"Waltz with Bashir" -- a strange film uses anime to tell Israeli soldiers' memories of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres
Friday 26 December 2008
Inside a Veteran's Nightmare
Waltz with Bashir
Ari Folman and David Polonsky / Sony Pictures Classics
by A. O. Scott
“Waltz With Bashir” is a memoir, a history lesson, a combat picture, a piece of investigative journalism and an altogether amazing film.
Directed by Ari Folman, an Israeli filmmaker whose struggle to make sense of his experience as a soldier in the Lebanon war of 1982 shapes its story, “Waltz” is by no means the world’s only animated documentary, a phrase that sounds at first like a cinematic oxymoron. Movies like Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10” have used animation to make reality seem more vivid and more strange, producing odd and fascinating experiments.
But Mr. Folman has gone further, creating something that is not only unique but also exemplary, a work of astonishing aesthetic integrity and searing moral power.
That it is also a cartoon is not incidental to this achievement. Art Spiegelman, in “Maus,” turned an unlikely medium — the talking-animal comic book — into a profound and original vehicle for contemplation of the Holocaust. Similarly Mr. Folman, crucially assisted by his art director, David Polonsky, and director of animation, Yoni Goodman, has adapted techniques often (if unfairly) dismissed as trivial into an intense and revealing meditation on a historical catastrophe and its aftermath. “Waltz With Bashir” will certainly enrich and complicate your understanding of its specific subject — the Lebanon War and, in particular, the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Phalangist fighters at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps — but it may also change the way you think about how movies can confront history.
Why did Mr. Folman, who has worked on more conventional documentaries in the past, decide to use animation in this one? The answer to the question is another question: How else could he have recorded dreams, hallucinations and distorted memories, his own and those of other veterans? The core of “Waltz With Bashir” is a series of conversations between the director, depicted with graying hair and a thoughtful demeanor, and other middle-aged Israeli men who were in Lebanon in the summer of 1982, when the Israeli Defense Forces pushed up through the southern part of the country toward Beirut. Most of them were in the western part of that city from the 16th to the 18th of September, when Christian militiamen slaughtered as many as 3,000 civilians, ostensibly to avenge the death of Bashir Gemayel, Lebanon’s newly elected president, who had been assassinated a few days before.
More than 20 years later Mr. Folman confronts his interlocutors amid the trappings of their relatively calm daily lives. (All the interview subjects speak in their own voices except for two, whose dialogue has been dubbed.) One lives in the Netherlands, where he owns a chain of falafel restaurants. Another appears in a martial arts studio. Others reminisce in their apartments or in bars, and as each tells his story, the scene dissolves and we see a younger version of the same man — usually leaner, perhaps cleaner-shaven or not as bald but still recognizable — in the nightmarish landscape of war. The freedom afforded by animation — a realm where the prosaic standards of verisimilitude and the inconvenient laws of physics can be flouted at will — allows Mr. Folman to blend grimly literal images with surreal flights of fantasy, humor and horror.
At one point a soldier, passed out on the deck of a transport boat, dreams of a giant naked woman who climbs out of the water and cradles him in her arms. At other times rough, cynical pop songs (with lyrics like “Good Morning Lebanon” and “Today I Bombed Beirut”) play out over montages of chaos and destruction. Mr. Folman is haunted by a weird recollection of naked soldiers walking onto the beach in Beirut as the city’s bombed-out skyline is illuminated by flares.
These are highly personal images, culled from admittedly unreliable memories, but it is precisely their subjectivity that makes them so vivid and authentic. “Waltz With Bashir” is not, and could not be, the definitive account of the Lebanon war or the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Instead it’s a collage and an inquiry. “Can’t a film be therapeutic?” one of Mr. Folman’s friends asks him early in the movie, and in a way everything that follows is an attempt to answer that question and interrogate its premise. It depends on what is meant by therapy, and on who is undergoing it.
The complicity of the Israeli command in the atrocities at Sabra and Shatila was established by an Israeli government report by the Kahan Commission in 1983, which found the military indirectly responsible for the actions of the Phalangists.
What no commission of inquiry can precisely define is the responsibility of the ordinary soldiers who were nearby, witnessing the slaughter and allowing it to continue. And this ethical question becomes more and more urgent as Mr. Folman’s patient probing brings him closer to the awful facts his mind had suppressed for so long.
Since it was shown in Cannes last year, “Waltz With Bashir” has attracted a lot of attention and a measure of controversy, some of it surrounding the very last moments of the film, in which the animation stops and the audience is confronted with graphic, horrifying images of real dead bodies. This ending shows just how far Mr. Folman is prepared to go, not in the service of shock for its own sake, but rather in his pursuit of clarity and truth.
The Israelis who were witnesses and (mostly inadvertent) accomplices to the killing, and who came home from the war to lives of relative normalcy and tranquillity, have the time and the means to reflect, to explore, to engage in therapy. The victims are beyond any of that, and the blunt literalness of this film’s denouement is a reminder of that unbridgeable gap between the living and the dead. It is also Mr. Folman’s way of acknowledging that imagination has its limits, and that even the most ambitious and serious work of art will come up short against the brutal facts of life.
“Waltz With Bashir” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has graphic violence, sex and brief nudity.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Ari Folman; animation by Bridgit Folman; art director and illustrator, David Polonsky; director of animation, Yoni Goodman; edited by Nili Feller; music by Max Richter; produced by Mr. Folman, Yael Nahlieli, Ms. Folman, Serge Lalou, Gerhard Meixner and Roman Paul; released by Sony Pictures Classics. In Hebrew, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes.