Dr Anna Ball‘s research is concerned with the intersection between postcolonial and feminist theory, particularly in a Middle Eastern context. She works with literature, film and video art; in ‘Looking the Beast in the Eye’, she considers cinematic representations of the First Lebanon War of 1982, exploring the monstrosity of trauma as a predatory beast that both hunts and haunts the present.
‘Looking the Beast in the Eye’: Screening Trauma in Waltz with Bashir [extract]
From Caroline Rooney and Rita Sakr (eds), The Ethics of Representation in Literature, Art, and Journalism: Transnational Responses to the Siege of Beirut (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp.71-85
Having looked the beast of the past in the eye, having asked and received forgiveness and made amends, let us shut the door on the past—not in order to forget it but in order not to allow it to imprison us.
It is the kind of place that we have all visited in our dreams: somewhere that at first seems drearily familiar, a nocturnal city scape perhaps, streets littered and rain sodden. Until you see the sky. Not black but a lurid yellow: a sickly light, the colour of phosphorous, an unnatural illumination of the darkness. Then, as you know they would, they come, all twenty-six of them, snarling and slathering, sleek black coats gleaming in the rain, eyes bright as flares. All night, they circle beneath your window, howl at you through you restless sleep, and though in the morning they will be gone, as dreams always are, you know they will return—for this is what it is to be hunted by this particular kind of beast.
The beast that hunts the dreamer through the streets of Tel Aviv in these opening moments of the Israeli animated feature film Waltz with Bashir (2008, directed by Ari Folman) is a familiar animal in the landscape of the postcolonial imagination. It is what archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his ‘Foreword’ to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, termed the ‘beast of the past’: a traumatic legacy of suffering, both endured and inflicted upon others, that continues to hunt and to haunt the political present. While, for Tutu, the ‘beast’ of South Africa’s past must be ‘looked in the eye’ in the service of ‘forgiveness’, ‘making amends’, ‘truth’ and ‘reconciliation,’ the ‘beast’ that hunts Folman in Waltz with Bashir is an altogether different species. This past does not yield truth or moral certainty quite so easily; it is instead ‘history’ as Joyce’s ‘nightmare from which I am trying to awake’ (Joyce 1922, p.42): a damaged archive of partial memory, representational traces, and uncertain meanings that surface through the realms of the unconscious mind, in which the dreamer is, in his or her own way, ‘imprisoned’. As we see from the self-conscious stylization of this opening scene to his film, then, Folman does not so much seek to look the traumatic political past in the eye as to screen the complexities of its representation—and in doing so, he invites us to reflect upon the broader ethical issues that accompany Israelis’ confrontation of their, and their nation’s past. Turning to two recent Israeli films that dramatize the experiences of Israeli soldiers in the First Lebanon War of 1982, Folman’s Waltz with Bashir and Samuel Maoz’s 2009 feature, Lebanon, it becomes possible to explore the ways in which the cinematic mediation of these soldiers’ experiences through a discourse of trauma leads to an ambivalent ‘screening’ of the past in which the drive towards representation seems also to entail an aversion of the gaze from the ‘beastly’ moral and ethical complexities that surround this traumatic history.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, ‘Foreword by Chairperson’, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, vol. 1. <http://www.polity.org.za/polity/govdocs/commissions/1998/trc/index.htm.> Chapter 1, Paragraph 93
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: Penguin, 2000)