Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir (2008)

Waltz With Bashir first published by Film4

Synopsis: In Ari Folman’s feature-length animated documentary, the filmmaker and one-time soldier sets out to reconstruct his repressed memories of the First Lebanon War.

Review: Documentaries are not supposed to be like this. Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir is a personal memoir from a man with no memory, at least at first, of the events in question. Events of which, broadly speaking, there is no available video record.

It is a reconstruction where dreams and hallucinations are given as prominent a place as more straightforward recollections and eyewitness accounts. And it is presented through that most artificial, editorialised of cinematic media, animation. If truth and reality are the currency of the documentary form, then this would seem to be no ordinary documentary.

And yet Waltz With Bashir is dripping with truth. Certainly the events around which it dances – the 1982 Lebanon War and more particularly the three-day massacre of Palestinian civilian refugees by Phalangist Christian militia at Sabra and Shatila – are all too real, even if the details of Israel’s involvement in the latter remain murky to this day.

Also real are the spoken testimonies (although two of the participants, Boaz Rein Buskila and Carmi Cna’an, have been re-voiced at their own request by actors). More to the point, while the images that it shows us may be aesthetically constructed (and eerily beautiful), there is no disputing the film’s serious engagement with issues of reality – its suppression, its distortion, and its occasional transcendent emergence from a haze of illusion.

dogs of war

Out drinking one night in a bar, Boaz Rein Buskila tells his friend the filmmaker Ari Folman about a recurring nightmare in which he is pursued by a pack of 26 ferocious hell hounds – the exact same dogs, he reveals, that he was ordered to dispatch during a village raid decades earlier in the First Lebanon War. To his surprise, Folman realises that he remembers absolutely nothing about his own experiences as a young soldier during the war but that night he too has a dream which, for all its abstractions, is clearly concerned with the time of the massacre.

At the suggestion of his best friend, the psychologist Ori Sivan, Folman sets out to talk with his other old comrades at arms, as well as with intrepid TV journalist Ron Ben Yishai and post-traumatic stress disorder expert Professor Zahava Solomon, in the hope that he can recover his lost memories and confront what rôle (if any) he may himself have played at Sabra and Shatila.

If Waltz With Bashir comes across as a surreal, overtly mediated affair, then that only reflects the way that the events are repeatedly described by those who sleepwalk through – and remember only imperfectly – their experiences, as if in “a trance”, “an LSD trip”, or (most tellingly) “a film”. This mental shield is their protection, more than any armour or tank, against the horror that engulfs them and to which they themselves are often direct or indirect contributors. It is a defence mechanism that must be recognised and dismantled before reality can return – and so too the trappings of cinema itself, with all its genre-based reassurances and redemptive arcs, are exposed and deconstructed.

Here there are no heroes or villains, just confusion, guilt, and casual atrocities from all sides. In the one sequence that approximates a conventional war movie scenario, where men are shown surfing under heavy artillery fire, we are left to wonder whether the soldiers might in fact be consciously restaging a favourite scene from Apocalypse Now (1979), or indeed whether someone is falsely remembering the scene from Coppola’s film as his own experience. Conversely, the one act in Waltz With Bashir that seems to reflect genuine courage (a soldier rushes alone into a snipers’ alley firing into the air) is framed in such a way as to suggest temporary insanity rather than bravery.

Into this world of fantasy, half-memory and delusion, where nothing seems quite real, there bursts, in the film’s final scenes, some actual documentary footage. It is the moment of disillusionment, where the veil is at last lifted and, for the first time in his life, Folman faces the full horror of what happened.

Thanks to the strange, disorienting journey of discovery on which he has taken us, this archival video material no longer feels like just another movie, but hits us with the full, traumatic impact of war’s repercussions. “Photograph this, bear witness!” the Palestinian women wail into the camera, and although their Arabic is left untranslated, Folman has indeed given us a whole new way of seeing, where the lens becomes a conduit to, rather than a shield from, the senseless reality of armed conflict. The results are quite simply overwhelming.

In a nutshell: In this animated ‘leisure trip’ back through an atrocity, the nightmarish hell of war assumes a new kind of reality. Devastatingly good.

© Anton Bitel