Monday, March 2, 2009

Waltz With Bashir

“My basic thought in life is that suppression is not that bad. It might help you live your life,” said Ari Folman at a Q&A after a screening of Waltz With Bashir last December.

For individuals, that is. When it comes to nations, the writer, director, and “protagonist” of Waltz With Bashir is clearly no fan of denial. This may be an animated movie, but it’s definitely not kid stuff.

In 1982, thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp were murdered over a two-day period. The camp was outside Beirut, and the killings were carried out by Lebanese troops: Christian Phalangists who were loyal to Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. Waltz is an explosive exploration of that notorious incident.

The camps were under the control of the Israeli army and ringed by Israeli troops – including Folman himself. Those soldiers stood by during the two days of the massacre, sometimes catching glimpses of the horror but unsure of what they were seeing, and under orders from their superiors not to intervene.

The movie starts by literally unleashing the dogs of war, while a friend of Folman’s describes a nightmare he’s been having about the time he served in Lebanon. As the two sit in a bar late at night, we see the dream played out, and it’s terrifying: 26 ferocious dogs gallop through the streets of a city, eyes and fangs aglow as they snarl and snap at the people they pass.

Folman has suppressed his memories of his own time in Lebanon, which is by now about 20 years in the past. But that night he dreams about it, seeing an eerie image of young soldiers emerging slowly from the ocean and putting on their uniforms as if in a trance. That dream – or it is a memory? – prompts him to look into what happened when he was stationed in Lebanon.

Just as he did in real life, the movie’s Folman (the filmmaker and most of the other characters provide their own voices) seeks out other now-middle-aged men who served there at the same time, all of whom he either knew or is connected with by one or two degrees of separation. He also consults a couple of psychologists for perspective on how soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress, piecing together his own suppressed past like a detective investigating a crime. As he hears his former comrades’ vivid stories and he starts to remember his own, we see it all play out, in hand-drawn animation that changes its look to fit the tone of each scene.

This is Folman’s first animated film (before Waltz, he directed two live-action features and wrote for the original, Israeli version of In Treatment), and it was a smart choice. “Memory is dynamic; it’s alive,” he says in his voice-over. That’s one of this movie’s key themes, and animation helps make it concrete.

The drawing also turbo-charges reality, from the young soldiers’ panic to the middle-aged witnesses’ taut self-control and fevered dreams. Key memories are imbued with a pathos or horror that would be hard to achieve with live action, and characters are drawn to subtly emphasize key traits, like the haunted hazel eyes of Carmi, a former soldier turned falafel king.

The animators focus our attention on details that pull us in, like smoke slowly drifting upward from a shared joint or the juddering weight of a tank as it lumbers down a city street. And they make the soldiers’ nightmares and fantasies so vivid that certain images, like the slavering dogs of that opening scene, burrow their way into our own memories.

But animation has its limits. At the end of the film, Folman shifts from animated scenes of the few surviving refugees as they flee the carnage on foot, passing corpses of little children, to news footage of the same scene. The videotape serves a documentary function that Folman found “essential,” proving that the story he has told was “more than just my personal story, my memories.”

The Israeli government submitted Waltz as its contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar (it was one of the five nominees) and sent Folman all over the world to flak it. Folman, who said he’s surprised to have written “this thing that the establishment just loves,” thinks Israelis embraced the film partly because nearly everyone can relate to post-traumatic stress in a country where military service is mandatory. “I think they thought: ‘He’s one of us. He’s a little bit freaked out, but it’s okay.’” But he wonders if the government also latched onto it the movie because it could help clear up the common misconception that it the Israelis killed the refugees.

In other words, the film Folman made to remind people of the massacre and the responsibility Israel shares for it could serve as propaganda for a government looking to absolve itself. If that’s so, it’s a bitter irony.

Folman’s film is a powerful anti-war story about what happens when middle-aged men with opaque motives throw clueless young men into battle. “I think this [story] could be told by anyone who woke up one morning in a distant place and is getting shot at and thinks: ‘What am I doing here? It has nothing to do with my life,’” he said.

This is hardly the first time that story’s been told, and it won’t be the last. But it’s a rare treat to see it done so well.

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