AS AMBITIOUS as it is macabre, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir introduces a new kind of film: an animated documentary. Based on Folman’s own experiences as a young soldier during Israel’s 1982 campaign in Lebanon—in particular, in the days leading up to the Sabra and Shatila massacres—the film focuses on the confusion, guilt, and trauma that stay with soldiers long after they come home from war.
The film, which was Israel’s submission to the foreign film category at this year’s Oscars, takes its name from a scene in which one of the young men in Folman’s unit, half mad with fear and adrenalin, fires rounds from his machine gun in a jaunty circular motion underneath building-sized posters of Bashir Gemayel—the Lebanese Phalangist party leader and Lebanese president-elect who was assassinated on September 14, 1982. Gemayel’s murder, which occurred only days before he was to take office, set off the chain of events that resulted in the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in southern Lebanon.
Gemayel’s Phalangist supporters were blamed for the massacre, which was perpetrated under the pretense of ridding the refugee camps of Palestinian guerillas, but was understood to have been motivated by a desire to avenge Gemayel’s assassination. Also censured were the Israeli Defense Forces, who controlled the camps at the time, and, according to Israel’s 1983 Kahan Commission, should have foreseen the danger of a massacre and denied the Phalangists entry into the camps.
The question of blame, however, is one that Folman largely avoids in favor of probing the psychological ramifications of the events—specifically, their effect on the Israeli soldiers who participated in the 1982 campaign, most of whom were only nineteen or twenty years old and were unprepared for the brutality that they would encounter. Folman (who also wrote and starred in the film) realizes one evening, upon talking to an old friend, that he cannot remember his involvement in the 1982 invasion; in order to fill in the blanks in his memory, Folman tracks down the men with whom he served and asks them to recount their experiences. As he speaks with each of them, Folman’s memories of the days leading up to the massacres become more and more clear, and he races towards the terrifying question of what role, if any, he played at Sabra and Shatila.
Much of the story is told through the flashbacks of Folman and his friends, pictured in the past as younger, thinner, but immediately recognizable versions of their present selves. The former soldiers—now psychiatrists, judo masters, writers, business owners—recount details of the invasion that they believe are real, along with dream visions that seem no less real.
One man watches as a beautiful, giant goddess emerges from the sea, picks him up, and cradles him while his transport ship goes up in flames; another man, whose unit has forsaken him after a surprise attack, floats aimlessly in a haunted sea, only to meet up with the remainder of that same unit several miles down the shore; an Israeli platoon in an apple orchard dodges terrorist children with machine guns, evading fire so delicately that their movements look like a dance. The line between what has happened and what has been invented is intentionally blurred, and the animation allows the seamless shifts from present to past and from reality to subconscious.
The last two minutes of the eighty-seven minute film are not animated. They consist of newsreel footage taken in the aftermath of the massacres, horrific images made all the more potent and devastating by their distance from the animation. It is fitting for the film that concerns itself with the psychological responses to fear and trauma that the “monster”—video shots of mangled bodies, strewn amidst the wreckage of their homes—is revealed only at the conclusion.
But beyond its creative technique and its grisly portrait of warfare, Waltz with Bashir is perhaps most noteworthy for its ability to cross boundaries between two aggrieved populations. Israeli films are officially banned in Lebanon; however, a private screening of the film was held in a suburb of Beirut on January 17, 2009 and yielded a turn-out of 90 people–a hopeful indicator of the film’s potential to bring about dialogue between Israeli and Arab groups. If so, the film will go a long way toward fulfilling Folman’s ambition: “In principle I don’t believe movies can change the world, but I’m a great believer in their ability to form small bridges.”
Ilana Garon is working on a book about her teaching experiences, entitled Don’t Be Wilin’ Out: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx.