THE FILM SCHOLAR IS A WEEKLY COLUMN THAT FOCUSES ON ASPECTS OF FILM THEORY AND FILM HISTORY. THIS WEEK WE WILL LOOK AT 2008’S WALTZ WITH BASHIR AND 2019’S QUEEN & SLIM AND THE WAYS THEY EXPLORE THE THEME OF MEMORY, SUBJECTIVE AND COLLECTIVE.
Tel Aviv, Israel / New Orleans, USA.
“Memory permeates the cinema’s narratives, plots, and models of narration, from mainstream entertainment cinema’s subordination of the memory flashback to the exigencies of economical and coherent linear narration, to the foregrounding of memory and its vicissitudes in recent mainstream U.S. entertainment film” (Radstone, 2010). This quote from Professor Susannah Radstone shows how memory in all its forms (individual, collective, traumatic, real, recent, distant, implicit and more) has been explored at depth in films of all genres and from all periods of time, with movies directly dealing with the theme of memory like The Butterfly Effect (2004) and Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), or movies analysing the historical heritage that memories carry like Spike Lee’s latest film about African American Vietnam veterans Da 5 Bloods (2020).
Being an art form that since its creation has projected humanity’s fears, hopes, imagination and different cultures, cinema has perhaps been the clearest example of how anyone’s memory is deeply connected with broader historical and political concerns. Throughout the decades, in fact, there have been countless national film movements that have shown, through the style and themes adopted by the filmmakers, the cultural background and historical traumas they carry, like the Revolutionary Cinema of Latin America, Italian Neorealism, New German Cinema and more recently New Iranian Cinema.
It would be hard for a filmmaker with a vision about the art he wants to create to make a movie in which his own culture does not show. For German philosopher Walter Benjamin, indeed, “the cinema becomes a technology for the advancement of (political) consciousness in the modern era of ‘post-memory’” (Radstone, 2010). The two films chosen for this essay are no exception, as Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir (2008) and Malina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim (2019) respectively deal with personal memories as well historical memories and cultural traumas, and they both belong to modern movements and narratives: the Israeli Documentary Cinema and, as Jordan Ligons describes it, “the post-Black Lives Matter storytelling arc” (Ligos, 2019), represented by an increasing number of films like The Hate U Give (2018), Blindspotting (2018) and Detroit (2017). This essay will ultimately analyse the fil rouge that connects individual and collective memory to historical issues.
Waltz With Bashir and Perpetrator Trauma
The first aspect to be analysed is the role of memory in the 2008 documentary Waltz with Bashir. This “animated documentary charts the director’s quest to recover his lost memories of the 1982 massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon” (Morag, 2012), as his recalling of that time has been mostly blocked out of his memory. Folman only has a vague memory of him and two fellow soldiers swimming near a beach in West Beirut as flares come down from the sky. This sequence is shown several times throughout the movie as the director starts to remember his role in the atrocities and finally comes to terms with it. The film deals with memory on two distinct levels: one is the individual memory in correlation to the perpetrator trauma, the other is the collective memory that results in an historical inheritance that goes from one generation to another.
Perpetrator trauma has been an important yet controversial theme of recent Israeli documentaries, as there has been a “failure of current Israeli fiction film (especially the war film genre) to address perpetrator trauma” (Morag, 2012). Such a theme is incredibly difficult to explore, as “it is somehow taken for granted that psychological trauma research from Sigmund Freud’s Etiology of Hysteria (1896) to the present has been carried out from the perspective of identification with the victim” (Morag, 2012), which has caused it to be an extremely rare issue that has only recently been analysed in other Israeli documentaries like Z32 (2008) and To See if I’m Smiling (2007). As a matter of fact, due to the central theme of Folman’s film, Waltz with Bashir has garnered criticism as some considered it to be “overly self-indulgent, and too focused on the existential pains of the invaders, rather than on the horrors endured by the Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila then” (Harner, 2012).
Nevertheless, concentrating on the figure of the perpetrator and his trauma is the only way Folman could have made the movie as his own therapy session for coming to terms with the atrocities he has indirectly taken part in. Indeed “commentaries on trauma and film propose that trauma films have the potential to provide a cultural ‘working through’ of traumatic memories” (Radstone, 2010). Throughout the film Folman interviews fellow soldiers who have distinct memories of war and they show their guilt and regret in every way, from what they say to the fact that they do not want to appear in person in the film (therefore animation is used), but the director only circles around the matter and extent of his complicity in the massacre of the 1982 Lebanon War due to his lack of memory which, as it starts coming back, inevitably begins to increase his sense of regret.
This lack of memory ends up “collapsing objective and subjective reality into each other in some version of Idealism” (Terdiman, 2010), resulting in the dream-like sequence of the beach, which, as the memories come back, adds more reality into it, and finalises into the image of the women running away from the camp, right in front of Folman’s eyes. He must finally face reality. Garret Stewart perfectly describes the scene, as “closing upon the formerly glazed eyes of denial, the pinioning camera bores in on a prolonged close-up of Folman in his emerging awareness” (Stewart, 2010). Now that the memory is back, Folman can no longer distance himself from what has happened through an ‘animated world’ as the transition between “a censored private vision and returned mass of grief” (Stewart, 2010) brings reality in all its gruesomeness; the real footage of the women running away from the camps, screaming in agony as bodies lie dead in the background is the finish line of a journey towards remembering and taking responsibility for being the perpetrator.
In addition to the ‘perpetrator trauma’ analysis of the film, however, there is also an underlying theme of collective memory that is worth pointing out. The term “post-memory, described by Marianne Hirsch” (Morag, 2012), becomes a crucial aspect of the psychology of Ari Folman and in general of a big part of Israeli society in relation to memories of the Holocaust and its historical repercussions. It could in fact be argued that Waltz with Bashir “structures a casual narrative in which Folman’s missing memory and his uncanny unutterable feeling of guilt do not originate from his complicities and traumatic act of shooting flares but from horrific childhood memories related to the Holocaust” (Morag, 2012). In this way post-memory becomes the bridge that connects his individual trauma to the collective trauma caused by being an indirect victim (in Folman’s case) in an earlier time. Consequently, once Folman becomes the perpetrator and realises it, his sense of guilt is only duplicated by a feeling of betrayal of his own culture and society because “for the son of Holocaust survivors- raised under conditions of enforced symbolic captivity- becoming an (indirect) perpetrator in Lebanon caused the horrific figure of the Nazi, the direct perpetrator, to haunt his (post) memory” (Morag, 2012). What is ultimately worth understanding is that works on both the perspective of the individual memory in relation to the indirect perpetrator and that of the collective memory in relation to the indirect victim.
The Meta-Commentary of Queen & Slim
The second aspect to be analysed is the relationship between the role of memory in Queen & Slim and the historical and political issues brought up in the film. In Queen & Slim, as Julie Dash, director of Daughters of the Dust (1991), writes, director “Melina Matsoukas paints a picture of a resistance march, where black bodies are forced to negotiate life and death while navigating the highways and back-roads of America” (Dash, 2019). The analysis of the struggles of the African American community, past and present, has never been more prominent in films, also thanks to the emergence of new filmmakers who have finally been given the chance to tell the stories they want to tell the way they want to tell them. Queen & Slim is probably the clearest example of this. “An unapologetically black story told by black creators” (Ligos, 2019), Matsouka’s drama about a couple on the run after they are labelled cop-killers by the media deals both with the social issues happening today in the US, as well as acknowledging the historical difficulties African Americans have had for decades in being represented in the movie industry. In the book Film Blackness, in fact, Harry Allen discusses Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995), stating that “‘black filmmakers are burdened with the rope chain of ‘reality’ in ways white people simply aren’t” (Gillespie, 2016).
The collective memory of the way African Americans have been represented in films is one of the key elements black filmmakers, including Matsoukas herself, have explored in their work, as in fact “early black film images should be read as being polyphonic, ‘speaking of’ and ‘speaking to’ constructions of Blackness produced by both Whites and African Americans at the turn of the 20th Century” (Stewart, 2005). Matsoukas’ quote ‘For Us and By Us’ is a clear declaration of independence from a system that has not allowed black culture to be fully explored and its stories to be properly told. Only a few times, like in the 1964 drama Black Like Me, has cinema analysed the notion of black identity, while for the most part relegating it to false and offensive caricatures like in Birth of a Nation (1915), which already at the time was met with protests, particularly so by activist and journalist Ida B. Wells.
Focusing on Queen & Slim, however, memory plays a role not only in acknowledging the historical background of African American representation in American cinema, but also in the narrative itself. In the current political and social climate this movie could not be more relevant. The names of the protagonists are not revealed until the very end of the movie and this done for a reason; while being fictitious characters, they represent the trauma of a society which has been the target of violence for generations. “Their crime is being born black” (Ligos, 2019) and they know it; they are in the right, yet they know they must flee. The images of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd among countless others are fresh both in the characters’ minds and in the viewer’s mind. It would not have mattered the gender of the couple, their names, or their appearance; “race is the only identifier the audience needs to relate to their circumstances” (Ligos, 2019). Furthermore, the ending is shot in a way that the images of the funeral and the protests celebrating the protagonists could be shown on the news today and it would seem as real as any real footage of recent protests. It is a statement that while the story per se is fictitious, the film is still reminiscent of a social trauma as real and relevant as it gets, because “antiblack racism, white supremacy, and the Racial Contract are foundational and systemic features of American life” (Gillespie, 2016), from 1619 up until today.
In conclusion, Waltz with Bashir and Queen & Slim both have the topic of memory at their core, as they both explore how generational traumas, and the memories they carry, affect their protagonists, as well as the filmmakers, and their view of history and the world.
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(Spring 2010): 58-62. Jstor.
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Waltz With Bashir. Directed by Ari Folman. Performed by Ari Folman.
Israel: Bridgit Folman Film Gang, 2008.
Queen & Slim. Directed by Melina Matsoukas. Performed by Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie
Turner-Smith. USA: Universal Pictures, 2019.
The Butterfly Effect. Directed by Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber. Performed by
Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart. USA: New Line Cinema, 2004.
Memento. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Performed by Guy Pierce, Carrie-Ann Moss.
USA: Newmarket FIlms, 2000.
Da 5 Bloods. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors,
Clarke Peters. USA: Netflix, 2020.
The Hate U Give. Directed by George Tillman Jr. Performed by Amandla Stenberg,
Regina Hall. USA: 20th Century Fox, 2018.
Blindspotting. Directed by Carlos López Estrada. Performed by Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal.
USA: Lionsgate, 2018.
Detroit. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Performed by John Boyega, Anthony Mackie,
Algee Smith. USA: Annapurna Pictures, 2017.
Z32. Directed by Avi Mograbi. Israel/France: Les Films d’Ici, 2008.
To See if I’m Smiling. Directed by Tamar Yarom. Israel: First Hand Films, 2007.
Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Performed by Cora Lee Day,
Alva Rogers. USA/Germany: Kino International, 1991.
Clockers. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo.
USA: Universal Pictures, 1995.
Black Like Me. Directed by Carl Lerner. Performed by James Whitmore, Sorrell Booke.
USA: The Hilltop Company, 1964.
The Birth of a Nation. Directed by D.W. Griffith. Performed by Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh.
USA: Epoch Producing Corporation, 1915.
Credit: Waltz With Bashir: Property of Bridgit Folman Film Gang / Les Films d’Ici / Razor Film Production GmbH / ARTE / ITVS International / Nova Communications – Channel 8 / New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television / Medienboard Berlin-Brandeburg / Israeli Film Fund / HOT / YLE Teema / TSR / RTBF / SBS.
Queen & Slim: Property of Makeready / De La Revolución Films / Hillman Grad / 3Blackdot / BRON Studios