Movie Review: At war on the homefront

Waltz with Bashir is a complex dance about memory and war.

waltz with bashir movie  (photo credit: Courtesy)
waltz with bashir movie
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rating: 4 Stars Written and directed by Ari Folman. 90 minutes. Hebrew title: Valse im Bashir. In Hebrew, check with theaters about titles. Ari Folman's stunning, original and poetic documentary, Waltz with Bashir, about his and other's experiences as soldiers during the first Lebanon War, is almost certain to raise significant controversy even in the jaded world of the Israeli media, for a few reasons. The first is its unusual style: It is an animated film. Interviews with real people were filmed, then animated in a long, painstaking process and their memories from the war are presented in animation that mixes realism with cartoon-like unreality. The animation may cause some to dismiss the film's seriousness, which would be a mistake. Folman uses this technique in a very deliberate way, to enhance the film's immediacy by making us take a closer look at material we might have ignored if it had been presented in a more traditional, talking-heads format. The second is simply its subject matter. Critics on the left may wonder why he focuses on the IDF's actions before, during and after Sabra and Shatila, since this has all been thoroughly investigated years ago, when there are so many fresh tragedies that could be the subject of a film. Critics on the right will undoubtedly see this as another example of bleeding-heart liberal Israelis fretting about killings from the early eighties that were committed by Lebanese Christians. All of these objections trivialize and miss the point of what Folman is trying to do - examine issues of memory, trauma, absurdity and guilt in ways that he never could, had he used a conventional format. One of the critical points he makes in the film is the way memories have a life of their own: They haunt us, change us and can be forgotten and then recovered. Waltz with Bashir explores much more than the Sabra-Shatila massacre and Israel's culpability for it. It also looks at how that massacre, as well as the Lebanon War itself and its aftermath, profoundly changed the lives of the men who fought in it, and changed Israeli society in a deeper way than we usually think. Everyone knows that then-defense minister Ariel Sharon had to resign after the investigation into the massacre was completed. But the way that the war has wormed its way into the soldiers' consciousness, sending them in different directions from what they had planned, and even eradicating their memory of that time, is a far more complex subject. It's a story that has taken over 20 years for director Folman to tell and the years of thought that have gone into this film show in every rich, unpredictable frame. In these days of instant punditry, when TV commentators analyze every event before it is even over, it may seem odd to some that Folman needed two decades to process his experience in the Lebanon War. But that distance is the point: It took years before he could step back and look at what happened, and when he did, he found, to his dismay, that the memories he wanted to examine were no longer there. He knew he was near Sabra and Shatila during the time of the killings, but couldn't remember what had happened. The arresting starting point for the movie, which sets the tone for everything that is to follow, is the dream Boaz (one of Folman's friends) has. He imagines 26 fierce, feral dogs running through the deserted streets of Tel Aviv at night, then massing outside his office. This sequence, which has a stark beauty that rivals many manga animated films, leads Boaz to call Folman in the middle of the night to talk about this recurring dream. It turns out that during the war, whenever Boaz's unit entered a village, they had Boaz kill the dogs at the outskirts that would bark and alert the inhabitants to their IDF presence. "They knew I could never kill a person," Boaz explains, so they put him to work killing dogs. But the dogs have stayed alive in his memory and he claims to remember the face of every single canine he shot. This late-night conversation brings up another of the movie's themes: friendship and how we use our friends as therapists/rabbis/confessors. Boaz, an intense, self-absorbed nudnik sees Folman as his shrink. But when they talk, Folman realizes that his own memories of Lebanon, which might help him comfort Boaz, aren't there. So he turns to his own informal shrink, Ori Sivan, a director who collaborated with him on several films, including the brilliant Saint Clara. He urges Folman to talk to friends who were in Lebanon, in the hope that this will help him unlock his memories. The friends he seeks out illustrate, by chance perhaps, some very distinctive Israeli types. There's Carmi, his brilliant friend from high school who headed to India and then made a fortune selling natural Middle-Eastern foods in Holland. An ascetic in a frozen landscape who seems disconnected from the life around him, he is disturbed by the prospect of looking into his old army memories. Roni Dayag, who has a harrowing story to tell of a horrific battle and a narrow escape (in which he swam back to Israeli lines), seems remarkably unscathed. Bald and plump, you can still see the cute, winning child he once was, as well as the insecure soldier. Shmuel Frenkel, whose strange dance under fire just after the murder of Bashir Gemayel gives the film its title, is a fanatically devoted martial artist and triathlon competitor. Dror Harazi, the tank commander who was one of the first in the IDF to understand how severe the massacre was, is perhaps the most tormented by his experience. Finally, there is reporter Ron Ben-Yeshai, who was in Beirut during the Sabra-Shatila killings and actually called Ariel Sharon to try to alert him as to what was happening. All of these men's first-hand accounts, some of which are presented fairly realistically, others which are mixed with imagery from cinematic wars (moments from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now are recreated, for example), are pieces of a puzzle that leads Folman to make sense of a dream he had of naked soldiers wading out of the Mediterranean during the fighting. But although Folman does eventually remember, there is no neat resolution. In the end, he switches from animation to news clips of family members of the Sabra and Shatila victims screaming and photos of piles of corpses. I'm not sure this switch works. It just takes us back to the conventional news format we've seen so many times and elicits our learned responses to it. I wish I could say that I looked at everything differently afterwards, but I don't think I did. I think I learned, however, to understand the soldiers' experiences in that war in a much deeper way than I could have from a conventional documentary. Folman's original approach generated a great deal of buzz at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, where it was shown in the Main Competition, although it didn't win. It will generate strong reactions here, from various sides of the political spectrum. But it's important to remember that this is much more than a political film: It is about wounding, healing and redemption, and will speak to audiences no matter their relationship to the first Lebanon War.