Dancing with Death: “Waltz with Bashir”

Against the Current, No. 141, July/August 2009

Paul Abowd

(“Vals im Bashir” in Hebrew)
an animated documentary film written and directed
by Ari Folman, 2008.

IT TOOK ARI Folman 25 years to make “Waltz With Bashir,” his animated film about Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. First, he had to remember the war.

[For our own readers who don’t remember: The Israeli government under Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon under the pretext of driving the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) away from the Israel-Lebanon border. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) seized control of the entire country up to Beirut, culminating in a horrific slaughter of Palestinian refugees by Israel’s rightwing (“Phalangist”) Lebanese allies and a bloody 20-year Israeli occupation of the south of the country — ed.]

Folman was 19 during his stint with the IDF in Beirut, stationed a few hundred yards from the massacres of hundreds (some claim thousands) of Palestinians in the city’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. In the film’s opening scene a graying Folman listens to his war comrade Boaz tell of a recurring nightmare: the 26 guard dogs he killed during the invasion hound his sleep.

Folman, for his part, says he recalls almost nothing about the war: “It’s not in my system,” he tells Boaz.

At the advice of a therapist friend (Folman underwent analysis while making the film), he seeks out friends who saw combat. Their stories become flashbacks that fill the animated documentary, as Folman, hounded by a troubling lack of memory, tries to piece together his own role in Ariel Sharon’s butchering of Beirut.

We’re tempted to ask: Why did it take so long to remember? But on top of the widely experienced suppression of war trauma, Folman’s forgetting is helped along by a willful amnesia that’s inseparable from Israeli’s national story. Denying a catastrophe is required to celebrate independence. Founding mother Golda Meir maintained that Palestinians “did not exist.” Charitably, the Israeli officialdom “neither confirms nor denies” the existence of its nuclear arsenal.

Folman hasn’t forgotten alone. He places himself in the film to confront this denial, opening questions about his past before the Israeli public.

White phosphorous rained on Gaza while the film picked up awards. worldwide As it wrapped up its tour of the States, Israeli soldiers testified to war crimes during the early 2009 bombardment.

But “Waltz” doesn’t actively connect Folman’s narrative to a legacy of Israeli theft and brutality. Instead, it could offer those who share his guilt a deep sigh of release from the isolated incident, when Israel waltzed briefly with the Phalange as they passed through the IDF’s green light into the refugee camps.

Folman has maintained in interviews that the Lebanon war was wrong because it was not a “survival war,” like 1948 or 1967 — the land grabs defended as existential struggles. From this perspective comes “Waltz,” an antiwar — not anti-colonial — film. He illustrates the hellishness of this particular episode in the Israeli colonial project, but avoids the colonial dynamics of the violence, refusing to turn a critical glance toward Zionism itself.

Instead we’re thrown into Lebanon, 1982, without mention that the invasion marked the beginning of a long occupation of the South — and the eventual ascent of its criminal architect to Israel’s top post.

The Animation Technique

Animation depicts the shakiness of memory and dreams, but also allows Forman some buffer from a reality he’s uncomfortable with. His combination of cartoon and documentary (drawing on interviews with war veterans) allows him to produce what is ultimately a highly interpretive film.

Just as the stories begin to construct a narrative of the real war, the animation pulls that foundation out from under us. With Folman as our guide, we’re pushed to accept his ambiguous relationship with the past, always threatening the question: Did any of this really happen?

Folman’s visits with army buddies reveal a common thread: they were all freaked out teenagers arriving in Lebanon. One young soldier arrived on shore, guns blazing out of trigger-rattling fear. He riddles a Mercedes with bullets, and then discovers a family inside.

Facing fire immediately from an unseen enemy, Folman and his crew return round after round into the infinite Arab void. “We’re shooting everywhere, at everything, until nightfall,” he says. The bullets from IDF guns are usually retaliatory. They kill a boy in the woods, but only after he appears with a gun twice his size, aiming straight for the Israelis.

The soldiers, gunned out and glad to be alive, get some R&R to cranked early eighties punk hits — drinking, smoking and playing on someone else’s beach. It’s impossible not to feel their fear, but equally difficult to find within the film any broader context for why they’ve been put in that situation to begin with. We rarely see, and hear even less from the “enemy,” remaining tied to the memories of Israeli veterans instead.

“Waltz” flirts with glorification of violence, as each empty shell falls to a beat. The movie’s “title track” scene features Frenkel, a former IDF soldier, now a shiny-skulled karate master. In a memory-recalled Beirut gun battle, he decides he can do better with his friend’s weapon. A Bach concerto shines through as Frenkel wrestles the gun away, and jumps into the street, firing mad martial brilliance, choreographing a graceful dodge and dance.

As the camera floats out above the street scene, Folman narrates. “He cursed the shooters. Like he wanted to stay there forever.” From a giant mural, Lebanon’s Christian President Bashir Gemayel — who had just been assassinated by rival factions — oversees the waltz, and it is beautiful.

[Bashir Gemayel, essentially installed in power by Israeli bayonets, showed an independent streak shortly before he was killed in circumstances that were never explained. His militia, consumed with revenge lust, were allowed by the Israeli Army to enter the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camps that had been evacuated by PLO fighters after an American-brokered pledge that the civilians would be protected. This context is not explained in the film, although some older Israeli viewers will understand it — ed.]

The Massacre

We can’t discern from the film alone if Lebanon in 1982 was an isolated, nightmarish episode or a defining example of sustained military and colonial policy. Forman lets the viewer decide, opting for a more personal objective — to explore his own complicity in the massacres. A string of such flashbacks triggers Folman’s own recollection of firing flares from a rooftop, lighting the nighttime sky for a Lebanese raid on the refugee camps.

The following morning, an Israeli officer arrives on the scene and prevents the Phalange from another round of revenge killings. “Stop the shooting!” he yells into a bullhorn. The scene is, again, open to interpretation: The IDF commanders are finally portrayed as the sole rational voice — their “mistake” was looking the other way too long. Or, despite the IDF’s supposed peripheral involvement in the massacre, the officer’s command proves who was really calling the shots. Or for the more optimistic, it could be Folman’s final argument that complicity is perpetration, while he exhorts Israelis (and Americans) to cut the supply lines.

But the film does not operate outward; instead the final flashback zooms inward, right at Folman’s face as he surveys the aftermath of the massacre. Then, in a stunning transition, the animation drops away, and we’re left with the first real footage; piles of the dead, and the hysterical cries of Arab women. No doubt here: This did happen.

Still, the women’s words don’t carry subtitles, a fitting close to an ambiguous film. Folman acknowledges the gravity of the crime, while preventing us from hearing anything more than rage from its victims.

ATC 141, July/August 2009

1 comment

  1. “Bashir Gemayel, essentially installed in power by Israeli bayonets, showed an independent streak shortly before he was killed in circumstances that were never explained.”

    For sure. His killer was arrested, confessed, was sentenced and freed by his Syrian employers when they took over Lebanon in 1990.

    I guess we’ll just never know what really happened. Nefarious Jewish conspiracies, probably.

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