This film review originally appeared in the print edition of the Australian Jewish News on September 12, 2008
Written, directed and produced by Ari Folman
We Jews are excellent at remembering, with many of our major festivals organised around re-telling of historic events. But what happens when memory does not come? This is what faced Israeli film-maker Ari Folman in attempting to remember what he did at age 20 during the 1982 Lebanon War, when he ended up in Beirut, very close to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres. How fitting that Folman is the son of Auschwitz survivors.
One friend asks if has tried psychotherapy, shiatsu, “that sort of thing”. But Folman went a different route, tracking down people other soldiers who served in Lebanon at the time and turning their stories into one of the most unique documentaries in many years. The result is Waltz with Bashir, a feature-length animated documentary with re-creations of the incidents described in the interviews.
This MA15+ rated film well and truly earns its strong rating in the first scene: a pack of wild, mean and very angry dogs race through the streets of a city which appears to be Tel Aviv, knocking over street furniture and terrorising bystanders as they arrive at an apartment building, from which a man fearfully peers down. These are the nightmares of Boaz Rein-Buskila, an accountant whose job in the Lebanon War was to shoot the dogs in the villages his army unit entered so that their barking would not give the soldiers away.
And thus it goes with each interviewee’s on-screen story. Ronny Dayag was the only survivor of a unit that was ambushed near a beach in Lebanon, but he survived by swimming south in the ocean at night until he reached Israeli lines. But he remained scarred by the experience of survival. And there is Shmuel Frenkel, a unit commander who applied patchouli oil so that his men would know where he was by its distinctive smell. During a street fight in Beirut when he and his men are pinned down by sniper fire he grabs a machine gun and runs into the street, firing and dancing wildly – thus the film’s title Waltz with Bashir, Bashir referring to the murdered charismatic Lebanese Christian politician Bashir Gemayel.
Most of the interviewees appear on screen in animated versions of themselves, all in discussion with the director Folman, and in most (but not all cases) it is their actual voices which we hear, telling their stories in their own words.
The drawings in the film operate on a number of levels. They help us to re-live the horror of the war, the visuals of which could be overwhelming if we were watching real pictures or possibly would be distracting if actors played the roles in the recreations. They also help to shield the interviewees – we don’t see their faces as they re-live what for many are terrible memories. Instead, we see the film-makers’ interpretations of how they expressed themselves.
The animation – in a strange palette of colours, mostly yellows and greys with occasional flashes of other colours – both simplify and unify the stories. The animation artists’ strokes are often broad, but the drawings are powerful and emotionally engaging, and frequently blackly humorous. The sense of the absurd (resonances of Apocalypse Now and other classic war films are surely intentional) is accentuated by a brilliant soundtrack with a mixture of original scoring and a number of popular but biting Israeli songs.
The visuals are captivating, and the result of Waltz with Bashir is powerful and unsettling. But be warned: this is strong stuff. If some of the recreations were live action and not animations, the film could very well have strayed into full “R” (restricted) territory.
With its unusual approach, Waltz with Bashir breaks new ground in film-making and was nominated for best foreign language film in the February 2009 Academy Awards (but did not win, losing to the Japanese film Departures). It could equally have been nominated for best documentary. It’s that type of film: part art film, part psychological journey. Aside from some explicit criticism of Ariel Sharon’s inaction during the siege of Beirut, there is little specific political content here, although the futility of war (given that Waltz with Bashir was released after the 2006 Lebanon war) is an obvious point to make. Few films capture the tormented post-traumatic stress of former soldiers as well as this one does. What surprises will the contemporary Israeli film industry come up with next?