Israel's Waltz With Bashir and Palestine's Paradise Now: Studying two Oscar-nominated films united by cost of war
More than anyone else, maybe Israel and Palestine should watch these films, their ruthless yet affecting excavation of the paranoia that living under war-torn roofs comes with.
The Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who practically rebelled against the concept of his own field, once wrote, “In the animal kingdom, the rule is eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.”
Border conflicts are perhaps the most accurate manifestations of the human need to define the other, especially those you consider enemies. It is hard to separate one from the other – what precedes hate, the definition or the desire to define. Cinema is unfortunately both a tool for propaganda and introspection. As much as it analyses and explores in the aftermath, it collaborates with the oppressor in the build-up. History seems kinder, when you have the power to tell it, rather than live it.
As Israel and Gaza trade bombs, rockets, and blood, two Oscar-nominated films, each from Israel and Palestine, are well worth revisiting for their ironically similar perspectives on the nature of conflict and its eventual psychological cost – the banality of loss.
Paradise Now (2005), directed by Palestine’s most famous cinematic export Hany Abu-Assad, and Waltz With Bashir (2008), directed by Israeli soldier-turned-filmmaker are two wildly different films that look at conflict through different lenses of both format and aesthetic. Yet they yield similar results.
Assad’s film tells the story of two childhood friends Said and Khaled, who join the Palestinian militia as suicide bombers, convinced that death and martyrdom are the only things worth living for. Waltz With Bashir, on the other hand, is an animated pseudo-documentary where Folman attempts to excavate his own horrifying memories of the 1982 Lebanese war, in particular the Sabra and Shatila massacres, that he seems to have suppressed over the year.
The complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict is such that multi-dimensional geometry cannot do justice to many aspects you must consider to understand it fully. There is religion, region, politics, and a sense of betrayal that goes back to the time when the region was occupied by the English. Both Oscar-nominated films, however, do not overly concern themselves with political history as much as with the human cost.
In Paradise Now, the brooding Said maintains a quiet yet unnerving presence compared to the talkative Khaled. Said carries that banality of a suicidal outlook within him, staring coldly at things, walking as if through a pyre at all times. In a scene when he tells Suha (Lubna Azabal) that he and some other friends happened to burned down the Revoly theatre once, the latter asks him, “What did the cinema do to you?." “Not cinema, Israel,” Zaid responds with a sense of weighted rhetoric carrying his cold utterance through the air.
In another scene from Paradise Now, Khaled struggles to record his goodbye video in one take. Eventually, he remembers to say the most important thing that is not part of the script he has been given – to ask his mother to buy a cheaper air filter from somewhere he had discovered but forgot to tell.
Over in Waltz With Bashir, Folman seems to remember and recreate each dog he had killed in his initial days in the army. He remembers their eyes. For some reason, he cannot accurately remember the humans. In a scene where Folman’s infantry lands on a beach, the soldiers start firing out of panic. “Shoot," one soldier says. “At whom?” the incumbent responds. “How should I know?” is the response he gets. The unoriginality of each bullet being fired, each body succumbing to its wounds is writ large over a film that mines horror from a war that countries exchanged between themselves as if it were a platitude. So commonplace is loss on both sides of conflict, it means little perhaps to survive and live with the burden of remembering.
Both films have widely different aesthetics and treatments. Waltz with Bashir feels like a coked-up, hallucinatory romp through hell while Paradise Now is intimate and personally effecting. Both begin and end in tragedy, for what else would a landscape rife with violence and hate look to for a beginning and an end. “I’d rather have paradise in my head than live like this,” Khaled says at one point in the film. There is no denying these people their sense of victimhood, as much as you may scorn their inconsistencies with loss. Life, in the shadow of death, after all must amount to precious little beyond fear and resignation.
It is a hard argument to make, to find some sort of solace in cinema when two resentful neighbours are gunning mercilessly for each other’s throats. More than anyone else, maybe they should watch these films, their ruthless yet affecting excavation of the paranoia that living under war-torn roofs comes with.
Understandably, most sympathies lie, as they should, with the weaker of the two sides, the one that has been brutalised to a point where even grief eludes the body that continues to breathe. That said, there is a need as always for introspection on both sides, to look inward, and find that most potent of human qualities – valuing life. Or you risk becoming the humble lunatic who recruits Said and Khaled, and says things like, “If you are not afraid of death, you are in control of life." You are in control of life, these films tell us, as long as you have one. Period. rut
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