11 February, 2009
Waltz With Bashir (2008)
Dancing with death
Will Waltz With Bashir (2008), Israeli director Ari Folman’s animated memoir of his coming to grips with suppressed memories of his role in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, become a subversive new model for war films? Soldiers – prevented from blogging or YouTube-ing their unit’s adventures, which may later be classed as war crimes – surreptitiously drawing haunting images in the fashion of Folman and his ‘gang’?
What will Waltz… do for the languishing international effort to bring the massacre’s perpetrators and enablers to justice? Last year, the 25th anniversary of the Sabra-Shatila Massacre came and went, with even less attention paid than in 2002, when – twenty years after the massacre of Palestinian innocents – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was badgered by Belgium’s Universal Jurisdiction law for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the case foundered. The website of the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra & Shatila appears to be frozen in 2003. Memory loss on a global scale for a September 11-sized massacre.
My questions parallel those of Ari Folman, who is shown in his current bearded forty-something state of confusion, asking friends to recall the events of 1982 so he can reconstruct his own faulty memory. The flashback technique, like his choice of hallucinatory animation to recount his and his comrades’ stories, is more effective than any attempt at live action or documentary would have been. For animation aficionados, check out his excellent website for production details. For Middle East watchers, his site offers a creditable summary of the 1982 invasion and the context of the massacre.
If I say that the Bashir of the title is Bashir Gemayel, the assassinated Phalangist president-elect of Lebanon, I am not giving anything away. Posters of Gemayel’s handsome head adorn the bullet-riddled facades of Folman’s Beirut, and Folman’s website notes that Ariel Sharon developed a fantastical and ultra-imaginative plan - to occupy Lebanon as far as Beirut and to appoint his Christian ally, Bashir Gemayel, President of Lebanon. Sharon and senior military leaders were actually the only ones who knew about the plan. While the Israeli government approved a 40km-range operation only, the IDF thrust full speed ahead all the way to Beirut.
Within one week the IDF inundated Lebanon and reached the outskirts of Beirut. However, just then, before entering the city, questions were raised. What business does the army have being in a foreign capital, so far from home? Why are Israeli soldiers being killed on a daily basis when their actions have no real link to the protection of Israel’s northern border? Suddenly, the correlation to the Vietnam war was inevitable.
Folman spares the audience much of this historical context, which is fine. The film works best as a fog-of-war picture of young, confused Israeli draftees shooting at everything in sight – including the howling dogs who might give away their nighttime infiltration from ‘love boats’ off Lebanon’s coast. An impressive soundtrack of raucous 1980s hits strikes the right wartime notes. All for the phenomenal budget of…$2 million.
It has taken Ari Folman a quarter century to give us this unforgettable picture of a pointless war, where Israel’s invasion was indeed mired down by a Vietnam-type occupation and years of terrorist reprisals. But like other war crimes perpetrated against nameless Arabs - in wars at least as “fantastical and ultra-imaginative” as Sharon’s - don’t count on Victors’ Justice to deal with impunity (I saw Waltz With Bashir in France, just as indicted Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic was being flown to the International Criminal Court in The Hague).
At least Folman’s film shows that memory can be revived.
Awards: Click here for details.
90 mins. In Hebrew, German and English.