“Believing a film or any kind of documentary is a very subjective method. You can pretend that you do the most objective kind of film, [that] your truth is the absolute truth, but there is nothing objective in filmmaking whatsoever...” -Ari Folman, 2008
Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir) is a 2008 animated film written and directed by Ari Folman. It depicts Folman in search of his lost memories from the 1982 Lebanon War. The film opens with the recurring nightmare of Folman’s old friend in which he is chased by 26 vicious dogs, the same number every night. The two friends concluded that this has a connection to their Israeli Army mission in the first Lebanon War. Folman confessed that he cannot recall anything about the war. Intrigued by the black holes in his memory, he decides to meet and interview old friends and comrades to help him unfold the truth about that time and himself. As he delves deeper into their accounts, the pieces of his lost memory slowly came about and reunited him with his image of the war and the massacres in Sabra and Shatila.
Although the film makes no overt claim to be an accurate historical account of the 1982 Lebanon War, its style of presentation which resembles that of a documentary through the use of multiple interviews, leads ill-informed audience into seeing the film as one. With this, the film does a significant disservice to the audience as it is misleading and deceivingly believable. The narrative is far too personal, fragmentary, subjective and is somewhat historically inaccurate to provide the absolute truth of what occurred during the conflict. Vast chunks of vital information about the war and the massacre are omitted in the film such as the negotiations between Israel Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon and Maronite Phalange party paramilitary leader, Bashir Gemayel regarding the Israeli Defense Force’s invasion to uproot the PLO threat to Israel and move them out of Lebanon. Another missing element is the effect of the war on the people of Lebanon. Viewers may not at all be left with the astonishing scale of death and destruction that the invasion inflicted upon Lebanon and its people. A further stunning omission is the failure to include any account of the evacuation of the PLO and its fighters from the camps, and from Beirut in general. The PLO fighters abandoned their camps in August which set the stage for the massacre in September with the Palestinian civilians left undefended. There are also inaccurate and false depictions in the film, one of which is the illustration of West Beirut particularly in its emphasis on ubiquitous portraits of Bashir Gemayel. West Beirut, apparently, was the stronghold of opposition to his Phalange party and militia. Waltz with Bashir limits itself to the personal narratives of Folman and the interviewees; hence it cannot be a completely reliable and objective account of the 1982 Lebanon War.
But to better appreciate the film, we shall consider first the suspension of disbelief to focus on the brilliance of the film rather than on the accuracy and truthfulness of its narrative. Waltz with Bashir is a psychodrama, more than it is a documentary, focusing on the long-term traumatic effects of the war on some of the soldiers, most of who were only in their teenage years when they serviced in the military. It is an extended rumination on the process of personal and historical suppression of memories especially by those who had already adjusted well. This is very evident in Folman as he claims to have no memory of the war. This is not unique to Folman however, for this is a shared stipulation of people caught in a post-war struggle. And as one strives to retrieve these memories, the mind may not be completely reliable for it has a propensity to convey distortions caused by retrospective memories based on events that never happened and are only imagined. Like what Ori Sivan had stated, “If some details are missing, memory fills the holes with things that never happened.” Folman, for example, is haunted by this certain vision of him, Carmi and one other soldier, rising from the sea and approaching the shore as flames of fire pour down from the dark skies. He knew that this may have something to do with the massacre in Sabra and Shatila but he’s confused whether this really happened or if his mind is just making it up. He discussed this with Sivan and they assumed that this image symbolizes the fear he has toward the massacre and that this may have stemmed from another massacre which involves his parents—the holocaust in Auschwitz.
Waltz with Bashir insists on drawing overblown parallels between Nazi Germany and Israel and on the somewhat genocide of the Palestinians by the Christian Phalangists. It even goes so far as to compare Sabra and Shatila to Auschwitz. A specific example to strengthen this parallelism is Ron Ben Yishai’s reference of what he’d seen in the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre to the picture of the Warsaw ghetto with a child raising his hands into the air. This is criticized by some and is seen as promoting anti-Semitism which is pleasing to the Germans alone. “What greater absolution could there be for the horrors inflicted by Germans on Jews during the Second World War than to find that Jews themselves have been complicit in analogous crimes?” (Rosenthal, 2009)
The film, however, is to be commended for its audacity to admit Israeli complicity in the horrible and indiscriminate massacre of Palestine men, women and children in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. It was frank in acknowledging that some Israeli officials were in early possession of detailed information about the ongoing massacre and chose to allow it to continue. Then again, Israeli soldiers like Folman had continuously shot flares to light up the night sky and indirectly facilitate the killings. They were aware that something’s going on—some even witnessed the shooting of the civilians—but chose to remain oblivious for they were complacent and helpless before directives and orders. Moreover, no one took direct responsibility. Feelings of conscience, shame and guilt are there but not the admission.
Carmi relates the account of how they, out of fear and anxiety, incessantly fired at an old Mercedes only to discover that it contained an innocent family. At a very young age, these soldiers had an ambiguous image of the war. They were uncertain of what they were doing but chose to just do as they’re told. In Folman’s recall of the first day of war, they were unceasingly shooting at the field on a tank but didn’t know who they’re shooting at exactly. These young men who should be playing ball and videogames and hanging out in new wave clubs are instead out in the battlefield, confused with what they’re fighting for. They were stripped of their humanity, morality and empathy with all they experienced—shooting and killing, dumping of bodies—in the war. Conversely, the war gives these young men a sense of masculinity—that they are fighters, heroes. This was Carmi’s driving force why he joined the army in the first place.
“I bombed Beirut everyday… at the pull of a finger we can send strangers straight to hell... Sure, we kill some innocent people along the way... If I came close to death I couldn’t say… I bombed Beirut everyday…” This scene showed how they continuously miss their target. It alludes to the soldiers’ dilemma of not knowing the genuine objectives as to why they’re at war. In the same manner, this clip shows how wars inflict harm to the innocent ones. While another scene showed the contrast of what the soldiers are thinking to what they’re doing. They were singing “Good Morning, Lebanon, too much pain to carry on.. Good Morning Lebanon, may your dreams come true, may your nightmares pass… Your existence is a blessing Lebanon…” while appreciating the scenery. Then the next clip shows the same tank carrying the same men now smashing cars and buildings along their way.
In the film, the sea had been repeatedly used to symbolize fear as in the case of Carmi Can’an, Ronny Dayag and Ari Folman. At the same time, women had been depicted as the saving grace for these soldiers. Every time they’re frightened, they seek for the care and comfort of women. While their boat is being fired upon and burnt, Carmi envisioned a giant woman taking her away to a safer place. At the same time, hidden behind a large stone amidst the attacks on his comrades, Ronny Dayag recalls how secure he was in his mother's company.
Waltz with Bashir breaks the notion that animation is just for kids. The power of its visual storytelling, along with its stunningly detailed animation and engaging musical score make it stand high on the lists of the both antiwar and animation films. David Polonsky, Art Director and Illustrator, together with Director of Animation Yoni Goodman have been successful in using a unique style of animation to capture the futility of war boldly. The original score by Max Richter adds an incredible amount of depth and emotional impact to the already challenging imagery. Overall, Waltz with Bashir is with no doubt, one of the most interesting and visually stunning films I’ve ever seen.
Finally, we ask ourselves, was the film effective? Was it able to convey the realities of the 1982 Lebanon War? In reference to the statement of Folman quoted above, a film in its own is very much subjective. The creators and producers of the film may highlight a certain perspective and greatly encroach upon the viewer’s judgment. In other words, it only presents a fraction of the reality and that there’s danger in depending on it entirely. But, as I was going through the cover of the Waltz with Bashir DVD, there in small letters, below the film’s title, are the words “BASED ON A TRUE STORY”. Now does this make the film more real?
Zohar, R.B. (2009). Waltz with Bashir: A Case Study on the Complicity of the Israeli Cultural Industry with Israeli Apartheid. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://www.badil.org/en/al-majdal/item/18-review-3?tmpl=component&print=1
Gruocho Reviews (2008, December 3). Ari Folman—Waltz with Bashir. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://www.grouchoreviews.com/interviews/264
The Nation. (2009, March). Commentary on “Waltz with Bashir”. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://www.e-joussour.net/en/node/2144
Rosenthal, J. (2009, February 18). Waltz with Bashir, Nazi Germany, and Israel. Retrieved July, 25, 2011, from http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/waltz-with-bashir-nazi-germany-and-israel/
Goldman, L. (2009, February 22). Defending Waltz with Bashir. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/defending-waltz-with-bashir/
Slone, J. (2009, March 2). Waltz with Bashir. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from http://www.endofmedia.com/?p=148
Waltz with Bashir official Website. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from http://waltzwithbashir.com/
Wikipedia. Bashir Gemayel. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bachir_Gemayel
Wikipedia. 1982 Lebanon War. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1982_Lebanon_War
BBC News. (Page last updated: 2008, May 6). 1982 Lebanon Invasion. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7381364.stm
- Fiona Arevalo