Off the Wall – Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War – A Review

Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War
Zeina Maasri
I. B. Tauris, 168 pg

Every war has its own aesthetic. As bad as it sounds to equate art and style which often had a connotation of beauty and goodness to war, the need to solidify group membership, demonize the other, and provide a vision of the future with its implicit sense of triumph, lend themselves to symbolic interpretation through art. The poster in the modern industrial world is a cheep, quick and disposable medium that has been one of the most common ways to mix art and war. Even if a faction could not afford radio or TV, the poster was available, and that ease of production has left many enduring images that shape the impressions of a war. For Americans, the Uncle Sam I Want You Poster from World War I or Rosie the Riveter from World War II, are as important to the iconography of those wars as a trench scene or raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

It is with these ideas in mind that Zeina Maasri approaches the 150 posters that make up the richly printed collection from the Lebanese Civil War. Maasari finds in the posters reflections of an aesthetic and a politics that were unique to Lebanon. While she notes that the posters may seem at first similar to the propaganda posters of the wars of the 20th century whose goals were to inspire and demonize, the posters in Lebanon, due to the sectional nature of the conflict, were more focused on establishing control and marking territory. Since the lines between combatants were not always marked out clearly, the posters became a means of showing areas of control and describing who was in power. At the same time, the posters performed their traditional role of forging group cohesion. Moreover, Maasari points out that politics in Lebanon for at least the last half of the 20th century was marked by factional dynasties that provided leadership for each group, and whose leaders passed leadership from father to son; thus, the posters often served the dual role of emphasizing the role of the leader as the head of the faction and reminding the view of the faction’s strength. Finally, religion is an important element in many of the posters, especially as the Shiites moved away from the traditionally left leaning parties to the religious.

From these elements which Maasri outlines in a series of insightful chapters that mix the history with posters, the reader can understand not only what the posters mean but their context. Providing context is not a simple task when describing the Lebanese Civil war. The shifting allegiances, numerous parties, and different leaders make it difficult to follow the evolution of the war and the posters. However, Maasri provides a brief introduction to each faction (although she might have noted their general tendencies, such as left, right), a chronology of the war, and an in depth discussion of the posters. Her discussion is broken up into four themes, leadership, commemoration, martyrdom, and belonging, each of which is given its Lebanese context. The chapter on leadership is probably the most helpful, since it is difficult to know who all the iconic leaders are. It also helps to understand how the parties were led by dynasties. The chapter on martyrdom probably is of most interest outside of the civil war. While Maasri sticks only to the war, the concept of martyrdom is comes up in the news, and her explanation of how the various parties developed the posters from almost simple funeral announcements for soldiers killed in battle to symbolic representations of the dead, complete with drawings of the act.

Most of the posters are available on-line at the American University of Beirut, but unless you can read Arabic or the occasional French, it will be hard to understand what is going on in the posters. If you are even a bit interested in the subject the book is worth a read. The only draw back of this otherwise well written book is the first chapter which is an example of everything that is wrong with modern academic writing. I read it, but it was painful and, worse, not really needed. Maasri’s analysis of the posters explains her thesis quite well and is much more palatable. You would do well to read the the chapters after the theory section and pay special attention to her detailed analysis of most of the posters. You will come away with a detailed understanding of the symbols of the factions in the civil war, so of which, like those of Hezbollah, still are effective.

Waltz With Bashir – A Review

To use the word beautiful is obscene, and powerful is the over used cousin of interesting, and so the best word to describe Waltz With Bahir, the brilliant film from Ari Folman that captures the alienation and denial that comes with the savagery of war, is unsettling. From its blend of haunting images and music to its searing yet dispassionate exploration of one man’s participation in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Waltz With Bashir is not just a simple war film, but a pained conscience from one of the more ugly episodes between Israel and Beirut.

From the outset as a pack of wild dogs run down an Israeli street, knocking over chairs and tables in outdoor cafés only to stop and look stare up at a haunted veteran, you know the film is going to mix the horrific and disturbed flash backs to not only explain the war itself, but its power to still haunt the survivors. At first images—the pack of dogs, men bathing under flare light—are shown without any explanation and they seem otherworldly, figments of an unsettled mind. All you have are the uncontextualized images as if to simulate the fragmentary nature of memory. Folman, though, can’t can’t remember what happened during the war. All he can remember is swimming on the Beirut sea shore at night while flares light sky. It is one of those hauntingly beautiful moments of cinematographic war that maybe shouldn’t exist, but gives one the impression of complete senselessness—why should one even have the chance to bathe as if it were your private beach, while bombs are falling else where? Yet like a similar scene in Apocolapse Now that makes beauty out of the perverse it shows the soldiers as they truly are: isolated in a world where beauty can become flares over a destroyed city.

To find recover his memory, Folman begins to interview his comrades. The men often talk for some time and through the interviews the film regains its documentary quality. The interviews give the story more than just one voice and let the soldiers have a chance to speak for themselves. They also help to illustrate Folman’s point that memory of war, especially the most traumatic incidents, are seldom remember accurately, if at all. Between the interviews Folman recreates the scenes the men describe. The scenes are typical of so many soldiers sent into modern, urban warfare—young men who are scared, who shoot at anything, and are more interested in drinking and going to clubs, and whose frustrated ambivalence only makes the lives of the populace worse. There are the heroic moments when a soldier swims to safety after all his comrades are killed, and the horrific when the men shoot up a family in a car.

Folman continues to weave scenes together, some adding more details, others countering what came before, but each succeeding scene showing the war in darker and darker terms, until he finally gets to the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It is here that the full weight of the move comes and it is clear that for Folman this was the worst part of the war for him and even though he didn’t remember the camps, he could remember an image that he shows over and over and only at the camps do we understand it. We understand that the movie, like the war itself, has been moving relentlessly towards the massacre and each of the interviewees, soldiers like himself, tell what little part they had, but how they knew or sensed that something was wrong or are just haunted by it now. And when the killing is done and the soldiers move back into the camps they describe what they see and at first it is drawn, an animation like the rest of the movie, but then Folman switches to actual fotage. Perhaps the animation is no longer subtule; perhaps it places too many layers between the actual and the viewer. It is strong stuff and he wisely ends the movie there with little comment.

For Folman the war was a senseless in so many ways and Israel deserves a great deal of blame for the massacre. The movie portrays the whole incursion into Beruit as a mistake that didn’t lead to anything positive. It lead to senseless deaths of Israelis and Beruitis and in Israel no one even seemed to care. In one of the more disillusioning moments, Folman returns home to Israel for a 48 hour leave and finds that life has gone on as if there wasn’t a war going on. He notes that in the 1973 war everyone stayed at home, but in this war they are at clubs. Folman, if he was not already uncertain about the war, now feels farther from its purpose and farther from the civilian world that doesn’t even care what is going on in its name. It is in these contrasts, between home and the front, massacres and soldiers on drinking bouts, that Folamn questions the war and suggests if it was so easy to ignore, so easy to get carried away, so easy to feel purposeless, then why did we fight it, and maybe this is why he had forgotten it.

Stylistically, Waltz With Bashir is impressive, blending what seems at times completely realistic with the unreal that only animation can provide. Although documentary suggests hard edged reality, the use of animation brings a greater realism to the story because it illustrates the perceptions and memories more than the flat realism that stock footage could provide. Moreover, animation lets the movie movie past pure documentary into the interpretive where the viewer sees the film maker’s interpretation of the scenes, even though the viewer is also hearing the narration from the participant. It creates a dual layer of story telling and one that checks the veracity of the other. The use of music, too, is more than just documentary filler, but a the subtle rejoinder to the hopelessness. The score itself is sparse, and in between are Enola Gay from OMD and This Is Not A Love Song from PIL that add a dark and disjointed feel to the film. The scene in the club when Folman is on leave uses PIL’s sarcastic sensability to underscore the futility of Folman’s experience.

All of these elements, the animation, the score, the interviews, make Waltz With Bashir a brilliant and troubling film that will stick with one for quite some time.