The animated 2008 documentary Waltz with Bashir is beautiful and powerful. Why should such a beautiful film document such horrors? Its main character and narrator is also its director, Ari Folman, who builds the film around his efforts to reconstruct his repressed memories of the Lebanon War in 1982, in which he participated as a member of the Israel Defense Forces. He’s most concerned with remembering events concerning massacres of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, carried out by Christian phalangists in response to the assassination of the Lebanese president elect Gemayel Bashir.
Memory is a central subject. How do we remember what we remember, and why do we repress certain memories and retain others? In seeking answers to these questions, Folman interviews men who were with him on the evening of the massacre. They too, in their own ways, have repressed or distorted or revised their recollections. Gradually Folman’s memories emerge, but it is not until the final scene of the film that he recovers them fully.
Memories are repressed because of the horrors they contain. They are also repressed because of how close Folman was to the massacres, and of his feelings—implied but never explicitly stated—that he and his mates might have done something to stop them.
This is also a film about war. It rarely editorializes, though the scenes and words it contains are clear enough in what they convey. The film does not address the reasons for the Lebanon War or for the Israeli invasion—instead it focuses on moments and events of brutality and seems to view events not from the viewpoint of Israelis—it is, after all, an Israeli film, and Folman is an Israeli director—but rather from a pacifist viewpoint that does not incorporate national loyalties.
I did not realize until halfway through this film that Waltz with Bashir is a documentary. I thought it was fictional. But when I saw images of Menachem Begin, Golda Meir, and Ariel Sharon, I realized otherwise. Why would a documentary be animated? The animation helps to camouflage the atrocities—this is an intentional strategy. The music and the frequent shifts in mood-- from quiet introspection to brutal realism to humor—serve a similar purpose. As memories of the events gradually coalesce, the animated images become increasingly gruesome. At one point we see the execution of a family of Palestinians, including two young children. In the final scene, the animation changes to actual footage of the survivors of the massacres, of bodies stacked up in piles or covered with bricks. The final image is of the curls of a dead little girl, covered by the collapsed wall of a house.
The film begins with a dream narrated to the director by a friend who was involved in the Lebanese conflict, remembers—his dream is of a pack of vicious dogs running down the street. They come to a stop outside the window of the house where he lives. The dogs are his projections of guilt—in the Lebanese conflict, his assigned duty was to shoot dogs whose barking would warn Lebanese villagers of approaching Israeli troops. Another image the film repeatedly returns to is of three young men emerging nude from the ocean waters outside Damascus. As they approach the beach, flares illuminate the nighttime cityscape. The film repeatedly returns to this image, each time filling it out more. At the beginning of the film it is a beautiful scene with entrancing, Philip-Glass type music. (Max Richter composed most of the soundtrack). By the end of the film, these wide-eyed and naïve young men emerging from the sea confront the most horrific of scenes imaginable.