Waltz With Bashir

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A review of the superb and distressing animated documentary, which, even though it is meticulously grounded in the excavation of a specific historical moment, is also universally relevant to the topics of war and trauma.

Reviewed by Kim Nicolini

Standing on the shore of memory

Waltz With Bashir is a powerful testimony to the damages of war and a beautiful and brilliant journey through the tangled maze of memory and the unconscious. Through the excavation of filmmaker Ari Folman’s memory of being a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the film documents the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the horror of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, but it also provides a shattering testimony about the effects of trauma and the power of repression. I have seen the film twice in the theater and I can say that this it not only deserves but needs two viewings.

The first time I saw the film, I was in a sold-out theater packed with people who had come to see Asher Kaufman, an Israeli scholar in History and Peace Studies, introduce the film and lead a Q&A after the screening. In his introduction, Kaufman provided a historic perspective on the film, outlining Israeli actions in Beirut and how they did or didn’t fit into the “meta-narrative”; of Israeli history. He explained how the memory erasure in the film wasn’t just a case of individual repression but indicative of a national erasure of the horrific events at Sabra and Shatila. Israel so completely erased its complicity in the massacre from its conscious memory that could make Ariel Sharon to Prime Minister twenty years after he had been found responsible for crimes in relation to the massacres.

During that screening, I watched the film and was floored by its power. But because of the circumstances in which I viewed it, I could not simply watch the film as a movie in its own right. It was impossible to divorce myself from Kaufman’s introduction and the sensation of being in an audience that was fueled with intensity and tension. Most people in the audience were Jewish and their presence infused the auditorium with their collective feelings and identification with the film. The Q&A following the screening was very tense with a lot of political interrogation and conflicting emotions being expressed. There were pronouncements against Israeli action in Palestine, outbursts of Israeli nationalism, and tirades from Vietnam and Korean vets.

Throughout these exchanges, Kaufman kept coming back to a grounded, even-keeled position in relation to Israeli history and the Jewish struggle. He consistently sought to put a rational spin on events that seemed completely irrational. But because the film uses the specificity of this historic event as a way of interrogating Israel’s accountability for its own actions and the actions of war in general, Kaufman’s attitude was hard to remain. His demeanor became aggressive, dismissive, and at times even hostile toward the audience. When I asked a legitimate question regarding the film’s referencing of Nazi associations, Kaufman vigorously debunked my question. He leaned on his Israeli pride and the Jewish struggle in a way that made me enormously uncomfortable because it refuted any other possible perspectives and it largely discounted the message of the film.

This is not to say that I don’t understand the horrors of Jewish history and am not sympathetic to the cause. But I’m not a big fan of nationalism on any front, regardless of the country or the struggle, because excessive nationalism leads to blindness, and blindness has the potential to lead to atrocities like those that the movie addresses. That’s a crucial point in the film. When I left my first viewing of Waltz With Bashir, I was more exhausted from the tension in the audience than I was elated to have seen this incredible piece of filmmaking, so I decided I needed to see it a second time in a “neutral” environment in order to digest it as a film instead of a historical document. I needed to separate the picture from the political tensions in which I viewed it the first time. I wanted to be able to see the film generically as a movie about the effects of war, regardless of nationality. Still, I am very glad I experienced the first viewing because I realize from the intensity of the audience’s response and Kaufman’s reactions just how “infused” the film is with the power to excavate things that need to be examined by open eyes, including the film itself.

Dogs bark at the gates of consciousness.

The film is all about the excavation of the repressed. Filmmaker Ari Folman realizes that he has no conscious recollection of the time he spent as an Israeli soldier in Beirut, yet he is haunted by dreams that prompt him to dig deeper into his memories. Folman tracks down his fellow soldiers and begins the process of unveiling of his buried memories. As we follow him, we go on an incredible archeological dig through the unconscious itself, and this realm of the unconscious moves beyond the specificity of Folman and Beirut. The symbols used to tell Folman’s story are ones that have universal understanding—water, breasts, barking dogs, music, dogs. By using animation and a common vocabulary, Waltz With Bashir has an incredible power to transcend the specificity of the historic moment and speak to all survivors of trauma. It has as much relevance to American soldiers returning from Iraq as it does for Israelis who were in Beirut. Folman’s memories begin to seep into his consciousness through a dream of him and his fellow soldiers rising from the sea and walking towards Beirut. The film keeps returning to this scene – this surfacing of memory, the rising from the sea of forgetfulness into the eye of the storm, into the core of memory. In other scenes, soldiers wade through water to survive or to leave the horror of their environment. The water scenes are particularly effective because the sea of the unconscious is something that exists in all of us. It has no nationality. It exists below the surface of those definitions.

The music and sound editing also beautifully enhance the journey and speak in a language we can all understand. The pulsing score infuses the film with an urgency. It drives us forward through the excavation. The moments when the soundtrack explodes with song are enormously effective, making us feel the jarring disconnect between the reality of experience and the repressed unconscious. The use of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Elona Gay” refers to World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima and reminds us that this was a real war in which real people were massacred and connects the massacre in Beirut to other wartime atrocities. Yet the song also moves the real events of war into the unreal state of the surreal as it is employed in a hallucinatory party scene on a boat where we feel the tension between the implications of the song and what we are seeing on the screen. To the score of “Elona Gay” we journey into the soldier’s mind where he converts a warship into a party boat (seeing what he needs to see to make it bearable), but then watches it blow up in his dream, an obliteration of memory in action.

Likewise, when when Folman returns home on furlough, Public Image Limited’s “This Is Not A Love Song”; rips through the screen with an anger and urgency of that speaks to the destruction of the innocent and the violence of war. The song rupturing through the film mimics the rupture inside Folman. The fact that the song is delivered via a bank of televisions in a store window underscores the sense of alienation and disconnect between Folman (the soldier who has witnessed horrors) and the “real”; world (the world of television screens and filtered media). Everything is embedded in a layer of noise and channeled through the mediated censors of the unconscious. The song helps give the scene its profoundly real sensation of the disconnect survivors of trauma feel from the rest of the world. It seems as though life is being broadcast to Folman from some foreign space removed from the world inside his head. It comes to him in bursts of music, white noise, television screens, video games, and traffic.

Rising from the sea of the unconscious

One of the most devastating scenes in the films involves the slaughter of horses, another image that will resound will all audiences. A psychologist explains to Folman that she knew a soldier who was able to survive the horrors of war by pretending he was watching everything through a camera. By converting real life into an artificial construct, such as imagining it as a film, the unbearable becomes bearable. We can manage horror by projecting it into the realm of the unreal. However, when the soldier saw the slaughter of horses, he was no longer able to control his censoring device. The camera stopped working and the horses became real. At that point the horror was too much for him to bear. This filtering mechanism works for anyone who has survived extreme trauma. We can try to contain it and turn it into an object removed from ourselves, but at some point we have to acknowledge that real things did happen in real life and that their impact cannot easily be contained or ignored by imagining them as a story, a painting, or a movie. Eventually the barriers come down, and the barking dogs are let out of our unconscious.

Animation functions in the same capacity as the invisible camera in the film. It provides a safe distancing device. Memories are abstracted and aestheticized and are therefore safer to investigate. But as Folman gets closer and closer to the truth, the color begins to dissipate from his vision as reality sets in. Just as a memory will tickle our consciousness before we can see it, the images that Folman initially excavates are only impressions of a memory. But as he gets closer and closer to Beirut and his experience of the massacre, the film’s palette begins to fade from highly stylized color-infused animation into gray realism bordering on documentary photography until Folman and the audience are plunged into horrific reality. In the final scene, when Folman stands at the barrier to the refugee camp next to big barrels that have STOP written on them, he is at the barrier of his unconscious memories, the place where his defenses come down. He has completed his journey and reached the point of injury. The animation stops. We are no longer seeing through filters or invisible cameras. We are plunged headfirst into the horror Folman has worked so hard to deny. The closing scene jars us shockingly into reality. The film shifts abruptly, without warning, from stylized animation to real documentary footage of the aftermath of the massacre. The journey is complete.

Color dissipates as we get closer to repressed history.

We cannot witness these final real documentary scenes without coming back to the historical specificity of the film. It’s 1982. We’re in Beirut, Lebanon where the Israeli armed forces have been complicit in the mass slaughter of over three thousand Palestinian civilians, including women, children and the elderly. Their bodies are piled high, towers of rotting and abandoned corpses. A child’s dead hand reaches from the rubble. Men, women and children lie executed in the streets. The images from inside Sabra and Shatila could be images from a Nazi concentration camp. In fact, the movie opens by literally comparing what happened in Sabra and Shatila to what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. References and allusions to Nazi crimes against the Jews and atrocities at concentration camps echo throughout the film. Women and children are loaded on trucks just like women and children were loaded on cattle cars. Innocent people are lined up against walls and shot. At one point, a trauma specialist suggests that Ari Folman is unable to retrieve his memories of Beirut because he knows on an unconscious level that he was “unwillingly taking the role of the Nazi.”

This is not my interpretation: the words are literally spoken in the film. In the final scenes, Ariel Sharon and the Israeli Army’s complicity in the massacre becomes undeniable. As we enter into Beirut with Ari, we witness how the Israelis sealed and protected the area so the Christian Phalangists could get inside the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and commit mass murder. We see how the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) lit the sky with illuminating flares so the Christians could more easily see their targets. These truths are all unveiled in those last few scenes of the film. Not unlike the Nazi terminology, the Israelis and Phalangists referred to this action as a “cleansing” and a “purging.” All of this history is woven into the film beautifully and powerfully—a late night phone call to Sharon, some soldiers shooting flares from a roof, the execution of an innocent man in an abandoned building, and then the final horrific scenes that slam the audience and Ari Folman with the undeniable horror of the massacre.

These are horrible crimes perpetrated by Ariel Sharon and his alliance with Bashir Gemayel. Yet Israel so efficiently erased its complicity in the massacre from its national memory that it made Ariel Sharon (who was found guilty of war crimes) Prime Minister twenty years later. It was interesting to hear Asher Kaufman talk about how Waltz With Bashir has lent Israel a soaring sense of national pride for the recognition it has received, and also to learn that it has been a “blockbuster” success in Israel. This film is not about nationalist propaganda. It’s about the horrible repercussions of war and the crime of willful ignorance. The film is interrogating Israel’s own complicity in war crimes and mass slaughter. Through the excavation of Ari Folman’s memory and him having to face his own fears (of being unwillingly aligned with the Nazis), the film questions Israel’s actions in Beirut and the continuing slaughter of Palestinians by overtly equating the events in Beiruts to the genocidal actions of the Nazis. This is not hidden in the subtext. It is included in the surface of the film's narrative.

It’s interesting that this interrogation and, on some level, condemnation of Israeli actions would be a source of national pride and a blockbuster success, but it is also clear that people see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe regardless of what is looking them in the eye. This is, after all, one of the points the movie is making. After my first viewing, I asked Kaufman to talk about the film’s overt association of the Israeli acts in Beirut with Nazi acts and to talk about the fear of being complicit in that which is most horrific to the Jewish people. Dr. Kaufman outwardly denied that any association existed in the film. He said that the mention of the Holocaust was simply a reference to the fears and memories that haunt every Jewish person. I was a bit flabbergasted by his refusal to acknowledge this content in the film, wondering if I had made a mistake.

But when I saw the film the second time, the content was even more explicit and overt than I had perceived the first time. I have subsequently learned that this is an on-going political and intellectual issue in Israel—the equation of Israeli acts against Palestinians to Nazi acts against Jews and the complex issues of morality associated with those acts. Reflecting on Dr. Asher’s refusal to acknowledge that content in the film, I realize that his actions mirror the very denial that he spoke of with regard to the movie. By denying the film’s equation of the massacre with Nazi acts of genocide, Kaufman was actually functioning within the very Denial Matrix that he talked about in relation to Israeli acts in Lebanon. Then again, when one of the audience members asked him if he had ever witnessed such horrors, his response was that all adult Israelis who have served in the Israeli Army (which is almost the entire adult population) have seen such things and accept them as a fact of life. So perhaps Dr. Kaufman is not too far removed from Ari Folman and his fellow soldiers keeping his military experience contained in a livable package removed from horrific reality or complicity with war crimes.

Light opens on reality.

Even at the end of my second viewing of Waltz With Bashir, I was unable to divorce my experience of the film from its historic specificity. But that’s good, because I usually do see film generically. Sometimes it’s important to remember that things are grounded in historic information. Still, despite its historic specificity, I believe Waltz With Bashir will speak powerfully to all soldiers of all wars and to all survivors of trauma, too. It is not just one memory from one person or one nation that is being resurrected in this film. It is a whole collective memory and collective experience of all the people who have died and been forgotten in wars, all the soldiers who have fought and been forgotten. Here in the United States, we not only forget the wars, but we forget the people who fight them. Waltz With Bashir unveils all the forgotten memories of war and reminds us of the damage that is done to those who are victims of war and those who fight the wars.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently hard at work on two book projects, an autobiographical account of the films that have mattered most to her and tales of her experiences as a teenage runaway on the streets of San Francisco in the 1970s. A preliminary sketch for the latter appeared here in Bad Subjects. Her work has also been published Counterpunch, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and the Berkeley Poetry Review. She would love to hear your thoughts on the film or other topics of interest.

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