Film 2009 #20 – Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir (2008)
Directed by Ari Folman

In 1982 Israel invaded Southern Lebanon, citing an assassination attempt on their U.K. ambassador as the impetus. The conflict brought them up against the PLO, Muslim Lebanese forces, and Syrians. Working with the Israelis were the Lebanese Phalangists. The Phalangists claimed secularism but are mainly supported by Maronite Christians, a sect of the Catholic Church founded in Syria in the 7th century. This mad cluster of forces came together for a bloody war that increased in intensity with the assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. The Phalangists, incredibly loyal to Bashir, culminated the war with the Sabra and Shatila massacres, where Palestinians families were bombed and those that survived the bombing where then lined up against walls and executed by firing squad.

This is the waking nightmare Ari Folman finds himself sinking into. The film begins with a meeting in 2006 between Ari and a friend. The friend has begun having horrific dreams about his participation in the 1982 First Lebanon War. This pushes repressed memories of Ari’s participation into the fore of his consciousness and the movie unfolds from there. Ari learns through interviews with friends he served with about what happened during their tour and how they were complicit in the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Ari has a recurring vision of three naked young men emerging from the water at night and walking towards the shore where an urban landscape is lit by flares, falling like stars from the sky. Once in the city they find themselves overcome by screaming grieving Palestinian women. In the climax of the film Ari has finally sorted these memories out and we see what really happened and why he is haunted by these images.

What sets Waltz With Bashir apart from a standard documentary or war film is that it is made from a combination of standard cel animation, 3D computer animation, flash animation, and rotoscoping (animating over live action film). This allows director Folman a freedom that his small budget would not have allowed for a live action film. Complex battle scenes are recreated with ease but also without losing their weight and depth. The animation also aids in creating the nightmarish tone Folman wants to wash over us. If the roots of this war don’t come across in the film, that is intentional. We’re seeing the events from the eyes of a 19 year old boy who doesn’t understand what is happening other than it is his legal duty as a citizen of Israel to serve in the military. The film is a definite descendant of Apocalypse Now, even paying homage to that masterwork with a scene of lounging soldiers on the beach including one surfing as bombs fall.

There are so many scenes that create a sense of the bizarre and senseless. One soldier recounts becoming sick to his stomach over the side of a boat the night before the invasion. After the young man blacks out, he dreams of a giant naked woman swimming to the boat, cradling him in her arms and swimming away with him as his unit is bombed. In another scene, a soldier recounts the slaughter house the Phalangists created from the Palestinians they slew. The camera is low to the ground as we float across dead earth littered with rotting gnarled trees, corpses, and eyes and ears floating in formaldehyde jars.

Waltz With Bashir is a very timely film during this current incarnation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It reminds us that it’s not the men on the ground on either side for us to blame, but the men at the top who give the orders and expect mindless allegiance whose hands are drenched in blood. It was reported that this film received a 20 minute standing ovation at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Ari Folman won a 2008 Golden Globe for this film and in his acceptance speech mentioned that over the course of making it eight babies were born. He said he had a particular hope for those eight children: “I hope that one day when they grow up that they watch this film together and they see the war that takes place in the film like an ancient video game that has nothing to do with their lives whatsoever.”

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