Waltz with Bashir

Terrorist drama-documentary seems to be the in thing – this is the third review in a row (but there is a dearth of any decent films at the moment). Waltz with Bashir is the crowning glory of the three (the others are Gomorra and The Baader Meinhof Complex) and arguably the most chilling of all.

The film relates Ari Folman’s search for his memory, lost in the Israelis/Lebanese war of 1982 which culminated in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camp massacres of up to 3000 Palestinian men, women and children. The assassination of Gemayel Bashir, Phalangist President of Lebanon, led to the revenge attacks by his loyalist troops. While the film is at once political and apolitical – it makes no judgements – it nevertheless clearly shows, through the recovering memory sequences that Folman pieces together from interviews with real-life friends, colleagues and journalists, that Sharon ordered the army to stand by while the massacres took place. Indeed, this exploration of one of the deepest blots on Israel’s reputation seeks rather to show the futility or war, and the innocence and naivety of many of its actors.

The terrifying opening sequence of a pack of mad dogs marauding through a city centre to terrorise Folman’s friend Boaz Rein Buskila sets the scene for what is to follow. Buskila confides his anxieties over this nightmare to Folman, explaining that its genesis lies in his orders to shoot all the village dogs while on patrol in the Lebanon. When Folman tries to recall his role in the war he finds he can remember nothing. Deeply disturbed he tracks down his former comrades in arms to try and recover his memory.

In a series of interviews, interspersed with flashbacks, he begins to piece together the missing fragments. He visits his friend the Dutch falafel magnate, who relates how his total terror morphed into a fantasy where he was saved by a giant sea nymph who spirited him away, nestled on her breast; then there’s another pal who, to escape the enemy, had to swim miles down the coast to re-join his troop; and yet another who was so terrified of being lost that he wore patchouli so no-one could miss him.

As these stories unfold, Folman’s memories begin to return: we see him in the dream-like orchard sequence searching for the enemy – but it appears a beautiful place and the colours are soft, the music lyrical – only to be spoiled by the inevitable slaughter. This juxtaposition of beauty with horror and death is quite intentional – the ghostly scene of the dead soldiers rising up out of an inky black sea, mesmerising and morbid simultaneously; the waltz of the title to mellifluous music, but the dance partner is a pumping machine gun and the purpose is to avoid being killed; the scenes on the beach with the conscripts surfing and picnicking before being ordered off in huge tanks which glide soundlessly over cars and anything else in their way.

As the tanks head in the inevitable direction of the camps, we see Palestinians being rounded up into cattle trucks – an implicit throwback to the holocaust – and then the ghastly culmination of the massacres and the piles of bodies, seaguing into the first live footage of the film. I found this very effective, clearly cementing the film into reality, because, as an animation, it could be seen as fiction. This cartoon-like quality allows Folman to emphasise his thesis that the actors, with their jerky, 2-D movements are bit players and not the stars, let alone the directors of the action. In one of the interviews a psychoanalyst says that humans have a way of dealing with distress, and that’s to compartmentalise it as if it were cinema. Perhaps Folman has only been able to come to terms with his horror and suppressed memory thereof by making an animation, with newsreel bringing us back to incontrovertible evidence of reality. 

Some claim that the film is an apology, that it tries to let the Israeli soldiers off the hook; that in itself is naïve and not to understand  what is, I believe, a deeply painful, honest and brave attempt to try and comprehend the meaning of evil and how people – like him – can get caught up in it. It is his atonement. And it makes for compelling, if deeply uncomfortable, viewing.

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