Waltzing on Yom HaZikaron
Naomi is a proud alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class XIII. She is currently an Assistant Professor in Hebrew and Israeli Culture at The Ohio State University. Naomi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently, I was asked to answer questions and facilitate a discussion after a campus screening of the Israeli animated film Waltz with Bashir on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. “College students won’t show up at a regular Yom HaZikaron ceremony”, the organizer insisted, “I think a movie can be more powerful. Plus, they’ll come to a free movie.” My first reaction was skepticism. I’ve been to my share of ceremonies in Israel and the United States. At best, they can be poignant and meaningful when a text, song or image strikes a chord. Often, they can be predictably solemn, with a crowd of earnest listeners who breathe a sigh of relief mixed with satisfied responsibility as they walk out the door. But a movie? And of all movies, Waltz with Bashir?
Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman, 2008) is an intense exploration of memory, trauma and responsibility surrounding Israel’s first war in Lebanon and massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. It is – in my opinion – violent, painful, soul-searching, and eminently worthwhile. But is it the best way or even an appropriate way to commemorate Yom HaZikaron? To use a metaphor from everyday life with young children, it felt sort of like trying to slip spinach inside of a brownie, sneaking vitamins and nutrients in a more palatable form.
Still, the organizer’s comment about the power of movies resonated with me. I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of visual representation recently as film has become increasingly central to my teaching. This year, I premiered a new class on Israeli film, combining my own interests in Israeli culture with efforts to attract a broader student population and strong enrollment numbers. Classes on film, whether on or off campus, tend to appeal to college students and not just college students. Movies are effective teaching tools, particularly in a world in which many are more comfortable discussing and analyzing what they see onscreen than what they read in a text. Places, people, histories, narratives come alive onscreen in ways that are difficult to achieve through more traditional methods. And, as several different theories of film suggest, film spectatorship is a conscious activity, that is to say, spectators have to actively construct meaning as they try to make sense of what they are seeing. Clearly, there is a great deal of potential in teaching through film.
At the same time, I’m also very aware of the risks of over-reliance on the screen, of becoming addicted to the crowd-pleasing aspects of visual media. As a high school student and into college, I remember that movies were rewards and convenient solutions for an absent teacher; they were excuses to doze off in a darkened classroom or surreptitiously pass notes or (these days) text friends. At school and elsewhere, we are often passive or complacent viewers, no matter how thought-provoking a film may be. The challenge, then, becomes how to cultivate participants rather than spectators: how to watch constructively and critically and often, skeptically; how to talk about film and how to empower others to talk about film.
With trepidation, I agreed to participate in the Waltz with Bashir program. As I sat in the dark theater watching the film for the second time, I was staggered by how resonant it was for me on Yom HaZikaron. I was engrossed in the memories of soldiers who were animated so compellingly, caught up in the stories of individuals. Watching and wrestling with what was represented onscreen was a different kind of commemoration than the collective experience of a traditional ceremony, in many ways more personal. Afterwards, I facilitated a discussion among the dozen students who had stayed for conversation. Together we grappled with the intensity of the film, its disturbing images and its spotlight on historical events that would be easier to gloss over. We didn’t talk much about Yom HaZikaron, truth be told, but I think that our conversation was certainly a form of commemoration. Then we stood around talking and eating brownies, real brownies.