Banned Israeli film draws a crowd in Beirut

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.

“It should be sold normally, like a normal movie,” said 21-year-old Palestinian Ramez Housari, who owns a pirate DVD shop on a Shatila camp street that was partially flooded with sewage on a recent rainy Monday morning.   

Despite having lost three uncles in the massacre, Housari sells copies of "Waltz with Bashir" for about $1.30 each. He says the camp’s popular committee, kind of the camp’s city council, say they’re interested in screening the film.   

"They said the at the next commemoration of the Shatila massacre they will put this film, for people to watch it, and compare the film to what happened in reality,” Housari said.  

Housari's feelings about the film are twofold. He says it was beautiful, but didn’t show the full horror of the massacre. But he says even then, he understands why the Lebanese government would ban it. He says many Palestinians would probably having a “feeling of rage” if they saw it.

At the screening, some couldn’t agree with him more, though for different reasons. Lama Matta said reminding everyone in Lebanon that the Christians sided with the Israelis during Lebanon’s civil war is a part of history she’d just as soon forget.

“I’m against putting this movie in every store or in the cinema,” Matta said. “We have enough problems as it is in Lebanon already. By putting this film, we will cause people to hate each other again and again. And to open a door that is closing a bit. Why throw alcohol on the fire?”

Another viewer, Vanessa Dammous, said she didn’t think "Waltz with Bashir" should be outright banned, but didn’t think it should be shown in the commercial theaters. She thought it was important for Lebanese to see the film, due to their own problems dealing with their war-torn past.

“For us Lebanese we have this problem with memory, and with you know reconstituting all this history and putting everything together,” Dammous said. “And the way [Folman] deals with this story, and puts us in front and face-to-face with the issue of memory, this is the most interesting part for me.”  

According to Ralph Nashawaty, "Waltz with Bashir" was great until the end.  He says that at the end, the film became Israeli propaganda, because of what he perceives as Israel’s continued massacres against its neighbors in the 2006 Lebanon war and in Gaza this year.  

“They introduced some slight words and thoughts that basically that Israelis want to avoid massacres, and in a way they feel bad about it, that they are against killing women and children and old people” he said. “But since they keep on (committing massacres) … they’re treating us like fools.”

Ziad, the organizer of the screening, says he chose to kick off his film festival with "Waltz with Bashir" because of the strong feelings the films elicits. Although he says no film should be “banned or banished” by the Lebanese authorities, screening it was less a challenge to the ban than a marketing decision.  

“We wanted to do something really big for the opening of the cineclub,” Ziad said. “Since I know that a lot of people want to watch this movie, and have either a very positive or negative opinion about it, I thought this was a very good way to start.”

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Beirut builds on its ancient past ... literally