“For me, animation meant children’s films that you let them watch in order that they will leave you alone...” – respected Israeli war journalist Ron Ben-Yishai explains to the BBC that he was less than enthusiastic when Ari Folman approached him about contributing to the animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. Folman talked the 65 year old reporter around, fortunately – his segment, as the BBC article notes, is fairly brief, but as the first reporter to risk life and limb to enter the site of the refugee camp massacres his testimony is essential to the story; he’s now quite convinced by Folman’s animated efforts: ”The animation is adding a layer, a psychological layer of his trauma. In a normal documentary film you couldn’t have documented all these things – like the dreams…. Believe me, I have a lot of nightmares of this kind. After being in war situations… it comes to haunt you.”
Waltz With Bashir is a film I had been waiting to see for some time, following the good word of mouth it had been picking up on the international film festival circuit. An animated, feature-length documentary is a fairly unusual beast in the film world, and as someone who is fascinated by animation in its many forms I was intrigued. Ari Folman’s film looks back to the war in the Lebanon in 1982, seen through the memories, dreams and nightmares of former Israeli conscripts. The film opens with a pack of rabid dogs, barking, growling, running through the city streets, eyes glowing red, terrifying people, before arriving outside a building where they bark viciously at the inhabitant. The scene cuts to a bar and Folman is listening to his friend recount the dream of the dogs, which he has repeatedly, a mental echo of the war when he was forced to shoot dogs before their patrol could enter a village so the dogs couldn’t bark a warning (Shakespeare’s line “let slip the dogs of war” sprung to mind). When he asks Folman what bad dreams he has from the war Folman answers that his memory is mostly blank from that period. His friend’s troubled dreams spark the first glimmerings of memories and images from the war in Folman’s mind and so he sets out to talk to former comrades, slowly piecing together events surrounding their time in Lebanon, culminating in a horrific massacre of civilians in refugee camps.
Folman travels to meet old comrades, some fairly open about their war experiences, others quieter, more troubled; in between he talks to his therapist friend, troubled by his own missing memories and wondering what he saw or did that caused his mind to blank so much out. As anyone would be in such circumstances he wants to know but is also worried what he may learn about himself in the process. The film itself is mostly non-linear, made up of frequent flash backs as the former soldiers talk to Folman. But this is no straight ‘talking heads’ documentary – many of the men have only fragmented memories and images, often dreamlike or even hallucinatory. Folman himself is jarred into remembering a scene of himself and some comrades floating in the sea like drowned men; slowly they come to life and, quite naked, shamble slowly towards the war-torn shore, the scene lit by the eery light of flares. It reminded me of one of cinema’s strong visual scenes, Martin Sheen emerging from the dark waters in Apocalypse Now (and like Apocalypse Now there is much of Heart of Darkness about this film) crossed with a sort of D-Day landing but by undead, zombie soldiers, slowly shambling through the surf, across the beach and into the war zone.
And much of the film is seen in this manner; while some scenes are related and shown fairly literally (such as an ambush on a column of tanks) many are hazy, drawn from confused images in the memories of men who saw more than they wanted to and still see it frequently in their dreams, or composed entirely of fantasy images and hallucinations (one man on a boat heading to the war imagines a giant naked woman, who lifts him gently from the ship and swims away with him nestled child-like against her stomach as the ship and his comrades behind them explode into flame; another distances himself from events by pretending he is taking photos of it for an article). Its something a live action documentary simply couldn’t capture but the medium of animation is suited perfectly for; the animation takes us as close as we can be to the dreams and nightmares of those men, as well as showing how different minds react to the stress, how they interpret what they saw and endured, the strains, the stress, the guilt over actions forced on them or simple guilt for being alive when friends are dead. The film doesn’t try to excuse actions, nor does it seek to judge and condemn, it simply shows and shares those events and memories.
(escape fantasy, sexual fantasy or simply the childlike urge to have a mother figure taking you away from harm – one of Folman’s friends recounts his vision of a giant, naked woman who carries him from the boat taking him to battle)
Popular music of the period features throughout, especially in scenes where the soldiers are given leave to visit home. A home life which now seems alien and bizarre – at the front they dream of being home, at home they feel strange, uncomfortable. Around them people are playing music, video games, enjoying everyday life, all familiar things which now seem so odd compared to what the soldier has been living. In this Folman scores again, showing us just a bit of the contrast the soldier (of any war) encounters when they come home and try to be ‘normal’ but wondering how everyday life can be so ordinary after what they have seen (its no surprise that many former soldiers have to deal with mental health and a myriad of other problems when they return to civilian life. A peace treaty might end a war politically, but it doesn’t end in the minds of many who had to prosecute it).
Its very powerful material, extremely emotional and often very, very uncomfortable to watch – but then, it should be. The last act leads up to the slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in refugee camps (spoiler warning, you may not want to read this last bit if you are going to see the film), the very event that Folman has been wondering about as he probes the gaps in his memory. The Israeli soldiers themselves are not directly involved, but they are ordered to encircle the camps while their Christian militia allies enter them, ostensibly looking for terrorists. They see women, old folks, children, being rounded up and loaded onto trucks; Folman flashes back to an earlier generation of his own family being loaded onto trucks by the Nazis. What happens next is, sadly, a matter of historical record – hundreds of innocents were slaughtered. Ben-Yishai, the reporter, was on the front lines and following leads from Israeli soldiers troubled about what they suspect is going on inside the camps, he investigates, bringing it to the attention of the government.
(Lebanon, once called ‘the Paris of the East’, shattered and ruined by war; a scene probably familiar to many from news bulletins in the early 80s)
In the very last scenes animation is suddenly, jarringly, dispensed with in favour of Ben-Yishai’s news footage. Its simply horrific and the sudden move from animation to news film re-enforces that horror. Its dreadfully hard to take – I found myself seriously struggling to maintain some emotional control – but its something that should be seen by a wider audience (and I wish we could make our so-called world leaders sit and watch it before they decide on more foreign adventures). Like Apocalypse Now it is by turns fascinating and yet often horrific, but its engrossing and powerful. Sad to think Folman must have been working on it when Hizzbolah were firing rockets at Israeli civilians and Israel was bombing Lebanon once more just the other year. Which, regrettably, makes this not just a look at a historic event from decades ago but very contemporary to ongoing strife in the Middle East and elsewhere, while the animated nature of the bulk of the film guarentees images that will stick in the viewer’s mind long after the film has finished. One of the most unusual and remarkable animated films I’ve seen; as I said, it can be hard to watch, but you should try.Waltz With Bashir is on general release in the UK now; a graphic novel version of the story is due soon.
I originally wrote this review up for the Forbidden Planet blog