by Joshua H. Liberatore
The opening sequence of Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s haunting 2008 release, Waltz with Bashir, features a nasty congregation of angry dogs—mouths agape, fangs exposed, slobber spilling forth—running at full hilt toward an unknown destination, the canine army gaining members as it passes through forbidding streets. The scene builds tension over several minutes, but ends inconclusively with the dogs halting at a particular building and barking in concert, heads raised, as a man from a lighted window above looks down in dismay. The frame cuts to a frantic conversation between two men in a bar, in which one friend confesses to the other that this harrowing image has woken him up at night regularly, the indelible vestige of his experience from the 1982 war in Lebanon. His role: to shoot barking dogs as his unit approached a village for a night sweep of armed militants. This juxtaposition of dream sequence—the shards of traumatic memory, sometimes coded, sometimes raw—and documentary-style interviews forms the central structure of the film, whose protagonist, Folman himself, undertakes to reconstruct his own patchy memory of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, which he witnessed as an IDF soldier at the age of 19. The problem is that he can’t remember what exactly he saw or who else was there.
Folman has chosen an unlikely medium for this ambitious investigation, animation in muted colors (often black and white) set against a sepia-like haze that recalls both the fog of war and the fuzz of somnolence. At first, the viewer is braced for a clever but low-impact odyssey through the subconscious on the order of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. After a few transitions, however, we recognize the wisdom of Folman’s instincts, for in this case, as if by necessity, the medium becomes the message. If Folman had settled on a more conventional format, let’s say, relying on either dramatic reenactments or direct footage with overburdened voiceovers, not only would the film risk trivializing a sensitive subject in Israeli public discourse but it might also do injustice to Folman’s own courage in framing a personal experience as shared national misfortune. The violent memory sequences are simply too intense for live-action presentation anyway and would surely distract from the architecture of Folman’s overall intent. Unexpectedly, the animation allows a semblance of objectivity. Folman pursues his subject without succumbing to the temptation to editorialize or politicize, letting conversation and memory, however incomplete and frustrated, intermingle and cohere into narrative shape.
Folman’s friends and contacts, whom he tracks down for clues, help him gradually piece together his own story, layer by layer. The filmmaker finds that each man has a different way of managing the painful past: one man practices karate; another retreats to an isolated farm in the Netherlands; a therapist friend applies Jungian theory to Folman’s guilt over the massacre, a projection of Nazi identification. Without exactly telling us, Folman suggests that none of these strategies will work for him: hence the film itself. In this sense, Waltz with Bashir exposes us to Folman’s own intimate methodology, not as a way of rationalizing his regret or exculpating himself from moral responsibility, but just as an artist’s best offering toward wrapping our minds around one of the more blighted moments in recent history. In one of the most striking scenes, which gives us the film’s title, Folman’s commander Frenkel irrationally wrestles a machine gun out of his comrade’s arms, steps into a full firefight, seemingly without fear, and dances in the streets of Beirut, spraying bullets chaotically, as huge portraits of assassinated Lebanese President Bashir Gamayel on the adjacent buildings portend the massacre to come.
Folman’s patient reconstruction culminates in the terrible bloodshed that left several hundreds of innocent Palestinian Muslims, many of them women and children, dead at the hands of fanatical Christian Phalangist mercenaries while Israeli Forces stood aside. His personal guilt is never concretely established as justified—he was a witness not a perpetrator—but Folman hints at the larger culpability of anyone present, both physically and metaphysically, at moments of brazen genocide. Israel, the international community, humankind itself, no one is innocent at Sabra and Shatila between September 16 and 18, 1983. To deliver that message, just as his 19-year-old protagonist uncovers the last piece of the puzzle and turns an actual corner in bombed-out Beirut, Folman changes tack in the last five minutes of the film, cuts the soundtrack and leaves us with real images and sounds of women wailing and pounding their chests as they walk through the refugee camps piled with dead bodies. Long acclimated to the distance and focus that animation provides us, we stare at the footage in absolute shock and horror. There is no explanation, no tidy ending, and no moral satisfaction in Folman’s filmic inquiry reaching its apotheosis: just the unvarnished facts of human slaughter.