Animated Documentary Recovers Lost Memories of War
by Alex Congrove


“Waltz with Bashir” is an animated documentary written and directed by Ari Folman, who plays himself in the lead role. Based on his experience as a 19-year-old Israeli soldier during the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre during the invasion of Lebanon, the film is an attempt to recover lost memories of the war and, consequently, to understand their own role in the genocidal massacre carried out by a Christian militia. The work assigns guilt and responsibilities for the genocide’s perpetuation.

As Folman interviews other soldiers of his regiment, the memories come back as images, but they feel devoid of sentiment. It’s as if he merely viewed the war on celluloid, as his own role and presence are removed from his memory. It seeks to remove the apathetic distancing of reality by film, ironically, with a hyper-artificial animated replication. That mechanism of memory converted into film as a way of distancing themselves from the actual events reoccurs with great frequency for fellow veterans of the conflict. The idea that “some things are not too painful to remember” such that the brain blocks them out to shield ourselves from the trauma, is the logic behind the partial-amnesia. But, the memory of the pain is the plain the film traverses.

The film opens in a bar one night with Folman’s friend recounting a reoccurring dream of 26 dogs barking at his windowsill, which is rendered visually for the audience. He tells an accompanying anecdote of the same dogs murdered during the invasion. This catalyzes Folman’s search for his own memory of the war. Dreams such as these cling to the fragments of the war and often inhabit the feeling of the war, but by conceptualizing through grotesque currents of acid, bad acid.

Example: three naked soldiers emerge from the sea near Beirut, moving like they are emerging from a primordial soup. Evolving as they near the shore, with stoic faces they put on fatigues and brandish assault rifles. The scene bathed in a golden-yellow, the hue of the sun, underscores their purpose-driven movements that emit a feeling of rigid pre-destination and fatalism as if they had been born specifically to rise and wield automatic machine-guns.

The animation form allows Folman to present these types of subjective experiences of other soldiers’ war-time experiences. The memories presented are often surreal, such as the film’s account of a tank being shot with an rocket-propelled grenade. The scene is set to classical music with the accompanying explosion synchronized in. This scene is emblematic of the film’s tension between beauty and violence (This same juxtaposition is present in virtually every Terrence Malick film, i.e. “Badlands,” “Thin Red Line,” and “Days of Heaven”). Here, the music, the setting (a shadowy orchard grove), and the animation itself contrast the image of a bullet-ridden former RPG-firing Palestinian teenage terrorist.

The title of the film is derived from a memorable psychotic breakdown where an Israeli soldier moves into sniper fire and, entranced by unheard music, dances the waltz, while firing carelessly at the snipers whose bullets whizz and strike the street and surrounding rubble. While a poster of Bashir Gemayel, Lebanese military leader and ally of Israel, looks conspicuous in the background.

The ending, newsreel footage of civilians fleeing the slaughterhouse that serves as the refugee camp during the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, where hundreds and most likely thousands where “ethnically cleansed” of themselves, is the inevitable outcome of this film; the recollection of dreams and surreal war accounts decrease in frequency with the progression of the story, and the film becomes increasingly real as it emerges from feelings of fogging war-time fear. The progression and search of the film is concluded as the animated images give way to realism. The initial cacophony of refugee voices cuts out to blackness and engulfing interminable silence; the only sound remaining is that of the audience rustling and holding themselves, still trying not to desecrate the victims’ now-remembered memory. Then: relief, as a “Waltz with Bashir” title-card appears at last.

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