Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir

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October 16, 2009

It is difficult to categorize Ari Folman ’s extraordinary film Waltz with Bashir: a cinematic autobiography, a war documentary, a meditation on trauma and memory, a hybrid of reality and fiction, or an acid-like cinematic trip. Every category equally applies.

With the outbreak of the 1982 Lebanon War, a 19-year-old Folman was among the IDF troops who invaded Lebanon to wrest the country from the PLO and Syrian forces, with the hope of establishing a new order in the Middle East. More than 20 years later, on a stormy winter night, Folman sits in a bar in Tel Aviv, conversing with Boaz, an old friend, who tells him of a recurrent nightmare: 26 ferocious canines are storming through the streets of the city in search for him. When Folman asks Boaz how he can be certain that there were exactly 26 such beasts, Boaz relates his experience during the 1982 War.

He was, Boaz tells Folman, among the forces sent to clear villages of PLO fighters. Too squeamish to actually shoot people, Boaz was assigned the task of to liquidating village dogs, to ensure that their barking would not inform locals of approaching soldiers. Boaz shot 26 dogs altogether and can remember, he assures the director, each and every one of them. When Boaz turns to Folman and questions him about his own nightmares, Folman is surprised to realize that not only has he no nightmares, but, more than that, he cannot remember a single thing about his military service in Lebanon. His mind is a blank.

The conversation with Boaz triggers Folman’s memory though, and, after two decades, he begins to have dreams about the war. One dream repeatedly returns to haunt him. In this dream, Folman finds himself bathing at night, along with other soldiers, in the sea of Beirut on the eve of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Moved by splashes of illuminating bombs, the soldiers emerge out of the water, get dressed, and begin walking through the empty streets of the Lebanese city. Compelled by his dreams as well as by a growing bewilderment about the absence of memories, Folman begins to interview friends and comrades who served with him, who could tell him where he was during that massacre.

Through these interviews, Folman reconstructs the course of the Lebanon war, from the early euphoric days of the Israeli invasion to the horrific climax in the battle over Beirut and the massacre in the refugee camps. His interviewees tell him not only of their experience, but also of their dreams and nightmares, both during and following the war. Waltz with Bashir thus presents a jigsaw puzzle of interviews alongside dramatized past incidents from the war. These are interspersed with the dramatization of interviewees’ dreams and nightmares and by Folman’s own creeping images of his Lebanon experience. What emerges from this jigsaw puzzle is the unbearable burden that continuously slips beneath the bourgeois mask of Folman’s interviewees and threatens to undo their lives, if not their very sense of self.

One interviewee, for example, who currently works as a senior nutrition engineer, calmly tells of a battle in which he participated as a tank loader. A couple of tanks were hit, and their crew members tried to escape, but were shot one by one by Palestinian snipers. The only tank crew member to survive, he found refuge behind a rock only to see the rest of his platoon reversing itself, leaving him behind. At nightfall, he made it to the sea and swam south. When he finally gets back to shore, the tanker reconnects with the unit that deserted him. To this day, he finds it impossible to talk to the relatives of those soldiers killed in that incident.

Harrowing as these stories are, they are less disturbing than Folman’s interview with Ron Ben-Yishai, Israel’s most distinguished military correspondent. Ben-Yishai was the first journalist to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps following the massacre. As the killing was still taking place, Ben-Yishai relates, he was informed that Christian militias had entered the camps. Rather than rush to them, he returns to his apartment in Beirut to host a dinner party for the officers of one of the Israeli regiments stationed in the city, where he is informed, once again, that a massacre is unfolding. Ben-Yishai proceeds to call Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon, who assured him that things were under control. The following morning Ben-Yishai makes it to the camps, only to witness the Israeli regional commander arriving at the same time to order an end to the violence.

What is disturbing about this interview is, first and foremost, Ben-Yishai’s seeming lack of self-awareness. Indeed, unlike the soldiers Folman interviews, Ben-Yishai does not appear to be troubled by his experience of the war. Privileged with a perspective unavailable to any of the soldiers or even officers stationed in Beirut during the conflict, Ben-Yishai was (and still is) impervious to how his close links to the Israeli army, as well as to the country’s political establishment, have impacted his reporting. Ben-Yishai mistakenly took Sharon at his word, neglecting his duty as journalist to investigate whether the former Defense Minister was lying. Ben-Yishai thus fails to acknowledge how he himself has played a role in perpetuating the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

Be that as it may, what makes Folman’s film truly extraordinary is his decision to animate the whole film and thus to produce a truly unique work, an animated documentary. The refined cutout animation that Folman and his chief animator Yoni Goodman employ, which gives Waltz with Bashir the appearance of a graphic novel, molds the divergent materials into a coherent and cohesive whole. At the same time, it makes the film all the more difficult to tag, because it blurs and make imperceptible the line between reality and fiction, between real-life experience and visual hallucination.

Waltz with Bashir’s animation is most impactful, however, precisely when it is purposefully dropped in the final scene of the film. Folman has successfully determined his whereabouts during that faithful night of the hassacre; Folman has by now determined that he was among the supporting troops providing tactical support to the Christian militias operating in the camps that night. His assignment was to light up the night sky with illumination bombs, to assist Phalangist forces. As Ron Ben-Yishai enters the camp, the animation gives way to archival video footage of the dead bodies of the massacred Palestinians, reappear briefly one more time to display the shocked expression of young Folman, now among the troops surrounding Sabra and Shatila.

Folman’s film has been censured, both in Israel and abroad, by those who have argued that his quest for his memories of Sabra and Shatila ends up relieving Israel of responsibility for the massacre. Indeed, the director has been quoted as saying that, “One thing for sure is that the Christian Phalangist militiamen were fully responsible for the massacre. The Israeli soldiers had nothing to do with it. As for the Israeli government, only they know the extent of their responsibility. Only they know if they were informed or not in advance about the oncoming violent revenge.” Yet, directors are not always the most reliable commentators on their own films, and Folman’s comment above is a case in point.

To view Waltz with Bashir through the perspective of Folman’s statement is to miss the most pertinent question that the film raises: What does it take to show images of torn Palestinian bodies, not the corpses of terrorists or militiamen, but of seemingly innocent civilians? Indeed, visual images of the dead have become more and more prevalent in the media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, the growing obsession with images of lifeless bodies— an obsession that could be traced back to the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, the Al Aqsa Intifada—has been largely limited, at least insofar as the Israeli media is concerned, to the corpses of victims of Palestinian attacks, and to those of the perpetrators of these attacks. Rarely—with a few notable exceptions—has the Israeli media shown images of the dead bodies of Israeli operations.

Israeli cinema—features as well as documentaries—followed suit, and generally avoided showing pictures of dead Palestinians. To the extent that Israeli films did include footage of them, they stylized these images along the lines of the Hollywood war and action thrillers. Dead bodies were thus cleansed of signs of violence, except for the token gunshot wound.

Eran Riklis’s 1991 film Cup Final, for instance, about the growing bond between a small group of Palestinian fighters and their Israeli hostage during the first Lebanon War, depicts the death of its Palestinian protagonists in a final shootout in a manner reminiscent of such films as George Roy Hill’s 1969 western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. More recently, Joseph Cedar’s film, Beaufort and Tamar Yarom’s film on female soldiers who serve in the Occupied Territories, To See If I’m Smiling, have focused exclusively on the traumas suffered by Israeli soldiers during their service, leaving all images of Palestinians outside of their frames.

Yarom’s documentary is particularly interesting in this context. Its name is taken from the story of Meytal, an IDF female medical officer, who served in Hebron and who was charged, among other duties, with the cleaning of Palestinian corpses to hide the signs of violence done to them by Israeli security forces. On one occasion, Meytal recalls, one corpse had an erection, eliciting embarrassed laughter from those soldiers who were washing it. When another soldier with a camera passed by, Meytal asked her to take her photo with the corpse. Now Meytal is eager to find out whether in the photo she’s smiling. To this end, she pays a visit to one of her friends from the military service, who still holds a copy of the said photo. Yarom’s camera focuses on Meytal as she takes out the photo out of the album, and records the growing pain on her face. The photo is never shown.

Previous Israeli films have quite literally concealed dead Palestinians, and excluded it from their field of vision. In doing so, they have elided the most visceral and direct manifestation of Israeli violence to Palestinians. The final scene of Waltz with Bashir, by contrast, tears the cinematic curtain open, displaying Palestinian dead, almost as though they were being seen by Israeli eyes for the very first time. Yet, as the film makes clear, there is a price to be paid for such a visual honesty.

Several mechanisms enable the final scene. The first is the traditional form of the narrative. Indeed, it is rather obvious, even banal: the movie moves straightforward from the director’s initial realization about the absence of memory to a final moment of “total recall.” There are few, if any surprises in the way the film illuminates the inhumanity of war. Such simplicity is required for the imagery in this scene to be effective.

Most problematically, the visual breakthrough of this final scene is combined with Folman insisting that no Israeli soldier is to be held responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It should be noted that, without having exonerated the IDF, the film probably could not have become part of Israeli public discourse and would have been dismissed by most Israelis as aelf-hating propaganda. Quite ironically, however, Folman undermines this, as though he anticipates having to make this concesssion in order to show such unprecedented imagery to Israelis.

Folman thus asks the commander of the Israeli tank squadron that was stationed just outside the refugee camps about when he first realized that he was witnessing a massacre. Folman’s growing bewilderment at the failure of the Israeli commander to realize what was unfolding directly in front of his eyes casts grave doubt on his assertion that Israeli soldiers were not culpable in the massacre. Indeed, it seems that notwithstanding his own statement, by focusing on the tactical support with which the Israelis provided the Christian militias, and on Israel’s failure to stop the massacre, Folman quietly implicates the Israeli army in the killings.

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