The specter of the First Lebanon War and the eighteen-year occupation of southern Lebanon still haunts Israeli society. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Israeli film industry. Kobi Niv’s Look Back into the Future: The Israeli Cinema and the 1982 Lebanon War is an exploration of three Israeli feature films—Beaufort (Joseph Cedar, 2007), Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008), and Lebanon (Shmuel Maoz, 2009)—that won much international acclaim (including several major prizes) as innovative investigations into the horrors and lingering scars of that war. Niv tries to understand the attraction these films may have for audiences in Israel and overseas, but mainly what they may reveal about Israeli society today.
Lebanon takes place during the first day of the war (June 6, 1982), as it is seen by an Israeli tank crew through the canon periscope. Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary following the middle-aged director in his journey to resurrect suppressed memories of his involvement in combat during the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps (September 16–18, 1982). Beaufort takes place eighteen years later, during the last days of the Israeli occupation in Lebanon (2000). It is the story of soldiers in the “last Israeli stronghold,” the ancient crusader fortress of Beaufort. [End Page 211]
Because he is interested in the films’ success in the stories they tell, and in the social meanings they hold as contemporary artifacts, Niv offers a dual perspective: cinematic and sociopolitical. At the cinematic level, Niv finds that, despite differences in genre and aesthetics, all three films share a view of the Israeli soldier as an innocent victim trapped in a war he is unable to make sense of, and he is consequently neither accountable nor responsible for his actions. Drawing from political analysis and historical data, Niv demonstrates that the films rewrite history so as to minimize Israel’s active role in it, in particular Israeli involvement in the war crimes at Sabra and Shatila. Niv provides ample historical evidence of Israel’s active involvement—at all levels of military and governmental hierarchy—in the Lebanese war, yet the films deny it. In particular Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon, which both acknowledge the connection between the Israeli military and the Christian Lebanese Phalangists, attempt to detach their protagonists from any real-time knowledge of events or retrospective responsibility for them. This is especially reprehensible to Niv, as the films were produced nearly twenty years after the events took place, and their directors clearly have this information today.
The story of Beaufort is different, as it takes place not at the height of fighting but on the eve of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. For Niv, through the story of dismantling the last Israeli military post, the film presents the downfall of the old ruling class of Ashkenazi (European-descended) Jews and the rise to power of a new Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jewish elite in the commanding ranks of the Israeli army. Citing relevant sociological data, Niv claims that, in this “trilogy” of films, the veteran Israeli elite—to which all three directors belong—attempts to “brush off ” its responsibility for the war’s atrocities, not only by denying any affiliation with the Lebanese Phalangists but also by dissociating itself from nationalistic military zeal and passing on the blame to a new social group, for whom the military came to be a central channel for social mobility.
This ethically questionable dissociation of the soldier from the war absolves him and the spectator of responsibility. In the three films, claims Niv, the war is seen as a force majeure, with the dissociated Ashkenazi Israeli man seen “sitting in his tanks and forts, being constantly attacked for no reason by faceless enemies who want to destroy us” (28). This perspective...