Be warned: Waltz With Bashir is not the kind of cartoon you see for entertainment. It's heavy and difficult. It lays out the tragedy and horror of war through the lens of one man's confused experiences. The feature-length animated documentary lives somewhere on the border between dream, reality, and a yellow-hued nightmare, and while it explores the horrors of war, it plunges deeper to feel out the damaged human psyche.
Many Americans—like me—are ignorant of the Lebanon War, the Israeli role, and the specific events surrounding the refugee massacre that followed in the early 1980s. This film not only provides a good historical perspective, but also grapples with the fallout in the lives of those who experienced the war, twenty years afterwards. Waltz With Bashir layers complexity into its subject—the good guys are not wearing white hats—and yet, it pulls no punches on exposing the atrocities, ugliness, and destruction of war. Fingers point in all directions. There's a clear moral judgment about what is right and wrong, but the people involved don't necessary fall into easy categories.
Israeli director Ari Folman is visited by a friend who experiences a recurring nightmare, in which twenty-six dogs chase him through the streets of Tel Aviv—dogs, he realizes, he was forced to kill during the Lebanon War to avoid ruining the element of surprise. Folman has submerged his own memories of the war, and cannot remember anything except a vague dreamlike memory of floating naked in the sea with two friends, then approaching a group of wailing women within the city. His friend suggests that making a film about his journey to remembrance might be cathartic.
Folman seeks out the friends in his memory and slowly begins to reconstruct his own experience through interviews with others who experienced the same events. As such, the film functions as a kind of detective story, except the kind where you don't really want to know the answer. Bit by bit, Folman's memories spool out into a full recollection, and in the process, we encounter some stories too strange to be anything but true.
The titular "Bashir" is Bashir Gemayel, leader of a Christian militia who was assassinated while Lebanon's president-elect, and whose death preceded a 1984 massacre at Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which the Israeli army occupying the city did not move to prevent. The "waltz," an emotional apex of the movie, represents not just the actions of a soldier but the tricky footwork in which the common soldiers find themselves, navigating between religious groups, civilians, militarists, the media, and their own authorities. The movie also calls to mind last year's Persepolis, not only for its obvious broad stylistic similarities (both films are animated, and both are narrated from a deeply personal perspective) but for the perspective it provides on the oft-befuddling politics and wars in the Middle East.
Folman, whose first-hand experience with war is hardly unique among Israelis, has experience making live-action documentaries, but this is the first animated one. It's hard to imagine that it would be even half as effective as a live action narrative. The actual interviewees voice all but two of the characters, but the animation allows their recollections to be shown, with a recognizable but younger version of themselves reenacting the events. Folman interviewed hundreds of former soldiers with similarly buried memories before realizing that the problem was universal, and the only way to tell it was through one man's history—in this case, his.
There have been several animated films for grownups that aspire to some realism, and this one has distinct affinities with some of Richard Linklater's work, partly for its vaguely hallucinatory feel. But the animation of Waltz With Bashir is on a different level entirely. While A Scanner Darkly was created by rotoscoping (painting over each film frame), Waltz is fully animated, full of darkness and laced with golden-hued dream sequences. The characters' eyes are vivid, arresting, full of fear or resignation. The animation provides some distance for the viewer, but the violence (and some brief but unfortunate gratuitous sex and nudity) is not diminished and the impact is greater, since there is no line drawn between the quality of today's interviews and the reenactments of events of twenty years ago.
While watching Waltz With Bashir, I couldn't help but think about our own soldiers who experience wars that may not have a clear-cut right and wrong all the time. Folman has said that hundreds of Israelis have the same buried-memory experience as him. I wonder about our own troops and the experiences they hold in their conscious or subconscious memory. Folman has also said that this is an anti-war movie. True, but it works more broadly as a means to hopefully awaken our consciences and remind us that we are all capable of wrongdoing. And in fact, if we know of wrongdoing or injustice in the world or in our own neighborhoods, and do nothing to stop it, are we any better?
Beyond its potential for affecting your thought about this war, and all wars, Waltz With Bashir will stretch your ideas about the possibilities of films to confront history truthfully, and in particular, animation as a way to tell a serious story.Discussion starters
- In Waltz With Bashir, who do you believe is at fault for the tragic consequences?
- Philosopher Edmund Burke once said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. James 4:17 says that anyone who knows what is good and does not do it is sinning. Are there places in your life where you should be taking action to confront injustice?
- What is your opinion of the Lebanon War after seeing this movie? What do you believe God feels about these sorts of wars?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Waltz With Bashir is rated R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content. While most of the movie is animated, a short segment at the end cuts to live footage of the post-massacre destruction, with disturbing images of some of the victims and their weeping families. The animated violence is also unsettling. Folman's only conscious memory, repeated several times throughout the film, includes some brief male frontal nudity in a non-sexual manner. There is also an animated dream sequence with a fully nude woman, as well as an explicit animated scene from a pornographic film.
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