Ari Folman, “Waltz with Bashir” (2008)
Few movies about war must be as personal and intense as this animated film about an Israeli ex-soldier’s gradual acknowledgement of the part he played in a specific war-crime incident in 1982 – the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Lebanese Phalangist militias, for whom units of the Israeli Defense Forces gave cover, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut during the Lebanese civil war – through his recovery by various means of memories he has repressed since his military service in the early 1980’s. Film-maker Ari Folman’s personal odyssey begins when a friend, Boaz, tells him that he (Boaz) has been having recurring nightmares about being pursued by 26 dogs through city streets. Boaz’s recovered memory, which he attributes to the time when he shot 26 dogs as a soldier serving with the Israeli Defense Forces in Beirut in 1982, triggers memory flashbacks for Folman; until then, Folman had no memory of what he did as a young teenage soldier. Folman determines to discover what he got up to during military service by visiting and interviewing old friends and a journalist. The stories they tell him are harrowing and painful. Folman consults a psychiatrist and others who discuss with him topics like repressed memory, recurring dreams and their meanings, mental dissociation and the consequences of such phenomena when they continue for too long and are never brought into consciousness. Gradually by recovering his memories, Folman is able to reconstruct where he was and what he was doing in Beirut in mid-September 1982; the revelation of his part in the massacres, however indirect, is horrific but not surprising.
The film deals with the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, manifested as memory repression, insomnia and unpleasant recurring dreams, in individuals like Folman and his friends, and the parallel recovery of an important historic event which still remains deliberately suppressed by many people within and outside Israel and Lebanon as a major war crime. Major people who could have prevented the massacre either directly or indirectly have never been punished or censured appropriately for their failure, deliberate or otherwise, to act. Yet the massacre itself and the context it occurred in obviously had a deep effect on the soldiers who participated: one friend, Carmi, once an outstanding school student, left Israel to open a falafel-selling business in the Netherlands after finishing military service. This reviewer had the impression that other friends like Boaz and Ronny also achieved much less in their lives than they could have as a result of their army service. Perhaps “Waltz …” could have made a more general point about how compulsory military service has affected generations of Israelis and how its effects have percolated through Israeli society and values but this might have widened the film’s scope too much and risked making it unfocussed.
Choosing animation over a live-action format is a wise move: the animated approach, which includes hand-drawn animation and flash cut-outs, turns the film’s structure away from a documentary genre to a historical fiction genre into which dreams and repressed memories can be reconstructed and replayed. The approach also allows the film to be flexible, flying from an interview into a memory flashback or a dream, then back into real life in a smooth flow. Even if Folman had opted for a live-action approach, he still would have found it necessary to portray flashbacks as animated or semi-animated to alert viewers of the change. The animation does look awkward and amateurish at first – characters look stiff, their heads are too big, their movements are sometimes jerky – but it does have a definite three-dimensional look, especially when the scene draws back from viewers. Transport technology like helicopters and tanks are rendered realistically if not in detail. The predominant use of colours like yellows, browns, greys and murky blue-greens give a very surreal look to large parts of the film; in later scenes in the movie where there is much fighting and killing, the yellowish-brown tints to the sky and bullet-ridden buildings in Beirut along the Mediterranean shoreline give the impression of Hell on Earth.
The animation is at its most effective in scenes where the young Folman is on leave and goes back home; he feels distant from the life whizzing around him in the streets. People behave as if there is no war and Folman senses the disconnect between his experiences in southern Lebanon and life at home. What impact that disconnection must have had on him is never investigated. One very beautiful and quite surreal scene is one in which Folman and Carmi sit on a couch in a field of flowers; another great scene is one where Israeli soldiers are walking through an olive grove while the sun beats down and the trees leave shadows over the soldiers. Suddenly a hidden Arab boy with a rocket launcher on his shoulder lets fly with a projectile that flies in slow motion past the soldiers and blasts their tank apart: beautifully poetic yet very shocking and horrifying.
Whether the recovery of his memories has been therapeutic for Folman, the film doesn’t say: the revelation of what did happen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in mid-September 1982, turning from animation into actual newsreels of the massacre and its aftermath, and Folman’s role in aiding the Phalangist militias lead to an abrupt and open ending. No accounts from relatives of the murdered Palestinians are included, no death toll is given – the figures are still disputed but Folman could have included the minimum and maximum figures in a title card – and there is no mention of Israel’s Kahan commission which found Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Defense Minister, personally responsible for the massacre. Such omissions weaken the film’s impact by making it appear a self-pitying sob story with no end. More could also have been said in the film about the culture of the IDF; there’s a hint in a scene where a senior officer watches a porn film that the army is a corrupt and dysfunctional institution.
Viewers need to know the broader context of Israel’s involvement in southern Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war, in particular the IDF’s role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, to be able to follow the film’s narrative which does fly back and forth between past and present. An appreciation of the consequences of Israel’s intrusion into the Lebanese civil war helps: after all, the Hezbollah movement formed in south Lebanon at the same time to resist Israel. Some repetition is to be expected with a theme that includes repressed memories and flashbacks.
“Waltz …” is a brave and confronting attempt to investigate the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder and its symptoms of repressed memory, flashbacks and recurring dreams, and how this investigation brings an entire historical event, still lacking proper closure, to collective consciousness, perhaps in the hope that it may lead to collective healing for a generation of Israelis.