“I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways — disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.”–Elie Wiesel
FEATURING: Ari Folman
PLOT: Director Ari Folman’s old friend describes a recurring nightmare where he is accosted by 26 angry dogs, a dream that is related to his experiences in the Lebanon War of 1982. When pressed about his own recollections, Folman notices that he only has one clear memory from the war: skinny dipping in the ocean while flares fall over Beirut. He interviews other friends who served with him in an attempt to remember what happened to him in the war, but no one’s memories match his own.
- The 1982 Lebanon War began when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in an attempt to stop Palestinian terrorists who were operating across the border. The Israeli’s sided with Christian elements in Lebanon—the Phalangist party—led by the charismatic Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel was elected President of Lebanon in 1982, but was assassinated after less than a month in office. Although a member of a rival Christian political party later confessed to the assassination, members of a radical branch of the Phalangists immediately blamed Palestinians for the killing and undertook a massacre in two refugee camps, systematically killing civilians. 1 The occupying Israeli army not only allowed the massacre to continue for two days, but shot flares at night to illuminate the streets at the Phalangists request, before ordering the paramilitary troops carrying out the massacre to disperse. An Israeli investigation found defense minister Ariel Sharon negligent for failing to protect the civilians from the Phalangists, and he was forced to resign his post over the resulting scandal. He was elected Prime Minister in 2001, however.
- Although often mistaken for rotoscoping, the animation in Waltz with Bashir is done cutout style, aided by computers (they actually used Flash). The scenes were filmed and then recreated by animators, rather than drawing directly over the film frames as is done in rotoscoping.
- Folman exaggerates his memory loss as a literary technique. On the film’s commentary track he explains that in reality he did not have a complete loss of memory, as depicted in the film, but he had suppressed his memories of the Sabra and Shatila incidents.
- Waltz with Bashir was banned in Lebanon and parts of the Arab world.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many choices here, from the scene of the soldier dancing in the middle of a firefight from which the movie takes its name to the devastating last forty-five seconds. But Waltz with Bashir hooked us with its first (and most) surreal image: the soldier who dreams he is rescued from his troop transport by a giant naked woman who emerges from the sea.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rabid dog revenge; backstroking giantess; Doberman porn star
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waltz with Bashir is a perfect example of our sliding scale for weird movies. Ari Folman has made three movies that dabble in surreal imagery; the other two (Clara Hakedosha and The Congress) are inarguably weirder. But Bashir is his morally complex masterpiece, the film for which he seems destined to be remembered. Groundbreaking in form, shocking to the senses and the conscience, it portrays war from a soldier’s ground-eye view as an absurd, half-remembered dream—but one with very real consequences, which emerge from the murk of remembrance into the harsh light of reality in the brutal finale.
Original American trailer for Waltz with Bashir
COMMENTS: A young man walks out of the ocean and stares at us. Searing yellow flares light the night sky, giving the waves, palm trees, and distant resort hotels an unreal gold glow. The image looks like it was etched onscreen with acid. The cutout animation in Waltz with Bashir looks so real that it is often mistaken for rotoscoping, and yet everyone moves in slow motion, with minimal expressions, as if sunk into their own private dreams. In fact, this psychological documentary documents dreams as much as it does memories; dreams of packs of dogs bent on revenge and of feminine saviors arising from the sea. It tries to depict the impossible: the way war plays out in the mind, rather than the way it plays out in reality. It’s a coping mechanism on film. Waltz with Bashir is pioneering as the first feature-length animated documentary (at least, the first to be widely distributed). Since there was little tradition of animation in Israel, it developed its own highly effective on-the-cheap style. It is also a rare example of the hybrid documentary, where some of the material is based on interviews, while some scenes are recreated (and in this case, lightly fictionalized). And while animation had been used in service of documentary before, and narrative documentaries are not radical, never have the two forms been combined with such success.
Oddly enough for a film that deals with the horrors of war, one of the most shocking moments in Waltz with Bashir occurs when Israeli soldiers, who have occupied a rich villa in Beirut, watch a German porn movie on video cassette. A plumber seduces a housewife, in garter belt and stocking, and we watch the (explicit) animated action as the handyman services her, complete with weak, perfunctory double entrendres about “tools” and “pipes.” In the film’s commentary, Folman explains that this scene is based on actual events, and that the Lebanese campaign was the first time he and many of his contemporaries encountered pornography; he also mentions that he was surprised by the pushback he got against the animation from his own producers and animators, not to mention exhibitors. The scene is shocking because we don’t often see such squalid interludes in polite movies, or in animated movies. Of course, it also serves as a sly joke on the audience. By this time we have already seen multiple murders—eight-year-old boys with RPGs gunned down, young men slaughtered in a drive-by shooting as they eat Wimpy’s hamburgers. Although these scenes sadden us, we didn’t bat an eye because we are accustomed to seeing death in war movies, and prepared for it. It has no power to surprise us. But our shock at the sudden sleazy sex scene forces us to wonder what is really obscene here.
The porn scene also serves as a good example of the subtle, offbeat surrealism of even Bashir‘s most naturally-depicted scenes. Consider the scenario: a private comes in to see his commanding officer, who is sitting in a chair with his pants off, muttering “fast forward, fast forward” repeatedly in a monotone to an enlisted man crouched by the VCR. The pantsless officer gives Folman orders to search for a red Mercedes which is rumored to be a car bomb. On the TV screen, a second woman in a miniskirt walks into the room as the plumber is plowing his fraulein over the kitchen table. She casually asks, “Is that your red Mercedes outside?” and then removes all of her clothes with a single flick of a riding crop she’s carrying. A doberman enters the scene, props his front paws on the table, and barks. That conclusion happens so quickly that the effect is almost subliminal, but we see here how Folman depicts his subconscious as mixing things up: the porno, which at first seemed banal and vulgar, resolves into a bad dream, while portions of his memory make their way into the story inside the story he is telling.
Bashir‘s most surreal scenes all take place at sea. A former comrade recalls a dream where a naked blue giantess carried him away from the war, doing the backstroke while he clung to her torso, his troop transport flaming in the background. In another vignette a different soldier swims his way back to his platoon, the sole survivor of an ambush. A rambunctious Apocalypse Now tribute shows young Israeli soldiers spend their free time on the beach, briefly surfing as shells fall into the waves. And the lone wartime memory Folman himself clearly recalls—which no one else remembers—is of swimming naked in the ocean. That memory inspires Folman’s psychotherapist friend to pronounce “What does the sea symbolize in dreams? Fear, feelings.” But more precisely, in Waltz with Bashir the sea represents a refuge from fear, a place of escape into hallucinations which are more comforting than reality. And Bashir‘s sea also symbolizes primal innocence; innocence, and guilt, being key themes in the story. The giant nude woman who spirits the sailor away is not erotic, but maternal—the soldier becomes like a baby in her massive cradling arms. And in Folman’s memory, he bathes safely in the sea as if he’s floating in amniotic fluid. But when he emerges from that innocent liquid cocoon, he puts on the uniform of a soldier, and walks from the beach into a nightmare.
The main theme of the film, however, isn’t innocence or guilt, but memory; it’s tricks, the way it unconsciously serves us to avoid confronting the horrors of the our pasts. One of the key moments in the film is when Folman’s psychotherapist friend describes an experiment where psychologists induced false memories in volunteers by showing them faked photographs of their childhood. Elements of a tableau are layered onscreen one by one: a juggling clown, a man on a unicycle, a shooting arcade, and finally a little boy. “Memory is dynamic, it’s alive. If some details are missing memory fills the holes with things that never happened,” he warns. (As the subject imagines his day at the park, the camera quickly pans past a menacing figure, a cigar-smoking balloon salesman in a bowler with a death’s head among the numerous tattoos decorating his arms, who grins knowingly at the viewer—not the sort of figure a child would fondly remember, but a sinister subliminal intruder on the scene.) After the friend tells the story, we see Folman in a reaction shot: the hot air balloon from the experiment floats outside his friend’s window, with the Ferris wheel in the background. Even Folman’s memory of the discussion of memory, which we are watching as if it is in real time but which in truth he has painstakingly reconstructed, is corrupt. We can’t trust it. But there is an objective truth to be found in this story, which the director will discover through persistent digging, and which will be shown to us irrefutably at the very end.
The form of the film is itself a metaphor; the animation puts the real and the unreal on equal footing, in the same way that Folman’s memories mix things that literally happened with scenes that are only emotionally true. Many see Bashir as an essentially accurate portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder. American veterans of the Iraq conflict (still being waged when the film was released to theaters) may find much here to identify with. Folman presents Bashir as a purely personal story, disavowing a larger political message (beyond a radical pacifism). Still, it’s almost impossible for us to avoid the conclusion that the protagonist’s faulty memory here stands in for his nation’s memory. Israel bore some responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacres, yet a few decades later they elected the man found responsible as their Prime Minister. Folman and his fellow conscripts are not shown as personally responsible for the atrocities of war; but they were made into unwitting accomplices to war crimes. The Israeli role in the situation is left morally ambiguous, as was the entire Lebanon war. There were perhaps eight or nine different sides, once you add up the Israelis, meddling Syrians, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Phalangists and the numerous other political parties, both Christian and Muslim, vying for control of a country that had fallen into anarchy. If war itself is inherently absurd, then war in the Middle East is an absurdity raised by several exponential powers. In the commentary, Folman stresses that the massacre itself is not forgotten among the Israeli public, nor is it a taboo subject of discussion. But the issue is not whether it’s remembered, but how it’s remembered. Responsibility lingers long after memories fade.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A subject that might, had it been made conventionally, have repped just another docu about a war atrocity, is transmuted via novel use of animation into something special, strange and peculiarly potent…”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)
“…Folman has a sumptuous, surrealist eye. But so what? Without the animation, this movie would not only be unwatchable, it would completely lack any reason to exist.”–Will Leitch, The Will Leitch Experience
IMDB LINK: Waltz with Bashir (2008)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Dancing With Memory, Massacre In ‘Bashir’ – NPR’s Terry Gross interviews director Ari Folman for National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” (audio and transcript)
DP/30: Waltz With Bashir, writer/director Ari Folman – 30-minute video interview with Folman
A Waltz and an Interview: Speaking with Waltz with Bashir Creator Ari Folman – Folman interview published in the online pop-culture magazine CCK2
In Search of the Solider in His Past – Portrait of Folman and the film for The New York Times
How They Did It: Waltz With Bashir – Technical description of the animation techniques, from Studio Daily
The Responsible Dream: On Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir – Jayson Harsin analysis of the film and its relation to dreams for Bright Lights Film Journal
Israeli filmmakers head to Cannes with animated documentary – A contemporaneous Israeli report on the film
The “Waltz with Bashir” Two-Step – An article from the Jewish magazine Commentary faults Waltz with Bashir for lack of context about the Lebanese conflict
Freud in Beirut: Mechanisms of Trauma in Waltz with Bashir – Academic Freudian analysis of the film by Sebastien Musch
Two Generations of Israeli Soldiers React to Waltz with Bashir – Vanity Fair interviews two Israeli soldiers to get their opinions on the film
Israeli Film on Lebanon War ‘Waltz With Bashir’ Shown in Beirut – Report on an underground screening of the film in Lebanon (where it is banned)
Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story – Folman’s graphic novel version of the film
HOME VIDEO INFO: In the U.S., Sony Pictures Classics released Waltz with Bashir on DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy) in 2009. Needless to say, the audiovisual quality is excellent, with luminous gold-oranges glowing over the inky blacks of the hallucination scenes, while Max Richter’s electronic score is mixed with ironically deployed 80s pop music and classical pieces from Chopin and Bach. The disc(s) also feature a commentary by Ari Folman, the 12-minute documentary “Surreal Soldiers,” a nine-minute Q&A, and four segments demonstrating how individual scenes were animated.
Waltz with Bashir is also available on video-on-demand.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)