By Ron Holloway | July 10, 2008
An antiwar film of the first rank, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (Israel/France/Germany/USA, 2008) tackles a tabu theme seldom treated in Israeli media. Programmed in the competition at Cannes, this feature-length animated documentary chronicles Israeli complicity in the June 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Phalangists in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
Although a release in Israel seems fairly certain, the questioning in the film might well diminish its chances for full acceptance by the Israeli and Jewish communities at home and abroad. Similarly, at last year’s Cannes festival, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis, a feature length comic-book animation film about the suppression of freedom in today’s Iran, was awarded a Special Jury Prize by the International Jury. Persepolis has yet to be shown in Iran, although it was released in Lebanon.
Waltz with Bashir is the traumatic journey of the filmmaker himself into his own past as a young soldier during the Lebanon Crisis. In June of 1982, when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon and attacked Beirut itself, the stated intent was to drive the Palestinian forces out of southern Lebanon. Three years later, in 1985, with the conflict still unresolved, Israel withdrew from Lebanon, leaving the conflict between the country’s religious groups unresolved. Queried as to why he had made Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman replied in his pressbook that it was “a journey that tried to figure out a traumatic memory from the past, a commitment to a long term therapy.” He also underscores how difficult it was for him to make this journey. “My therapy lasted as long as the production of Waltz with Bashir – four years.” Further: “I’d say the filmmaking part was good, but the therapy aspect sucks.”
So far as the title of the film itself is concerned, the reference is to Israeli armed assistance given to Bashir Gemayel, the young charismatic leader of the Christian Phalangist Militia. Deemed to be elected President of Lebanon, and proposed friend of Israel, Gemayel was killed by a massive explosive detonation while giving a speech in East Beirut. Basir Gemayel’s murder triggered a drive for revenge by fired-up Phalangists to find and kill armed PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) fighters in the two Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut, Sabra and Shatila. These camps were subsequently surrounded by a circle of Israeli tanks. By this time, however, the PLO combat fighters had already left Lebanon under a truce agreement. Only civilians – women, children, old men – were left in the refugee camps. Over the next three days, nearly all were massacred by the Phalangists, some with cruelty that defines description. When camera crews were finally allowed to enter the camps, the news shocked the world. Only a few minutes of this authentic TV footage can be seen – at the very end of Waltz with Bashir. Occasionally, along the way, portrait images of Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin can be seen in the background, as if to key that these were the responsible figures pulling the strings of the invasion in the first place.
Waltz with Basir begs description. It originated as real video, most of it shot in a sound studio. From this material a storyboard with some 2300 illustrations was drawn that was later turned into animation. The story begins with a man’s recurrent dream of ravaging dogs racing down empty streets and alleys. Since the dream gives the man no rest, he visits a bar to tell the story to a friend, a filmmaker, one who had shared his frightful military experiences during the Lebanon Invasion. The filmmaker is Ari Folman himself. To his surprise, he tells his friend that he cannot remember anything about those distinctly unpleasant times. So Ari Folman sets out on a journey to visit others who, as young soldiers, had participated in the Lebanon Invasion and had experienced the horrors of war firsthand. Of the nine ex-Israeli soldiers interviewed for the film, seven agreed to be rendered in the animated version as actual people. Two others, who did not want to appear on camera, were played by actors
Although overlooked for an award at Cannes, Waltz with Basir is an extraordinary film. By replacing talking-head interviews with animated action sequences, the viewer is attuned to experience what happened on the outskirts of Beirut firsthand. Asked in an interview why he felt he had to make a film to refresh his own memory, Ari Folman responded: “I believe that there are thousands of Israeli ex-soldiers that keep their war memories deeply depressed. They might live the rest of their lives like that, without anything ever happening. But it could always burst out one day, causing who knows what to happen to them. That’s what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is all about.”
– Ron Holloway
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