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A Film in Search of a Context
The First Waltz
by NADIA HIJAB

Watching Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir inevitably reminded me of Eran Riklis’ Cup Final, also an Israeli film about its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

When Cup Final came out in 1992, it made me think that a common future for Israelis and Palestinians was possible. I had expected the same of Waltz. Both films deal with the story of young soldiers during Israel’s horror-filled 1982 war. Both won critical acclaim, though Cup Final won just one award compared to the 10 Waltz scooped up before it hit the Oscars (but lost to another foreign film, Departures).

But there the resemblance ends. By contrast to Waltz, Cup Final gives voice not just to Israeli soldiers but also to the Palestinian guerrillas then based in Southern Lebanon.

It starts with an soldier bemoaning his fate: He has to fight instead of going to watch the World Cup matches in Spain for which he’s got tickets. Serves him right for voting for the rightwing Likud, his friend retorts.

The two soldiers are captured by Palestinian guerrillas, led by the handsome Palestinian actor Muhamad Bacri, and taken from South Lebanon to Beirut so they can be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners. On the way, an unlikely friendship develops, rooted in a shared passion for football — and in the Israelis’ growing understanding of what the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is really about.

For me, the funniest — and saddest — moment of the film comes when the Israeli soldier speaks passionately of his love for Jerusalem. One of his Palestinian captors is from Jerusalem and he says how much he longs to see his hometown again. Why, the Israeli wonders, doesn’t he just go back to visit?

Palestinian and Israeli stare at each other for a long, long moment. I could sense the Palestinian character’s thoughts as clearly as if they were my own. Should he start by explaining about the expulsion and flight of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948, which is how his family ended up as refugees in Lebanon in the first place? Should he take a dip in history, back to the founding of Zionism in 1897, or the British promise to hand Palestine over to Zionist Jews in 1917 and the waves of Jewish immigration that followed?

Finally the Palestinian simply says, "It’s a long story."

It is indeed a long story, but a simple one. That simplicity is captured in all its complexity by Cup Final director Riklis. The ending is tragically inevitable.

Waltz too leaves the viewer shaken. But its absence of context is problematic because it produces not just an incomplete story but also a distorted history. The distortion is deliberately fed by the film’s publicity materials and by the many Israeli and international Zionist organizations that have embraced it, some going so far as to issue a viewer’s guide to the film.

This one sentence from the film’s website — echoed in the viewer’s guide — illustrates the missing context: "In June 1982, the Israeli army invaded South Lebanon after Israel’s northern towns had been bombarded for years from the Lebanese territory."

No mention is made of the fact that an informal ceasefire between Israel and the PLO had kept the border quiet for nine whole months. Then Defence Minister Ariel Sharon used the excuse of an attack on the Israeli ambassador to London by a renegade Palestinian group — one that was also anti-PLO — to launch his Lebanon invasion.

Does any of this sound familiar? In December 2008, Sharon’s political heirs launched a hellish assault on Gaza ostensibly to stop the rockets against Israel’s southern towns. Yet an informal ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that began in June 2008 had brought quiet to those towns — until an Israeli incursion on November 4 killed six Hamas fighters and led to a resumption of rockets, providing the excuse for the assault.

Waltz does not question the reasons for the Lebanon war, or even Israel’s role beyond its "indirect responsibility," as an Israeli inquiry put it, for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila at the end of the war. But some 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed during the 3-month war for which Israel was directly responsible.

The Lebanon war was illegal, just like the war on Gaza. It was also unnecessary because enemies that shoot at each other can reach peace agreements; friends don’t need to. Sadly, Folman’s film contributes to the widely-held (and widely wrong) view that Israel is a moral country on which war is imposed.

Peace is – must be – possible. Films like Cup Final help because, unlike Waltz, they contribute to an understanding that will lead to justice. Thinking back to the earlier film, I hope one day to meet Riklis, Bacri and the cast. Perhaps even next year in Jerusalem.

NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Insitute for Palestine Studies.