Banned Israeli animated film an underground hit in Lebanon

In the narrow alleys of the Shatila refugee camp, a group of young Palestinians sit around a TV watching a pirated copy of the recently-released hit animation film by Israeli director Ari Folman, Waltz with Bashir, dpa reported.

The audience are paying rapt attention to the spectacle of a film made by an Israeli which deals with one of the most painful episodes in Palestinians' living memory - the Sabra and Shatila massacres of September 1982.

The massacres - of Palestinian men, women and children - were perpetrated over three days by Christian Phalangist militiamen, as Israeli soldiers who were occupying Beirut at the time stood by. The massacres are remembered as one of the most brutal events in Lebanon's bloody recent history, and are infamous across the Middle East.

The exact number killed is - of course - disputed, with estimates ranging from 328 up to 3,500. The killings took place days after the assassination of Phalangist leader and Lebanese president-elect, Bashir Gemayel.

Gemayel gives his name to the innovative animated documentary by Folman, which retells the story of the massacre through the recollections of former Israeli soldiers who, as teenagers, witnessed the aftermath of the killings and took part in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon earlier in 1982.

It begins with Folman, as himself, realizing that he has no memory of his time in Lebanon as a 19-year-old soldier, and proceeds with his attempts to recollect it. It ends with the horror of the camp massacre itself.

The film won the prestigious Palme D'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival, and has been nominated for an Academy Award.

To watch this seminal treatment of one of the key moments in their history, however, the Palestinians in Shatila camp today must obtain a pirated copy of the film, as all Israeli films are still banned in Lebanon - the two countries are in an official state of war.

"I lost my father, my mother and my brother in this massacre, and you don't want me to see what this documentary says about it?" Zeina abu Rudeina asks with incredulity.

However, despite the official ban, copies of the film DVD are easily available in Beirut's Hamra Street - a busy shopping area.

One shop owner, who requested anonymity, told Deutsche Presse- Agentur dpa that "this week I have sold around 100 copies of the film. If films are banned, people are more keen to ask for it."

Even Lebanon's information minister, Tarek Mitri, told dpa that "I know the film has been legally banned in Lebanon, but I also know people can obtain it easily."

Lokman Salim, an activist with Lebanon's UMAM organization (Lebanese Association for Cultural and Artistic Exchange), which aims to preserve memories of war by screening movies related to Lebanon's conflict-ridden history, has defied the government ban and organized screenings for interested locals.

"It is essential that people see such movies," Lokman said, "this is part of the history of the country. People have a tendency to forget."

One of the most sensitive issues surrounding the Sabra and Shatila massacres is what exactly Israeli military leaders and troops knew - and did - during the killings.

Zeina abu Rudeina said that "the Israelis were just a few blocks away from the camp, and they knew something like this was going to happen. So they turned a blind eye," she said.

"You can clearly understand from the film that the Israelis were positioned around the camp and were aware of what was happening," she added.

Most Palestinians who were watching the film in the camp agreed that it should not have been banned in Lebanon.

Hani, a young man who only wished to be identified by his first name said that "this movie can't change the Palestinian situation ... but it has revived memories of the Israelis ... who seemed to have forgotten that such a massacre ever took place."

"People in this camp are still traumatized by the massacre, just like (the characters in the film)," he said.

Mona Hallak, an activist working to establish a museum of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, said that "it is essential to always remind people of the consequences of war."

"We cannot live in endless silence regarding dark periods of our history," she said.

In the camp at Shatila, where memory is most painful, the process of remembrance can, however, continue to fuel conflict.

"Our nightmares are always focusing on one point," said Hani: "Revenge."

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