Middle East / Raya Morag

Perpetrator Trauma and Israeli Cinema

Making distinctions between testimony given by the victim and confession made by the perpetrator, Raya Morag ventures to define and analyse perpetrator trauma in Israeli cinema, post- second-Intifada.

Perpetrator Trauma in Israeli Cinema

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unfolding since the beginning of Zionist settlement in the area during the 1880s and lasting until this very day, is the longest running ethno-religious conflict in the modern era. It is a conflict that is constantly intensifying, escalating through the course of seven wars, two Intifadas (Palestinian uprisings), and a series of short-term armed confrontations.

Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Israeli War of Independence/ Palestinian Nakba (‘catastrophe’), an average of one war or armed conflict has occurred every six years. The Israeli Occupation (of 1948, but particularly of 1967) has enforced colonial and neo-colonial dependency and subjugating relations on Palestinian society. This is evidenced by the more recent eruption of two Intifadas, Palestinian suicide terrorism, and Israeli state terror; it has contributed to the sharp polarisation of Israeli society into left and right camps, and led to major political-religious upheavals, specifically the rise of the settlement movement and the growth of Jewish, as well as Islamic, fundamentalism. The protracted conflict has determined not only the national agendas of Israelis (and Palestinians), but their psychological and creative ones as well. In other words, the representation of the conflict has to a certain extent become an ethical criterion for assessing Israeli narrative and documentary cinema. The incessant need to respond to news-driven reality, ostensibly a creative limitation, may in fact have become a criterion for evaluating Israeli morality, past and present, enabling Israeli cinema, especially documentary, to drastically subvert traditional concepts. One major route of subversion is the post-second Intifada new wave of films (and literature) that represent the trauma of the perpetrator.

The second Intifada period posed a challenge for the Israeli documentary maker. The moral position Israelis assume vis-a-vis the Occupation and its representation, in particular of the ethnic-religious-national other, comes to bear on documentary filmmaking. Israeli documentary is a cinema of constant struggle: the reality in which it is created is imposed not only on its protagonists, but on its makers as well. Moreover, it struggles to express that which fictional cinema fails to deal with. As part of the struggle, the new wave of documentary films strives to tackle a repressed set of conceptions. Both in trauma cinema research and in Israeli public discourse and narrative cinema the figure of the post-traumatic perpetrator is repressed.

Every period has its own imagines mortis (images of death), which in times of war and trauma, of course, have a special resonance. In 2008, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman was one of the first documentarists to challenge local as well as world cinema audiences with his post-trauma as a war perpetrator. In his celebrated docu-animation Waltz with Bashir, Folman, who is the screenwriter and the director of the film, portrays an imaginary ‘dance of death,’ or danse macabre. The dance scene, representing a traumatic event that took place twenty-six years earlier in West Beirut’s Khamra quarter, in the midst of the Lebanon War, shows an Israeli platoon trapped by invisible snipers. The snipers are shooting into a central junction from the upper floors of surrounding buildings while Lebanese civilians stand on balconies watching the battle ‘as if it were a movie.’ In the midst of the chaos, when Israeli soldiers, shot trying to cross the junction, lay on the ground (shown from the snipers’ point of view), and others, trying to reach the wounded, are trapped and shot, a turning point occurs. As Folman’s voiceover tells us, Israeli solider Shmuel Frenkel leaves the soldiers’ inadequate hiding place on the street, grabs a MAG machine gun, and amid heavy enemy fire enters the junction. Instead of crossing to the other side, Frenkel stays in the middle, shooting in all directions as if in a trance, ‘dancing a waltz between the bullets’ to the sound of Chopin’s Waltz in C Sharp Minor.

His waltz embodies, of course, the fantasmatic element of mastery over death and winning the battle. Instead of the snipers luring the Israeli soldiers into the trap, the dance was meant to expose the snipers’ hiding place by focusing their fire on the dancer. Frenkel’s danse macabre with the Lebanese snipers reflects, that is, on the subject position of the living-dead. The mise-en-scéne, however, reveals that the dance is significant beyond that one trap: It not only portrays Frenkel at the center of the frame, but also the huge poster images of the recently assassinated Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel pasted on the walls around the junction.

The historian Johan Huizinga claimed that in the Middle Ages the danse macabre was positioned against the backdrop of the fierce emotions death generates in times of war, plague, and famine. In the well-known danse macabre of medieval murals, the dancers are led by a corpse or a skeleton, which often tug or draw the living to Death. In a series of danse macabre woodcuts by German painter and draughtsman Hans Holbein the Younger, published in Lyon in 1538, for instance, as in the above described scene, Death surprises one victim after another; often very violently. Folman’s voiceover, which, as we recall, reflects on Frenkel’s memories interwoven with Folman’s own convoluted memories of the war, tells us that Frenkel’s dance took place when ‘two hundred meters from the junction, Bashir’s followers were planning their revenge, genocide in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.’

Who symbolises the dead, then, in the junction scene, and who embodies the living? A real waltz is performed by couples dancing closely, and Frenkel’s is obviously an ironic-tragic statement on Israel’s failed ‘couplehood’ with Bashir. However, this danse macabre is also a portent of the extremely horrific trap yet to occur. Waltzing with Bashir aims to interrogate all possible kinds of military and moral traps – whether collective or individual, experienced by victims or by perpetrators – with the aim of redefining what seems to be an unbinding trap: the traditional intermingling of the victim and perpetrator subject positions. It is my belief that the film offers a new perspective on the question of responsibility and guilt, the skeleton and the dancer, in light of the changes that current twenty-first century new war and trauma entail.

Proposing a new direction in cinema studies dealing with national traumas, one that for the first time recognises a shift from trauma suffered by victims to that of perpetrators, requires a new epistemology: this new avenue requires its readers to break deep-seated psychological and psychiatric, as well as cultural and political, repression.

As an Israeli leftist scholar, caught in the trap of being symbolically and practically part of a regime of an occupation I detest, it is my aim to define the horizon of the new epistemology in order to pave the way for acknowledgment of perpetration deeds done in my name in the Occupied Territories. Thus, I see the path to a new epistemology, hopefully shared by other cinema trauma scholars who interrogate similar events and films, as one leading to possible reconciliation. Reconciliation, in contrast to conflict resolution, I suggest, must include a changed psychological orientation towards the other. As I see it, we need to overcome the deeds of the other, of ourselves, to fulfill our deep moral obligation towards the ethnic other. ■

Waltzing with BashirRaya Morag is the author of the new book Waltzing with Bashir: Perpetrator Trauma and Cinema. She is an Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

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