PRINT November 2008


Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir

TEETH BARED, OCHER EYES BLAZING, the dogs of war are rampaging through the streets of a strangely depopulated Tel Aviv. The pack grows as it runs, until twenty-six howling horrors surround a nearly featureless building—gray like all the buildings in this desolate city, where the only color is the yellow-orange of the sky, dyed to match the dogs’ maddened eyes. From the sole window, a cowering figure looks down at the beasts that have come for his blood. This is the opening sequence and inciting narrative incident of Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, which made its US debut at the New York Film Festival last month. That it is an animation—as is the entire film, excepting the devastating final newsreel images—does not diminish its terrifying impact.

The sequence depicts a recurrent nightmare, which the sufferer, a middle-aged Israeli named Boaz, recounts to Ari, the director of the very film we are watching. Both men did their compulsory military service during the 1982 Israeli incursion into Lebanon. Because Boaz was incapable of shooting people, he was assigned to liquidate stray dogs so that their barking would not alert the Lebanese to the Israeli soldiers’ presence. Some twenty-five years later, the hounds have returned snarling from the dead to haunt his dreams. Unlike Boaz, Ari has never had flashbacks of the war. More disturbingly, he realizes that he can remember nothing of what happened in Lebanon. He tracks down his former military comrades, hoping that their memories will stir his own. No sooner has he embarked on this journey than he begins to have flashbacks as well.

Waltz with Bashir is an autobiographical documentary and an exploration of the dynamics of memory with regard to trauma, repression, and guilt. The Bashir of the title is Bashir Gemayel, the charismatic leader of the Lebanese Christian Phalangists, who was assassinated in 1982, just after he was elected president of Lebanon. Gemayel had made a deal with then Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon to deport to Tunisia the Palestinian fighters who had been threatening Israel’s northern border. After Gemayel’s assassination, the Phalangists took revenge by massacring more than three thousand Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The Israelis did not participate directly in this atrocious act of ethnic cleansing. They were the enablers, waiting outside the camps, sending up flares at night so that the Phalangists could find their victims more easily. For Folman, the child of Auschwitz survivors, the sight of Palestinians being herded into trucks or lined up and shot was too much to deal with. He could not bear to be in a position analogous to that of the Nazis (or at least to that of the Germans who knew yet did nothing), so he repressed the experience entirely. That is the explanation given by Ori, his best friend, who is both a shrink and a filmmaker.

A collage of past and present and of the memories, nightmares, and commentaries of a half dozen people, Waltz with Bashir implies that the excavation of a historical trauma involves individual responsibility and collective will. Folman interviewed eight former soldiers, among them a post-traumatic stress disorder expert, a prominent television journalist who, as a young man in the army, had been one of the first Israelis to enter the camps after the massacre, and half a dozen men who served with the director in the military. These videotaped interviews became the basis of the animation. The film looks as if it were rotoscoped (a process in which drawings are traced over live-action footage, as in Richard Linklater’s similarly deranged Scanner Darkly [2006]), but Folman and his animation team, the Bridgit Folman Film Gang, in fact, employed a combination of Flash, 3-D, and classic animation techniques. First, the entire movie was shot on video as live action. The video was used as the basis for storyboards, from which twenty-three hundred drawings were derived and then animated. The visual style is expressionist, with prominent shadows, heavy outlines, and faces that look like wood-block carvings.

Destabilizing perspective, subtly loosening flesh from muscle and bone, the animation suggests the hallucinatory experience of war as powerfully as any film ever has—including Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Landing on the beach in Lebanon, teenage soldiers, wrenched from discos and girlfriends and their mothers’ kitchens, face combat for the first time. Panicked, they fire nonstop at anything that moves. In their first battle action, they slaughter an innocent family in a car, and it gets worse from there. The film takes its name from a sequence in which an Israeli sharpshooter, holding his automatic rifle like a dance partner, waltzes along a street lined with enemy snipers as Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” plays on the sound track and the camera closes in on a giant poster of the face of Bashir, riddled with bullets. Like Alice falling into the rabbit hole, the film plunges deeper into the psyche until Folman’s nineteen-year-old self comes face-to-face with the horror he would refuse to acknowledge for the next two and a half decades: distraught women running toward him, fleeing the camp where piles of bodies lie amid the rubble. At that moment, the animation gives way to news footage of the camps in the aftermath of the massacre. Unmediated by memory or subjectivity, this is the historical record. And then, abruptly, the film is over. Folman makes no attempt to connect the slaughter in Lebanon in 1982 to the murderous conflict between Israelis and Palestinians today. There are those who will be troubled by the suspicion that the filmmaker has unwittingly fallen victim all over again to the same unconscious mechanism of repression that the film so unflinchingly exposes; it is more likely, however, that he credits his audience with knowledge and intelligence enough to draw the appropriate parallels for themselves.

Waltz with Bashir opens in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 26.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.