An intense and horrific gaze into the abyss of human evil, “Massacre” consists of intercut interviews with six perps from an Israeli-backed rampage that slaughtered an unknown number — estimates range between 1,000 and 3,000 — of persons in the Palestinian camps of Beirut in 1982. Eschewing re-enactments and masking interviewees’ faces, pic is as difficult a visual experience as it is emotionally, with no opportunities for auds to focus their attention elsewhere. Pubcasters may find this too stygian (on all levels) for general viewing, but documentary fests are a surefire destination.
Film begins with a hand drawing a circle and an unseen voice explaining that the dots surrounding the circle are where people were lined up, throwing corpses into a pit, in an effort to forestall their own deaths. However, men, women and children were all killed without mercy, and all ended up in the pit.
It’s a powerful introduction to the three-day massacres conducted in Sabra and Shatila camps in September ’82. While there are few visual details of events, squeamish viewers should be warned that listening to the descriptions does not get any easier throughout the film’s 99-minute duration.
Opening voice is that of one of six men who agreed to talk to the filmmakers about their involvement. None were under any obligation to do so, as they were protected by a “civil war” amnesty enacted by the Lebanese government in 1991.
The militiamen responsible are said to have been drawn from the Forces Libanaises, a Lebanon-based Christian militia group with political connections to Israel. Only the militiamen entered the camp at the time of the massacre; but the Israeli army (led by then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon) reportedly assisted in the group’s training, dispatch and clean-up. For the most part, docu allows the men to explain what they did, how they did it and why they did it. One man expresses the belief that, trained to the point of frenzy by the Israelis, they were each turned into human time-bombs. In general, they speak emotionlessly: “Go in and kill everyone” is how one matter-of-factly explains his orders.
While their faces remain hidden, the men slowly become identifiable through their voices and other features. One sports a crucifix tattoo, another plays with his pet cats, another fiddles with a plastic cup. Yet another sweats profusely. As they are confronted by photographs of the massacre, both framing and lighting create the illusion that they’re relating their stories from barely decorated, impersonal jail cells. Final anecdotes may prove too overwhelming for some viewers.
While pic does address the political motivations and racial prejudices of the interviewees, its overall effect transcends the subject at hand, and allows parallels to emerge with other travesties.
Helmers’ bold decision to stick with the voices and the body language of the participants, rather than augment the drama in any way, pays off, though the result may be less effective when seen on TV. Tech credits are deliberately rough and contribute to the intense atmosphere. Film picked up the Fipresci (international critics’ association) prize for best film in Berlin fest’s Panorama section.