A graphic and haunting soldier’s tale

Review: Waltz With Bashir
Directed by Ari Folman, Limited cinema release

ARI FOLMAN was only 19 when he was conscripted as part of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which installed the right-wing Christian Bashir Gemayel as president. After the war, Folman was called up annually, like all Israelis; in his case, not to serve in combat, but to make advertisements promoting the army and its wares.

Increasingly repulsed by what he was expected to produce, when he finally became free of his obligations to the army at the age of 40, he set about using his creative talents for good. Waltz With Bashir, a remarkable autobiographical film, is the result.

The film delves into the issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, as Folman attempts to regain his memories of the war. After years of repressing any recollection of them, he is jolted back into reality after a conversation with a friend and former army colleague, Boaz, who has a recurring nightmare about 26 vicious dogs chasing him (he’d “liquidated” 26 of them during raids on Lebanese villages).

Via an array of surreal animated images, we journey into Folman’s inner mind. The animated format enables the film to recapture the events of the war in a way real life filming couldn’t have (at least, not without a much bigger budget).

Folman recreates a series of on-camera documentary interviews in animated form—with other soldiers who he served with (including one who has moved to Holland), with a therapist friend, and with the respected Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai.

The portrayal of the youthful soldiers’ involvement is both critical and compassionate. Folman doesn’t try to give a wider political context to the invasion, or, in his own words, “to tell the other side’s story”. Nonetheless, he doesn’t recoil from showing the impact of the invasion on the locals.

One scene shows an Israeli tank rolling through Beirut’s narrow streets, crushing everything in its path. Others highlight how, in retribution for Lebanese guerillas’ shooting Israeli soldiers, an occupiers’ bullet hit a civilian on a donkey, while a mortar shell destroys a block of residential flats.

The film examines the command hierarchy and dehumanisation of soldiers within the army. At the beginning, they experience war in a disturbingly superficial way, as if it were an excursion. They take smiling pictures of themselves in their tanks as they cross the Lebanon border.

Once set up in Beirut, their daily routine consists of lying around and playing sports on the beach they have occupied during the day, and terrorising the civilian population by night. All this occurs to a hard rock soundtrack.

The officers aren’t portrayed so sympathetically. For example, in one disturbing scene we see a commander grunting on a sofa as he watches a porn flick.

There are stunningly surreal scenes, including Folman’s hallucination of a giant voluptuous woman who rescues him from the boat he is on before it explodes. The vision of him lying on the woman backstroking gracefully in the sea offers cathartic relief from the previous scenes of alcohol-fuelled conflict. There is also Folman’s recurring vision of him and his comrades emerging calmly from a Beirut beach under an eerie yellow sky.

The film eventually leads us to the horrific massacre of 3000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by the fascist Phalangist militia. In Folman’s interview with Ron Ben-Yishai, the journalist tells him how, upon hearing about the massacres, he’d rung defence minister Ariel Sharon to alert him. Sharon responded nonchalantly, “Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Happy New Year.”

When Folman explains to his therapist friend that in response to the massacres, the Israelis fired flares into the night sky that aided the Phalangists in perpetrating the killings, his friend says, “You took on the role of a Nazi, unwillingly.”

In addition, the journalist says that the sight of Palestinians coming out of the camp with their hands above their heads reminded him of the image of Jews surrendering in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Waltz With Bashir is a thought-provoking film which calls into serious question the virtue of any military occupation. Folman says he wanted to tell the audience “a universal story”. “It could have been written by an American ex-soldier in Vietnam or a Russian in Afghanistan—anyone who wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘What the hell am I doing in this place?’”

By Mark Goudkamp


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