Waltz With Bashir

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Standing at the fore of Israel’s burgeoning conscience, filmmaker and former Israeli Army soldier Ari Folman creates an intensely personal animated documentary regarding his complicity in the massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982 Lebanon—and in the process questions the moral fabric of a nation forged out of tragedy with devastating conclusions.

A meeting with his childhood friend, Boaz (voiced by Mickey Leon), triggers Folman’s first flashbacks of the massacre in nearly twenty years. Compelled by these fragments, the filmmaker seeks out his old army squad to help him unlock his repressed memories. Each interview provides, at the expense of diffusing the focus of the film, a different perspective of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict before crystallizing into the events surrounding Folman’s duty. From Boaz’s nightmare of being chased by dogs to Folman’s dreams of bathing off the coast of Beirut in the midst of a bombing campaign, the film frames the conflict through each soldier’s coping mechanisms and recurring post-traumatic stress disorders.

Common throughout these interviews is the leitmotif of the sea. Like a mikvah to wash away uncleanliness after contact with the dead, each soldier finds himself, either in fantasy or reality, drifting through the Mediterranean to wash away the deeds from his soul. Yet, as most soldiers fantasize of escape, Folman’s recurring dream of coming ashore to a warzone succinctly demonstrates his desire to expose and confront his past. It is telling that the dominant theme of the soundtrack is titled ‘The Haunted Ocean.’

Waltz with Bashir never overtly strays into geopolitical territory. Entrenched firmly in its soldier’s-eye view, it emphasizes personal over political accountability. The film never depicts the cause of the war and makes only passing references to the titular Bashir Gemayel—the assassinated Christian president of Lebanon whose death was the impetus for reprisals at Sabra and Shatila. However, as Folman relearns the events of those days in September 1982, he analyzes his moral responsibility to those slain Palestinian refugees and implicitly asks each of his countrymen to analyze their responsibility for the events of past conflicts..

Structurally, the film maintains a duality between reality and memory, past and present, as well as documentary and traditional narrative until the points converge in its harrowing final moments. At the crux of this duality is the revolutionary animation style used to depict the events of the film. Flash-animated representations of real people set against rotoscoped three-dimensional backgrounds allow the filmmaker to depict reality and fantasy seamlessly and with equal gravity. Folman’s team of animators has pushed Adobe’s Flash software to its furthest possible boundaries of expression through the use of fluid camera movements, intense colorization, and expertly rendered human depictions while composer Max Richter’s score reinforces the emotional turmoil of the soldiers.

In light of the recent conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, Waltz with Bashir looks to Israel’s past to harshly question the direction of its future. Given its reception by the Israeli Film Academy last year, earning the Best Picture award in 2008, it appears that many of his contemporaries share the same concerns. If the central lesson of The Holocaust, which has shaped much of Israel’s identity, is ‘never again,’ then a proper addendum would be: those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Thankfully, the world has men like Ari Folman to remember the painful lessons those of us would sooner forget.

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Author: Andrew Younger

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