Review of “Waltz With Bashir”

[by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith]

Though the events illustrated in Israeli director and filmmaker Ari Folman’s extraordinary, animated documentary film, “Waltz With Bashir,” occurred in 1982, in Lebanon, they are timely, considering Israel’s recent unleashing of its U.S.-backed war machine on Palestinians in Gaza.

Folman made his film in collaboration with art director David Polansky and director of animation Yori Goodman. Polansky and Goodman animate Folman’s narrative mostly in subdued tones, but also in saturated, surreal colors, and with the oblique, disorienting angles of a German expressionist film.

Some scenes could’ve been taken directly from recent documentary films on Iraq and Afghanistan. If anything, “Waltz With Bashir,” illustrates the truism of the futility of war, that war never changes anything.

The film opens with a frightening, almost 3-D scene of an animated character, a friend of Folman, being chased by exactly 26 slathering, yellow-eyed Doberman Pinchers. This is a recurring nightmare the man has suffered for decades. He had been a soldier in the Israeli Army in 1982 when, under General Ariel Sharon, the Israeli army (IDF) attacked the Palestinians in Lebanon.

Folman also fought in the Lebanon war. He claims he doesn’t remember being in Beirut during the massacres of civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of Shabra and Shatila, carried out by the right-wing Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia to avenge the assassination of their Lebanese president, Bashir Gemayel.

Folman decides to talk to former soldiers, who either knew about the slaughter or remembered being there with him. He also talks to psychiatrists about retrieving 20-year-old repressed memories.

The former soldiers Folman interviews (shown in animation) are middle-aged, and live comfortable lives as wine-makers, educators, doctors, or journalists. In the making of the film, all but two spoke in their own voices. With their help, Folman begins to remember firing flares that illuminated the night sky, providing the Phalangists enough light to execute their night-long slaughter.

He and the other soldiers are bothered by the stupidity of all that evil. Folman wonders how he could’ve allowed himself to be a part of it. Some of his memories come to him as breathtakingly beautiful hallucinations: Under palm trees on a beach, playing volleyball, listening to rock music, drinking, smoking weed—scenes reminiscent of film clips of American soldiers partying in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palace.

Some scenes are like a swift kick in the gut. The raw recruits have been ordered to “shoot anything that moves.” They land on a beach, Normandy-style, and flop down in the sand, automatic rifles ready. These are baby-face boys, not much older than 19; eyes wide with the fear of the unexpected.

A broken down Mercedes sedan rattles up to the beach. Panicked, the boys start shooting. The car jumps and bounces with each strike, as the driver tries to pull away. The car then groans and settles like a dying beast. Then all is quiet. The soldiers approach gingerly, and see unrecognizable bloody ribbons of flesh that were once a family.

There was a question at the time as to whether Ariel Sharon knew of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Sharon had spent months planning the war. He had met secretly with Lebanese Christian Phalangist allies whom he planned to help install as Lebanon’s government once the PLO was out of Beirut.

The IDF asked Phalangist militiamen to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The militia subsequently massacred civilians inside. Sharon’s culpability is illustrated in the film in a scene showing an Israeli journalist calling “Arik” (Sharon’s nickname) at his ranch, to ask him if he knew of the massacre. He answers, laconically, in the positive.

After the war, the Israeli government set up the Kahan Commission to investigate. It subsequently found Israel responsible, but only indirectly. The Commission stated that Israeli commanders should have been aware of the possibility of a revenge attack following Gemayel’s assassination. They also found Sharon personally responsible for not only “ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge” but also for “not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed.” It recommended his resignation as head of the Defense Ministry. After first resisting, Sharon finally stepped down.

Comments on the film from some Arab blogs are positive. However, one blogger wondered why Arabs couldn’t make something similar. Another felt that Folman’s film gives no answers.

In an interview, Folman told the JTA (The Global News Service of the Jewish People) he always intended to make “Waltz with Bashir” as an animated film: “When you look at everything that there is in this film—lost memory, memories of war, which are probably the most surreal things on earth, dreams, subconscious, drugs, hallucination—it was the only way to combine one fluid storyline,” he said.

“If it was a classic documentary, it would have shown middle-aged men telling their war experiences and it would have to be covered with footage that you could never find and wouldn’t come close to resembling what they went through. It would be a boring film. And if you made a big action movie with the budget of an Israeli movie, that would just be sad.”

In another view, Natalie Rothschild wrote on the Website JEWCY, in December 2008, that Folman’s film, though beautifully rendered and artfully scripted, is a big narcissistic mea culpa, a “spectre that haunts post-Zionist Israeli society.” She calls the film, “Post-Zionist Stress Disorder.”

She stated that though Folman believes his film is apolitical, it “conveys a disturbingly skewed account” of the war. Folman, she says, feels the IDF soldiers were “victims of circumstance,” and that the film “is not only incredibly self-obsessed, it is also a striking evasion of responsibility.”

She also quotes Folman on the atrocity as believing that the Christian Phalangist militiamen were fully responsible and that the Israeli soldiers had nothing to do with it. Rothschild states that as a 19-year-old conscript, he could say he was following orders, but now, as an adult, he “could recognize that several parties hold responsibility for what happened.”

The final scene of “Waltz”” shows Folman standing before shrieking, grief-stricken Palestinian women, leaving the camps, and we see that he finally recognizes his part in the massacre. The horror is made real when the film segues from animation to archival footage of the devastated survivors of the camps. As the camera moves over the rubble, one is sickened by the corpses of brutally slaughtered men, women, and children. Perhaps Folman’s film attests to his and the perpetrators’ guilt; however, it may offer atonement, as well.

“Waltz With Bashir” has won several awards and an Ophir, Israel’s equivalent of an Oscar, and has been nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

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