Dance to a different toon
Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir has been Oscar-nominated this year for Best Foreign Language Film. It might very well have been nominated for Best Animated Feature Film. Stretch things a little further, and it might have been up for Best Documentary Feature as well. That’s how unusual this movie is, and how difficult to fit into clear-cut categories.
Folman is a veteran Israeli TV documentarian, but for this movie, even though much of it consists of standard one-on-one interviews, he chose to use animation—and not mere rotoscoping (tracing of live action), but animation drawn from scratch. He says it was the only way to capture an emotional sense of the half-remembered, dreamlike, even hallucinatory experiences of his subjects, haunted veterans of the Israeli military incursion into Lebanon in 1982. In fact, one of those subjects is Folman himself, who was there as a soldier and—at least as the movie begins—has no memory of what happened while he was there.
The title refers to Bashir Gemayel, the Christian Phalangist leader and president-elect of Lebanon whose assassination in September 1982 led to a rampage through the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut. Over two days, Phalangist militia massacred unarmed Palestinian civilians by the hundreds, perhaps thousands (the exact number is unclear). The Israeli Defense Forces, which nominally controlled the camps, failed to prevent the slaughter—indeed, there were charges that some Israelis actively colluded in it.
In the film, Folman’s quest for answers is prompted by a conversation over drinks with his friend Boaz (a real person, but voiced by actor Mickey Leon). Boaz describes a recurring nightmare in which he is pursued by 26 vicious dogs—the dogs Boaz had to shoot in 1982 to prevent them from warning Palestinian militants in a village Boaz’s unit was moving into. Folman’s realization that he has no recollection of those days sends him to the homes and offices of his former comrades in arms, hoping their memories can somehow help to fill the gap in his.
In time, Folman has a recurring dream of his own: He and other soldiers emerge naked from the sea, striding like zombies toward a fiery shore, acquiring uniforms and weapons as they go. Other dreams and remembered images lend themselves to the stark, noirish palette of Folman’s animators: a giant woman swimming on her back, cradling an exhausted soldier like a baby; the sickening sight of a Lebanese family’s car riddled by gunfire, merely because they drove down the wrong street at the wrong time; and, in the image that gives the movie its title, a half-crazed soldier dancing in circles under a poster of Bashir Gemayel, shooting randomly at snipers he can’t see, and can’t be sure are even there.
The Sabra-Shatila massacre is at the dark center of Waltz With Bashir, but the movie is no simple fault-finding expedition; those aren’t the kinds of answers Folman is after. Rather, he’s probing at wounds that are still raw, though scabbed over by suppression, forgetfulness and avoidance. What do you remember, what do you not, and why? The use of animation becomes almost a survival technique, a way of insulating the mind against the full power of a horrific experience, like using a smoked mirror to observe an explosion that would burn our eyes if we beheld it directly. Folman implicitly acknowledges this in his closing minute, when the film switches to actual footage of the aftermath of the massacre: the bodies, the wailing survivors. This is one moment Folman refuses to insulate or suppress.
Another title for the film might almost be The Dogs of War. More than that madly dancing soldier shooting at unseen snipers, the indelible image of Waltz With Bashir is the very first one: those charging hounds of Boaz’s nightmare, their eyes burning yellow and angry under an angry yellow sky. And even more indelible than that is the silhouetted image that Folman’s artists give us, summoned from Boaz’s memory, of the first dog he had to shoot. The barking dog dies suddenly, crumpling with a whimpered yelp—as if unable to understand why this is happening when it was only doing what it was supposed to do.