The 1982 Lebanon War may seem like a distant memory to most of us. But the short-lived conflict remains an open wound that is part of a war that has been going on since the state of Israel was founded in 1948. To Israel Defense Forces veterans, Lebanon is one of many painful memories to deal with. One way of doing so is perhaps to make a movie about it… although few people would have the ingenuity to turn it into something resembling an animated documentary.
When we are introduced to the film’s director, Ari Folman, we’re learning that he has finished his military reserve service. He took part in the Lebanon War, but when a fellow veteran tells him about a recurring nightmare where he’s hunted by mad dogs, Ari can’t really relate. He’s not suffering from any nightmares about the war, but his complete lack of memories from Lebanon is beginning to trouble him. Later that night he has a vision of Beirut that he realizes is connected to the horrors of the massacre that took place at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in 1982.
Ari’s mind is blocked and he needs to come to terms with what he saw in Beirut. After a conversation with Ori Sivan, another good friend and veteran of the war, he decides to track down other people who served with him in Beirut and try to piece together an understanding of what happened there.
Animation close to the real thing
It isn’t quite a documentary, but large parts of this film consist of interviews with real people; Folman’s journey becomes both a personal therapy session and a chronicle of what it was like to serve in the IDF during the war. The animation is to some extent close to the real thing. It would be easy to confuse it with rotoscoping, a technique used for instance in the film A Scanner Darkly (2006) where the animators trace over live-action footage. That’s not the case here, although the look of characters and locations are based on reality. At the same time, the style of the movie takes you to a different dimension; it’s as if the opening dream sequence continues throughout the film and we’re stuck inside the minds and memories of IDF soldiers who spent the war in Lebanon fighting, driving around in tanks and partying to OMD songs.
The animation is exceptionally smooth and colorful in some scenes; the golden hue of Folman’s vision of Beirut as soldiers rise out of the water and put on combat gear is unforgettable. Max Richter’s music score is not easily remembered, but the minimalist, grinding approach effectively adds to the dream-like state. Folman’s journey through the memories are varied and very human, providing moments of tension and humor.
As for the psychology it is telling that the single most upsetting thing he experienced in Lebanon is what he finds the most difficult to come to terms with. When we get to the massacre, the impact of the memory becomes so powerful that it breaks the animation and is replaced with real news footage of murdered Palestinian men, women and children, and of loved ones crying out their pain.
Israel did not carry out the massacre, but the IDF is partly to blame for allowing it to happen. Folman deals with this in an intelligent, emotional and highly original way; as a tract on guilt and grief, Waltz With Bashir is expertly made. It is also a relief to see this film coming out of a nation whose leaders seem to do everything to keep the conflict with Arab neighbors alive. Israeli politicians may be intellectually weak, but there are still citizens like Ari Folman, willing and able to have an honest discussion about his country.
Waltz With Bashir 2008-Israel-France-Germany. Animated. 87 min. Color. Produced by Ari Folman, Serge Lalou, Gerhard Meixner, Yael Nahlieli, Roman Paul. Written and directed by Ari Folman. Music: Max Richter. Voices of Ari Folman, Ori Sivan, Ronny Dayag, Shmuel Frankel, Zahava Solomon, Ron Ben-Yishai.
Trivia: Israeli title: Vals im Bashir.
Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. European Film Award: Best Composer.
Last word: “It was very badly planned. We thought we would do six minutes a month with six animators. We did four minutes with eight animators. It was double the budget. We had no idea what we were getting into.” (Folman, Time Out)