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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Film Space

Waltz With Bashir (Vals Im Bashir) (2008)
Directed and written by Ari Folman.
Starring Ari Folman and Mickey Leon.
Produced by Bridgit Folman Film Gang.

Paul Rumble

A pack of twenty six snarling dogs rampage through a middle eastern city, slavering and snarling, sending pedestrians and tables scattering. They pause outside a high-rise building, growling menacingly at a figure in one of the upstairs windows. Documentary film-maker Ari Folman sits, listening to an old friend (Boaz Rein Buskila) in a bar as this vivid, haunting dream of the past two and a half years is described.

'How did you know there are twenty six and not thirty?'
He knows because these are the dogs he was ordered to kill in order to prevent the Palestinians from being warned of an impending Israeli advance.

Ari Folman's first feature length documentary is full of dreams and memories of a conflict that no-one can quite remember fully. It played out as a hallucination for many of the soldiers involved, not sure why they were there and what they were doing. They can only recall the fear, the adrenaline and often the guilt of their actions. Waltz with Bashir is an animated film, which serves to help represent this delusional trip through memories of the 1982 Lebanon War. This is itself a contradiction, animation being the domain of children's fantasy stories and documentaries being the realm of truth and realistic reportage. However, in a story where memory is key, as there is not much video footage of the events, the animated style is entirely key. The animation itself is very high quality, gritty and dark throughout, the characters displaying as much emotion as you would expect their real life counterparts to. It almost seems as if Folman recorded the events, then drew over each individual frame. The animation is not the only successful subversion of documentary technique. The film's original score was composed by neo-classical composer Max Richter, who has created a cohesive mix of otherworldly piano and strings but also pounding rock sounding tracks. The pounding opening sequence with the dogs is particularly effective, making it impossible to not be immediately involved.

After having the dream described to him, Ari realises that he is unable to remember anything of his time as a soldier during the conflict. However when he returns home, he is subject to his own abstract dream about the period of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. I must confess that before watching the film, I had never heard of the slaughter. But this is surely Ari's aim, to raise awareness of a murky event in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, an event in which the level of Israel's involvement has never been adequately explained. This was useful however, as I travelled with Ari, putting together the memories and stories he came across and trying to uncover his own. His psychologist friend (Ori Sivan) suggests that 'memory takes us where we want to go' and that Ari needs to come to terms with his role, if any in the massacre. He does this by seeking out others that were involved in the conflict, all telling us their memories, speaking as themselves in the film (with the exception of Boaz Rein Buskila and Carmi Cna'an, who have been replaced by actors).

The films animated style is perfect for the dreamlike way in which the characters relay their experiences. Sometimes it is hard to tell what really happened and what memories have been artificially created, such as the quotation from Apocalypse Now where soldiers surf amongst artillery shells. However, all the soldiers have had to create some sort of mental shield against the atrocities they both saw and may have committed. The film expertly demonstrates this during a segment where a red Mercedes speeds through the landscape murdering soldiers in an absurdly comical and over-the-top way. This shows us the disconnection and desensitization the soldiers had to the conflict going on around them.

The massacre and the refugeee camps of Sabra and Shatila took place on the three days between the 16th September and the 18th in 1982. The exact number of deaths varies, however an official source suggests it was between 700 and 800 Lebanese and Palestinians. The people holding the guns were all part of the Lebanese Phalangist Militia. The film suggests that the majority of the Israeli forces were unaware they were witnessing a genocide and many, including Folman felt that they were somehow responsible by not stepping in to stop the slaughter (Fisk, 2001). All this confusion is present in the film, the refugees are moved to stadium and some of the men are removed, never to return.

Sana Sersawi, a survivor of the conflict, spoke to Robert Fisk in his article for the Independent about when they returned to find the men in the stadium. These events are shown in the film: '...and there was no one there. Nobody. I had been only three years married. I never saw my husband again.' Folman shows us the confused women and children on their return to the camp to find their husbands rotting in the heat of the sun.

Waltz with Bashir shows us things a lot of other war films don't dare to, the disconnection, the guilt of war. No doubt the film will upset a lot of people with Israel's involvement still unclear, the half truths floating around the events depicted. It may also be argued that many of the Israeli soldiers were aware of what was happening, perhaps even participating. However, the film is equally about good, innocent men being forced to do things that inhabit their dreams forever. It is a film about these men accepting their guilt and trying to make sense of it. The ending sequence is particularly effective, the veil of the dream world slips away and the animation disappears. We are finally seeing the results of the massacre. 'Photograph this, bear witness!' the Palestinian women weep into the lens.

© Paul Rumble March 2009
Paul is completing his Degree in Creative Writing and Film at the University of Portsmouth

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