Waltz with Bashir
World Gone Wrong: Waltz with Bashir recalls Israel-Lebanon war through a modern lens.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Waltz with Bashir, an animated documentary by Israeli director Ari Folman, is a complex retelling of incidents that took place in the 1982 Lebanon war. Folman was a 19-year-old soldier in the Israel Defense Force in that war, but 25 years later, he says, he doesn’t remember it. When Folman’s best friend, Ori Sivan, suggests he talk to a war buddy in Holland to coax his memories back, Folman ponders: “Isn’t that dangerous? Maybe I’ll discover things I don’t want to know about myself?”
He then embarks on the series of interviews with former war comrades and others to reconstruct what happened; these are the building blocks of Waltz.
The interviews are somber, coursing with the subtle dynamics of friendships and rivalries. But when the film switches from the middle-aged men recollecting in their comfortable homes to flashbacks of their younger fighting selves, the movie pulses with life, art and death.
When needed, the soundtrack kicks in with adrenaline (Cake’s “Korea” redone by Zeev Tene as “Beirut”), or irony, or Max Richter’s haunting score. It’s a pretty hip musical palette that lays down the cultural context. The animation is hand-drawn in digital Flash – kin to Richard Linklater’s Waking Life rotoscope process – it’s stylized and mirrors the looney surrealness of the war experience (“like being on an LSD trip,” one interviewee recounts).
Carmi, Folman’s friend in Holland, tells him his 7-year-old son asked if he ever shot anyone. His response: “I don’t know.” It’s a casual, dark response, and as we see in the first flashback, it’s honest: As young soldiers, despite their vaunted training, they fire wildly at everything, out of fear, until they hear “the horrible silence of death.”
An airport scene gives a glimpse into a world that has some semblance to reality, but gone horribly wrong in parts.
The stories come together like a puzzle to form the bigger picture of the Lebanon war. Some are straightforward dispatches: Ronny narrates a story about a drive through the countryside of Lebanon in a tank squadron, which breaks into a nightmarish ambush, which devolves into a serene meditation in the ocean. Others are dream sequences, even a music video.
The story arc carries the viewer deeper, like Apocalypse Now, into this craziness in which a soldier, under heavy fire, does a “waltz” with his submachine gun while civilians watch. It leads toward the climax – an atrocity in the refugee camps of Shabra and Shatila, by Christian Phalangist soldiers, under the watchful eyes of the IDF. Here, the film goes into exacting detail, honing in on who knew what when, and who did what to whom. It’s a crucial pillar of the film’s underlying premise: It’s presumably why Folman doesn’t remember, why certain scapegoats were sacrificed, why other people should be prosecuted and others are free to live without guilt.
The shocking event recalls the Nazi atrocities. TV reporter Ron Ben-Yeshai recounts an IDF officer saying: “Palestinians were slaughtered. I heard they put them on trucks.”
Folman admits fantasizing about his death in Beirut as revenge for his girlfriend dumping him: “Death would be my revenge. She would be ridden with guilt.” The daring and artistry of Waltz is unquestionable, its Oscar nomination well-earned, but there’s also a lingering guilt that doesn’t get cleansed after its self-examination. It’s a small part of the complex picture that makes this a groundbreaking film.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR (3½) Directed and written by Ari Folman. R. At Osio Cinemas.