Waltz with the Oscars

February 26, 2009 by

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The first time I saw “Waltz with Bashir” it was with a bunch of Jewish educators. “It is going to win an Oscar for sure,” we speculated. But more than an extensive pre-Oscar betting, the kind that occupies Hollywood and the Academy days before the show, our prediction (however wrong it might have been) was a part of a different pre-game analysis.

Any newspaper reader or BBC listener would tell you that Israel is a state whose military machinery is at the center of the society, and that engaging in war, security and defense is most (if not all) that the country does. (It might even be surprising to some people to know that the citizens of the country have time for much else – like making eggs for their kids in the morning or making love to their partners at night).

One of the questions this group of educators was asking itself was, “how will this film, a tell-all about one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history, going to play to mainstream Americans? Will the image of Israel, as a war-mongering country, only be confirmed in exchange for a couple of $10.00 movie tickets on a Saturday night?” And how would this film be viewed by next gen American Jews, whose relationship with Israel ranges from irrelevant at best and hostile at worst? How on earth would a film like this one help the cause of inspiring a connection the way that programs like birthright israel do? What kind of educational materials should we create which could offer “context” and “framing” so that those who see the film will understand it in all of its richness and complexity?

The second time I saw the film, it was with an Israeli friend, and we were consumers of popular culture along with everyone else. We both agreed that the film was incredibly courageous and a cinematic triumph. We were struck by how particular the film was to Israel (my friends said to me, “I know these characters in the film, my friends who were in Lebanon are just like them”). And how universal its message was as well – in short that war is hell, whether it is in the rice paddies of Vietnam, the urban streets of Bagdad or in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. We left the film proud that the Israeli cultural scene, and Ari Folman in particular, created such a cinematic tour-de-force which can compete on the world stage. That alone, is a celebration worth noting.

What would it look like for mainstream Americans and American Jews to know Israel by its cultural creations more than from its latest military actions? To know that productions like Waltz with Bashir speak to an Israeli society in which its citizens are complex, family and friendship-centered, troubled and cowardly, passionate and courageous, and capable of self-analysis at every turn. The arts enable us to hold multiple truths comfortably. They provoke conversations and questions, and do not offer easy answers. For Israel to animate our lives in any serious way, we need to look beyond the headlines…to the arts. And that would be worth an Oscar, indeed.

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