#87 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade.
The movie opens with black dogs, growling, yelping, barking as they race down a busy city street – hounds from hell whose presence puts the lie to the calm bustle around them. They arrive at a certain apartment building, yelping loudly – and the man in the apartment knows they’re yelping for him. Then he wakes up. This sequence was a dream, one inspired by his recollections of shooting dogs during an Israeli commando raid back in Lebanon of the early 80s. Now those dogs haunt his dreams, and in a sense the dreams are more real than the memories.
There have been many films about memory, and plenty of films about war, but Waltz with Bashir takes a unique approach to both. Firstly, there’s the fact that it’s animated – not exactly rotoscoped apparently, but drawn in accordance with taped interviews (fantasies, dreams, and flashbacks are, of course, simply animated). Secondly, while the movie is a documentary, it often plays like fiction, partly because of the animation (which allows past sequences to play less like History Channel “recreations” and more like narrative sequences) and partly because of the tightly unwinding dramatic structure. Finally, there’s the conjunction of the two subjects – war and memory. The memory in question is individual, but it’s also collective, and it’s not just a matter of remembering the past but experiencing the present. When Ari Folman, the director and main character, returns to Israel on leave from the Lebanon War of the early 80s, he’s shocked to find his peers dancing away in discos and ignoring the fact that a brutal war is unfolding just next door – and that men like him, their neighbors, friends, and relatives are fighting it. This doesn’t have much application to Israel today, where the homefront has become the war zone, but it certainly applies elsewhere.
Waltz with Bashir takes its title from an eccentric (and in therefore not at all unusual) wartime experience which unfolds in the heat of a Beirut firefight. Bashir Gemayel, the beloved leader of the vicious Christian militants, has just been assassinated, but his gigantic election posters still loom large over the bulletridden streets. One Israeli, frustrated by the ineffectiveness of his weapon, finally seizes a fellow soldier’s machine gun and leaps into the middle of the road, wide open to sniper fire, and begins firing rounds into the air, spinning in circles, the picture of Bashir grinning at him from every angle. This is just one of many stories shared in the course of Folman’s central quest – a quest to discover how much he knew about the Sabra and Shatila massacre in ’82 – how much he experienced firsthand, and thus how much he repressed. Because, you see, he can’t remember a thing about it, nor when he reflects on the matter, much of anything about Lebanon, where he spent the most intense days of his youth.
Visiting his friends one by one, Folman provides us both a portrait of the Israeli experience of war and a closer and closer understanding of what happened in that massacre, when as many as 3500 Palestinians were brutally murdered by the Phalangist militia, who were under Israeli supervision the whole time. As it eventually turns out, Folman’s memory and guilt are not really individual, but wholly collective. It seems he did not witness the massacre, as he had suspected, but that as part of the force in the area, and as a participant in a bloody war with its fair share of horrors outside of Sabra and Shatila (although most not to that extreme), and particularly as the child of Auschwitz prisoners, Folman is filled with anxiety by his country’s – and his own possible – involvement in mass murder. As J. Hoberman notes in his review, the particular nature of Folman’s anxiety is “an internal Israeli issue” but the film has universal ramifications.
The issue of memory is not only colored by the “investigative” documentary method (which also resembles an unwinding noir mystery at times) and the war genre – where the Rashomon-like flashback structure has been used before (one recent example that comes immediately to mind is the 1996 Gulf War film Courage Under Fire). It’s also colored by the animation, which takes the form of comic-book like visuals, often choppy rather than fluid, drawn in a stark, iconic fashion rather than a graceful, realistic one. The specific style of illustration can at times seem too limited (in weaker moments, it can seem like generic Flash animation) but at others it is extremely powerful, most notably in the central flashback, an elusive mystery in which Folman recalls seeing flares gently flicker down from the sky while he and his buddies bathed under a nighttime sky. The static quality of the overall image, juxtaposed with the slow but steady movement of the flare down the frame is a perfect visual metaphor for the fragmented nature of traumatic memory, for the mixture of surreal beauty and abject horror to be found in a war zone, for the way one element of a recollection can stick out while the rest is hazy or frozen.
The use of animation is also a way of placing purposeful distance between the viewer and a full sense of “understanding.” In this it resembles Art Spiegelman’s Maus which turns the all-too-real but impossible-to-represent horrors of the Holocaust into a broadly-drawn (yet dramatically realistic) cartoon – a literal cat-and-mouse game with feline Nazis and rodent Jews (which is both an ironic take on the Nazi propaganda featuring Jews as rats, and a poignant statement of Jewish helplessness in the face of the ferocious Gestapo). Like Spiegelman, Forman’s use of stylized drawing reminds us that what we are seeing is not “reality” and since the very subject of his movie is the ironic distance memory creates between the present and the past, form fits content quite well. Perhaps it might have been even more effective to show the interviews in live-action and the “memories” as animation, but in this particular context the discrepency might have been too distracting, and the memories might have seemed too unreal in contrast to the interviews, whereas in the film as it exists, they exist in an uneasy state between “real” and “not.”
The film’s final moments, its “Rosebud” so to speak, is actual footage of the civilians murdered in the massacres. To compare this to the burning sled in Citizen Kane may seem vulgar, but that’s precisely the point: does the use of actual images to effectively culminate a drama violate the film’s code, by removing the filter that Spiegelman and, until now, Folman agreed was necessary to properly represent the past and specifically its horrors? (I don’t really think so; Maus is Spiegelman’s representation of his father’s experience so the distance is part of the artist’s experience, not just the audience’s; whereas Folman is relying his own experiences, particularly once the veil of hazy memory has been lifted.) More importantly, does the film violate the unmitigated tragedy of these victims by using it as a climax? Conversations on this very site months ago explored the issue, with some feeling the footage exploitative, others necessary to sink in the point that “war is hell.”
I’m not sure myself; I don’t think Folman was wrong to use the images but this sort of thing is always a trouble area – even anger or sorrow, maybe especially anger or sorrow, can be cathartic emotions and one feels uncomfortable experiencing any sort of catharsis from real suffering (one is reminded of the critic – I think it was Rivette – who found the crucifixion-stylized imagery in a concentration camp film morally despicable; hear the images are not dressed up at all but even in their stark state their placement within the overall film could be objected to). At any rate, ethical questions of how a film should use such footage pale in comparison to the questions surrounded responsibilities for the very massacres which produces such footage and, to a lesser extent, governmental and public culpability for war in general. Interestingly, in a time of many angry films, and on a subject where there is a great deal to be angry about, Waltz with Bashir is not at an angry film, except maybe in those last moments (and even then the cut to reality seems more like despair than indignation).
Folman’s demeanor throughout the film is not outraged, but confused, quiet, and sad, occasionally pausing for a well-earned chuckle or a contemplative stare. This is a wise approach, though no doubt it was his natural demeanor and not a conscious decision. Somehow this melancholy expressiveness conveys Folman’s fleeting yet ultimately incommunicable (even, at times, to himself) experiences more effectively, and sorrowfully, than pure fury ever could. Those silences speak volumes – and beneath the quiet we think we can hear screams, sobs, and machine gun fire – or perhaps it’s just the sound of barking dogs, which may be bad enough.