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Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir)

dir: Ari Folman
[img_assist|nid=141|title=Doing the genocide dance|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=220|height=326]
Animated movies don’t usually tackle genocide, massacres and the delayed effects of traumatic memories on people as their main themes. They’re usually about the virtues of being yourself, or about believing in yourself, or about what it would be like if dogs, cats and robots were lucky enough to have the voices of celebrities.

Israeli director Ari Folman has made something quite unique here, in that it is a documentary about his lack of memory about something he was involved in, and it is an animated documentary, at that. How many animated documentaries can you think of, off the top of your heads?

None, because there aren’t any. It really is quite remarkable. The animation itself is straightforward and comparatively simplistic, in that this isn’t something you’re watching because it’s a technical marvel. But it serves the story perfectly, because it doesn’t distract from the telling of the story; it facilitates it. For a completely rendered version of what happened, it approaches a kind of truth many if not most documentaries lack.

A friend of Folman’s from a long time ago tells him about some nightmares he’s been having, of being chased by twenty-six dogs. No more, no less. Unusually specific, but then there’s always strange detail in people’s dreams. But Ari’s friend knows why it’s exactly twenty-six. It’s because back when he and Ari were nineteen, they were in the Israeli Army, and they took part in the Israeli incursion into Lebanon back in 1982. Ari’s friend sniper-shot twenty-six dogs to stop them from barking and notifying the Palestinians they were hunting in certain villages.

Ari himself doesn’t remember it. He doesn’t remember anything about it. The story is mostly about Ari trying to figure out whether he was at some crucial event or not, what role he played (or didn’t play), and why he can’t remember it. It seems like an odd thing to have forgotten. All of the guys Ari talks to remember that time pretty well. What’s Ari’s problem, eh?

We never really find out how or why Ari suppressed these memories, but he does speak to a psychologist who tries to illuminate what might have happened for our and Ari’s benefit. And, luckily for us and the story, he starts recalling some stuff.

He has a reoccurring image of young Israeli soldiers, himself included, climbing naked out of the sea at night, putting on their uniforms and picking up their guns, as flares gently float through the air and light their way into Lebanon.

Unfortunately for Ari, he seems to be the only one who remembers this. All his former army buddies remember is different bits and pieces that Ari uses to eventually build up something like a coherent picture of those days. But it’s still a mystery to him and us until the brutal end.

We are given, very concisely, almost poetically, but also factually, an idea of what actually happened, specifically at two Palestinian refugee camps, being Sabra and Shatila. And also, the why of it, seeing as the strange complexities and alliances represented for that time, between Israel and a faction of Lebanese Christians, between the Syrians and the Hezbollah throughout Lebanon, making for strangely murderous bedfellows, comes across quite cleanly for the uninitiated viewer.

The thing is, though, there’s nothing clean about any of this situation. What lies at the heart of this novel documentary is the massacre of between 400 and several thousand Palestinians. Who did it is known. How they did it is known. Why they did it is known. None of this is disputed, but does that get us any closer to understanding what Ari was doing in Lebanon at this time?

There is an argument, often put forth, often by people who also espouse all sorts of conspiracies regarding the Jewish folk, that whenever anyone accuses the Israeli government of wrongdoing, they drown out all criticism by crying anti-Semitism and making reference to the Holocaust. Well, I'm not game enough to enter into that kind of debate, but the fact is that Israel has done a lot of fucked up things since the country's "creation" back in the 1940s. And many of the countries surrounding Israel, and many of the people living in those countries, some of whom have vowed to destroy Israel, have done a lot of fucked up things too. I'm not smart or wise enough to know how to best apportion blame and culpability to all the players involved, or maybe I'm not dumb enough to get into the whole shemozzle. I'll leave that question to the philosophers.

The thing is, there's plenty of blame to go around for everyone. Waltz with Bashir wouldn't be in any way as fascinating (I won't say enjoyable, considering the subject matter, and considering how the film ends) if it had some kind of shrill political agenda from either side of the divide. Nor, do I think, does it serve the purpose only of reminding people that something bad happened twenty-seven years ago. Plenty of worse shit happened before and after. The poignant factor here is that it's all well and good to have people who were distant from events comment on the morality of it all decades after the fact; it's another to have the events related by the grunt on the ground. Ari Forman played a part in these massacres, whether it was direct or indirect, he was there, and it weighs upon him, as it should.

Taking all of that into consideration, does Ari Forman's film exist as an argument, a conversation with the Israeli people, with the world, with the Palestinians, with the Lebanese? I'm not entirely sure. Ari is not melodramatically rending his cloak or covering his head in ashes as a mea culpa, nor is he admitting anything. After all, not that this spoils anything, since the Sabra-Shatila massacres are a matter of public record, he admits (or 'recalls', for our sake) to being there. Not much else. It’s a powerful admission all the same. Many of the other voices we hear (not all, some are provided by voice actors) are from other guys that were there, who admit to far worse. We get something of a glimpse of the overall war within Lebanon, and some of the big names (Ariel Sharon at least, who is quoted as tacitly endorsing the massacre of innocent women and children) provide a chilling amount of historical substantiation.

For animation, for such a strange story, it does eventually become quite harrowing, even before actual footage of dead bodies are shown in the film’s wisely constructed ending. It has the effect (perhaps especially because of the conflict involved) completely apposite to most war films or ‘experiences’ that come out in all media forms of distancing the viewer from what’s going on. There’s none of the ‘war is hell, but at least we won” theme which is central to the Hollywood war movie. If anything, Waltz with Bashir’s theme is that if it was hell for anyone, it was hell for the Lebanese and Palestinians. Within that the film finds the opportunity for some truly surreal moments, such as the one from which the title of the documentary arises. Let’s just say it’s not something you or anyone you know could have predicted, even if you know the story behind who Bashir was and why someone would be waltzing with him.

As a history lesson, it perversely doesn’t need to tell us too much of the history, delving in far enough to give Ari some reminder of what his experience might have felt like and could have looked like, and not much else. You may not know what a Phalangist Christian is going in, and you’re not going to know coming out of this film, because the explanation is deemed to be unimportant. The important factor is that Phalangist Christians massacred a whole lot of innocent people, and Ari Forman and his buddies just stood by and laughed. Joked about it. Watched porno, drank and smoked a lot of cigarettes whilst it was going on with their full knowledge.

Or did they? Just because the United Nations says it happened, did it really happen? Does Ari exhibit misplaced guilt, constructing some elaborate scenario that never happened and place himself in the middle of it, like some deranged and depressed teenager that invents bizarre plots just for attention from girls who thinks he’s weird and smells funny to boot?

I don’t think the last shots of the film leave any doubt, but some people can always choose not to see.

How can it be static, simplistic and mournful, and yet so riveting? I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter, because genocide stuff is the bread and butter of film and documentary. I think it’s the curious and precarious place Ari puts himself in, in relation to these events and within himself. We’re not always privy to a filmmaker’s thought processes going into a film, but Ari’s seem to be on full display for our benefit as part of the storytelling.

I also appreciate that the story is not one where someone trumpets his deep trauma over some tremendous horror he visited upon a group of people a bunch of years ago, because that can be a bit rich, if not downright disingenuous and indulgent. Waltz with Bashir strikes the right uncomfortable tone, and the art work and creativity in telling the story complement the events being revealed to us.

I know it’s a long bow to draw, but an artwork like this goes against my general cynicism about the so-called Middle Eastern conflict, going against the long-held stance of pretty much everyone I know with any long-held stances about the lack of hope in there every being achievable peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the countries surrounding them. It’s just a glimmer thereof, but it’s more than what I had before watching the flick.

Don’t worry, it won’t last long.

8 times the ending, and in fact no part of this strange documentary compromises out of 10

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“What do we do? Why don't you tell us what to do?
-“Shoot!”
“At who?
-“How should I know at who? Just shoot!
“Isn't it better to pray?”
-“Pray and shoot!” – Waltz with Bashir

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