Director: Ari Folman
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Boaz tells his friend Ari, a filmmaker, of a recurring nightmare he has. 26 bloodthirsty dogs wait ominously at the door of his apartment. Boaz suspects it reflects his experiences of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war and the memories he has repressed. Unable to kill any Palestinians, he killed the same number of dogs that patrolled the village. Ari himself has repressed memories of this war, but one memory of the Sabra and Shatila massacres becomes increasingly clear. By speaking to Boaz and other interviewees, he tries to remember his own experiences of the conflict. These include Carmi, whose promising future was interrupted war, Roni who was the only survivor of a Palestinian attack on his regiment and now struggles with the guilt and Frenkel, who took the attack to the enemy when surrounded, literally dancing around bullets as if in a trance. These men all have their own traumatic experiences of the conflict. Through these discussions, and also those with psychologists and journalists, Ari begins to recover his memories, realising the most prominent of those referred to the masscare of Palestinians by Phalangists. Then Folman cuts to real documentary footage of the aftermath of the massacre.
‘Waltz with Bashir’ was a rare animated nominee for the Palme D’Or this year. Although it eventually lost out on the main prize to ‘The Class’, it was nevertheless one of the most discussed films at the festival, and already looks to be a contender for inclusion in the Best Foreign Language film at 2009’s Academy Awards. Described by the director as an “animated documentary”, it examines real people and real events during a particularly turbulent time in the Middle East region; the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
A provocative film about war and post-traumatic disorder, it reveals, if not Israel co-operation in the massacre of Palestinians by the Phalangists in Lebanon, then Israeli passivity, standing by whilst the atrocities occured. The collective amnesia of a number of characters involved in the conflict could act as a simple metaphor for the collective amnesia of the Israeli nation, an unwillingness to recall or accept responsibility for their involvement. The individuals involved in the conflict are either consciously or subconsciously in denial about what took place, and discussing their memories and trying to unpick them becomes a cathartic experience. Folman, for instance, may not have been physically involved, but still feels part of the massacre and has deep feelings of guilt. The honesty of Folman in trying to investigate an unsavoury moment in his nation’s history should be applauded in one respect; it is far closer to the bone that one might have expected, but on the other hand ‘Waltz with Bashir’ might lend itself to accusations of being overly self-indulgent, with individuals trying to exonerate themselves from their role in a shocking event rather than investigating how it happened or why it happened on any deeper level. Moreover, the event is shown solely from the Israeli perspective. This is not an even-handed account. Palestinians are faceless and nameless enemies, seldom shown as human beings, but cannon-fodder during war, whether dead or alive. Folman would rightfully respond that his film is his personal experience of war, therefore it is only natural that it would focus on events and people he knew, but the ignorance of the wider political context is of concern.
Folman could have produced ‘Waltz with Bashir’ as a straight-forward documentary, complete with discussions with interviewees. The issue with using animation techniques is that when he reveals atrocities, they become less potent and shocking because they lose their sense of realism, lessening their physical and emotional impact upon the viewer. However, animation allows Folman to use his imagination to greater effect and create a surreal and expressionist environment, giving the impression of “war as hell”. The opening scene of Boaz’s recurring nightmare sets the tone. Certainly one could not imagine a more natural representation of this. There is also Folman’s own recurring nightmare; of he and two others emerging naked from the sea, with a sky coloured a dark and ominious yellow. These hallucinatory images remain implanted in one’s memory long after the film has finished, though this is more likely because of the imaginative use of animated techniques, somewhat similar visually to the work of Richard Linklater on ‘Waking Life’ (though there was no rotoscoping involved) and with the influence of graphic novels, rather than because of the content of them.
Also intriguing is the use of sound in the film. It is par for the course that directors making war films utilise a pop music soundtrack and Folman indeed does this, but it is interesting what kind of soundtrack he gives his film. There is ‘Enola Gay’, the OMD single which referred to the bomber which launched the atomic bomb upon Hiroshima (this is surely not a coincidence), as well as more overt Israeli propaganda pop music, including ‘Lebanon’ and ‘Beirut’, both of which fully endorse the invasion. Folman’s comments upon the use of popular culture to encourage support for conflict and also to reflect it is especially insightful. No doubt these songs would have been broadcast during the conflict and continued to exacerbate divisions between Israel and its neighbours.
Folman’s final 50 second sequence will be seen either as immensely powerful or rather shameless, as he cuts to real documentary footage of the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Since he has only shown us the conflict through the perspective of surreal animation techniques, creating a detachment between himself and what took place, it is questionable whether Folman has earned the right to show us the full, naked horrors of the massacres in the flesh. Folman has left himself open to accusations of exploiting this footage somewhat. Whatever one’s reservations about ‘Waltz with Bashir’, and it is fair to say that it certainly has its drawbacks; it is one-sided and has little in the way of political context, it is a visually inventive film that deals with trauma, guilt and memory and admits a nation’s participation during a shocking event.