In 1982, Ari Folman was a 19 year old Israeli soldier in Lebanon, a country torn by a civil war. Now he is film director and a Golden Globe award winner. Waltz with Bashir (2008) was nominated for Oscar and received 38 another wins and 24 nominations. Banned in Lebanon and praised elsewhere for its novelty, the movie is especially remarkable for erasing the boundary between the real and imaginary. Based on real events of the 1982 Lebanon War and including witness accounts, it is also an animated movie. Waltz with Bashir is often labeled as a war documentary, but it is not a movie about war. At its center is the story of Ari Folman in search for his lost memories about what happened during the night of the massacre in the Sabra-Shatila refugee camp. Seeing it as a documentary would mean overlooking its artistic beauty; seeing it as a piece of fiction would mean taking away most of its strength.
“DRAW, BUT DON’T FILM”
During his military service, Ari Folman and his fellow soldiers were positioned near the Sabra-Shatila refugee camp. Inside, the Lebanese Christian military group was carrying out a massacre which took away the lives of 3000 Palestinians. The reason for this brutality was the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, a Lebanese politician and militia commander about to become the president of Lebanon. During his life (and long after it), Bashir was a cult personality, expected to end the conflict with Israel. Years after the war, Ari Folman met with one of his war time buddies, Boaz Rein Buskila. Boaz told him about a recurring dream, in which he would be chased by a pack of 26 ravaging dogs. There was no doubt about the origin of the vision. Boaz had shot these 26 dogs during one military operation and they were coming for revenge. The dream later became the opening scene for Waltz With Bashir, ridden with thoughts about guilt and memory. Ari and Boaz later realized how little they remember about the Lebanese war. The only thing Ari could recall was an almost surreal vision of naked soldiers coming out of the water and entering the refugee camp after the massacre. Less than eager to remember, but thirsty for reconciliation with his past, Ari set out for a quest to find out what truly happened. Recorded stories of his war time comrades later became the plot for Waltz with Bashir. The title is a quote taken from one of the interviews.
Most of the interviewees are not willing ‘to remember’. The message is clear – human memory is a vagarious mechanism. It will revive our unwanted experiences and things we have pushed out of our consciousness. Carpi lets the director to ‘draw, but not film’ – a remark so accurate it’s hard to believe it is not scripted. Neither Ari nor his friends want to face the reality. Why not? At the end of the movie, we learn that Ari Folman, in a way, aided the massacre. He was on a roof of a high building, lighting the flares helping the soldiers to carry out their ‘revenge’. Ari is haunted by guilt, and it is why he blocked out the event in the first place. For those twenty years, Ari has found peace in denial; now he wants truth. However, Ori Sivan, his friend, tells him: “Unwillingly, you took on a role of a Nazi, (…) but you didn’t carry out the massacre”. Waltz with Bashir tackles the undying question of collective guilt. In one scene, a crowd of Lebanese civilians calmly watch a shoot-out from their balconies. The Sabra-Shatila massacre is also not a big secret for the Israeli government. Who is to be blamed? Is Ari Folman guilty? “Yes’, hints the movie, and it is time for everyone to face their guilt.
If this was a piece of fiction, perhaps one would be tempted to say the real victims in the film are not the Palestinians, but Israeli soldiers. But, in case of Waltz with Bashir, it is not true. The real victims are Palestinians, and the movie is about a realization of being an accomplice. But the focus of it are not war crimes in themselves, it is the people who committed them. Even in the final scene, when we finally see the refugee camp, the camera soon looks away from the grieving Palestinian woman and leaves us with a close up of Ari’s shocked face.
REAL VERSUS ANIMATED
Contrary to the popular rumor, there is no rotoscoping in the movie – in other words, it is not based on filmed material. All the animation in Waltz with Bashir was done, remarkably, with Adobe Flash. The live action footage was only used as a point of reference to create digital paintings. The team had six animators – compared to 72 who worked on Wall E (2008). Most of the characters appearing in the movie are counterparts of the real people, but a few, like Carmi, Ari’s friend living in Holland, refused to reveal their faces in the film. Their stories are dubbed by professional actors.
Ari Folman says his choice to make Waltz with Bashir an animated movie was inspired by graphic novels, such as Joe Sacco’s Palestine, retelling the author’s experiences in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But the director has favored animation since 2004, when his TV series The Material that Love is Made Of came out. “Everything I did in life was always on the verge between reality and dream”, says Folman, and the animation medium turned out to be just perfect for blending documentary and interpretation. The film draws most of its emotional power from being animated. A lot of scenes are filled with an ‘uneasy’ dirty shade of yellow, and the medium lets the director to omit the necessary details, focusing only on pure emotions. Contrary to what a lot critics tend to think, drawn images is not a way of building a wall between the spectator and all the gore shown in the film. It’s not because we are so used to on-screen violence. It’s not about us, but about what the story means to Ari Folman. He never saw Waltz with Bashir as a “war movie” – it is a movie dealing with memory, and animation is suitable for recreating the dreamlike quality of our memories. The film ends with fifty seconds of documentary footage. Again, it is not about us or the horror of the massacre. Ari’s voyage into his memory is over. He finds the desired truth and leaves the imaginary behind. There is nothing more to say.