge of the massacre. They say the Christians were supposed to go into the camp and root out Palestinian fighters.

But just days before, the Christian militia’s leader and Lebanon’s president-elect, Bashir Gemayel (the “Bashir” in the film’s title), had been assassinated. An Israeli investigation later found the Israeli military was “indirectly responsible” for the massacre. It was hardly surprising the Christians would have sought revenge on the Palestinians, who they had fought for the previous seven years of Lebanon’s civil war.

The subject matter is sensitive in Lebanon, where Gemayel’s brother, Amin Gemayel, runs the party whose militia was responsible for the massacre — the party is called the Kata’eb, or Phalange. The party headquarters sits just a few blocks away from the art gallery. And now, pirated DVD copies of "Waltz with Bashir" are available in the very camp where the massacre took place.