Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Using Movies To Study Middle East History and Politics

By  · Published on June 21st, 2011

I often find that, as a devotee to cinema and little else, I understand history through cinema. After all, cinema can take me to places I’ve never been and times I never lived with a particular sensory gestalt that’s simply not quite the same in other art forms. This is not to say that I make the mistake of substituting cinema for history, or treat cinema the same way I would treat a credible historical annal. But cinema, especially narrative fiction, has a fascinating capacity to represent subjective experiences and particular perspectives of history.

By considering history through its cinematic representation, we may not become authorities of chronology, but rather understand emotions and experiences associated with lived events. Few movies claim to be comprehensive authorities of historical representation through cinema (and yes, selection, while problematic is essential for historical writing as well, but cinema simply provides yet another layer of artifice). Some films are canonized as such (anything from Saving Private Ryan to Ken Burns’s documentaries), but even as these are incomplete historiographies, they are in a sense “complete” biographies of thought, reflection, interpretation, and emotion.

Try as I might, I continually fail to understand Middle East politics. The constant changes in demographics and leadership between countries combined with the continued conflicts that have been fought for centuries make for a dense history that I only begin to understand through fragments and simplified narratives. However, seeing Denis Villanueve’s Incendies last week brought to mind a trend in the import of certain foreign films recently. Each subsequent year of the past four years has seen a foreign film released in the US about the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War, and these four films have vastly different approaches in terms of style, narrative structure, and perspective, providing distinct and unique reactions to the same transnational conflict.

Beaufort (2007; Israel)

IDF veteran Joseph Cedar’s film takes place in 2000, the year that the final Israeli Defense Forces left Lebanon. The film focuses specifically on the final days in combat of the troops occupying Beaufort castle, a location that has persisted as a historical symbol of occupying power in Southern Lebanon since at least the 12th century. It is pointedly significant, then, that the film takes place in a location whose historical meaning has pertains to conquest and victory, yet in maintaining that meaning through so many centuries of conflict has come to symbolize by contrast the cyclical, redundant nature of war. How meaningful is the Israelis’ occupation of the castle if it is only going to be occupied by another nation, or reoccupied by themselves, in some subsequent generation? That Israel once again went to war in 2006, only months after Beaufort finished shooting, only makes this point clearer.

In taking the painstaking process of evacuating Beaufort (and, by extension, Lebanon), the troops featured in this narrative struggle to gain meaning from the occupation. They look forward to returning home exhilarated for having done their service, but they don’t return feeling they’ve claimed clear victory, or even a coherent meaning at all. More so than clear victory or defeat (both of which carry an attached justification for and heroic association with sacrifice), they return instead confused and frustrated. Beaufort is a film looking back at a war from its recent end, a film about the process of beginning to make sense of recent history. This theme is colored quite clearly by the fact that the troops here are only a few years older than the war itself, and that their superiors provide little explanation when the soldiers search for answers regarding the war’s intent and its parameters for victory and/or evacuation.

Waltz with Bashir (2008; Israel)

Director Ari Folman uses his own personal memories of the 1982 war in Lebanon as the basis for Waltz with Bashir, documenting conversations with his own friends and brothers in arms to regain his memory of the war which he has since suppressed. What we ultimately get with Waltz with Bashir is a mosaic of individual memories surrounding the event: multiple parts that do not lead to a summary, comprehensible whole, but do illustrate the varied subjective experience of warfare. Aesthetically boundary-pushing (Is it a “war film” or an illustrated dreamscape? Fiction or documentary?), animation is perhaps the best way to show this subjective experience rather than succumb to the (false) authority of “realism,” thereby illustrating the memory of war as a collection of lyrical, compelling, affecting, and confusing moments with vague context but great experiential feeling. War here is experienced as a series of remnants whose initial significance is elusive rather than a cohesive, linear narrative.

That said, much was made of Waltz with Bashir’s ending upon its release. Had the film undermined the authority and particular effectiveness of its own animated images by ending with documentary footage, thereby reinstating the assumed authority and power of “real” images over deliberately constructed ones? The ending is certainly shocking on multiple levels, but what I remember from Waltz with Bashir is exactly what the soldiers retrieve from memory: effecting, beautiful, and disturbing episodes that resonate without cohesion.

Lebanon (2009; Israel)

Samuel Moaz’s (yet another veteran of the 1982 war) film is perhaps the aesthetic and narrative (though not thematic) antithesis to Waltz with Bashir. Taking place in what seems like just over 24 hours in the initial year of the war, the film starts off inside an Israeli tank pursuing Lebanese enemy combatants, and the camera never leaves this claustrophobic environment. We see only what the tank soldiers see. What’s most interesting about Moaz’s restrained technique is that we are permitted perspective of what happens “outside,” but this information reveals either too little or too much information. The soldiers hear noises outside and, when the gunner looks through his scope he sees (in a theme stretching across these films) only a fragment of the events transpiring. This limited purview even gives misleading information, as at one point after a battle he sees a poster of the Eiffel Tower that, for a split second, disorients the spectator enough to consider the possibility that they have impossibly traversed time and space. On the other hand, the zoom of the gunner’s scope permits him to see the faces of enemies and potential casualties, a humanist encounter that cripples his ability to be an effective soldier.

The gunner’s scope, in a way, acts as a metaphor of the cinematic representation of war itself: we are given a device through which to see, but because of it there are things we are automatically unable to see and yet others that can be heightened. Lebanon isn’t about the fragments of memory, but of experience in the moment (and thus, the title’s insinuation of unity and comprehensiveness is more than a tad ironic).

Incendies (2010; Quebec, Canada)

Admittedly, this title departs from the rest of this list as it isn’t specifically about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and in fact never explicitly states that it takes place in Lebanon, but this adaptation of Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s celebrated “Scorchedis clearly inspired by the tumultuous events endured in the time period during the war, especially the country’s civil war that overlapped with its conflict with Israel.

About a twin brother and sister’s journey to unravel mysteries of their mother’s life after her death, the time-shifting nature of the film’s structure allows for fragments of their mother’s story – and, by association, Lebanese history – to be meticulously assembled. Incendies is, in many ways, about the excavation of history itself, and how one has to come to terms with the conditions of their own upbringing – histories that are often (literally or abstractly) soaked in the blood of others. More directly (without revealing any spoilers), Incendies is about coming to terms with the different paths that history mandates, and being able to understand (and forgive) others for being different devices for those mandates or for following paths outside of their control which ultimately hurt others they don’t yet know in ways they don’t yet understand. For Incendies, the divergent paths of history often travel back in the most surprising, devastating, and sometimes even liberating of ways.

Final Thoughts

While these four films are culturally specific, they do not necessarily presume a contextual knowledge on behalf of the viewer in terms of the events presented. This is because these films present history through fragments: the reflection, the harsh corridors of memory, the limited subjective experience, and the arduous journey towards further comprehension (respectively). These are films motivated by history, and they are in a sense about history, but they are not summations of history itself. These four very different films ostensibly about the “same” “event” hardly see the event the same way at all. And by realizing this, these filmmakers do what film does best in terms of its relationship with and its ability to represent history: present the particular understanding of personal and emotional experience.

This is not bias, nor is it propaganda, but the honesty of emotional truth committed to celluloid.

Enjoy Culture Warrior

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