“Do you ever have flashbacks from Lebanon?”
Were it not for Movie Lottery, Waltz With Bashir would have languished on my shelves, unopened and unwatched, possibly forever. I should point out that I did see this documentary in the cinema, and was overwhelmingly impressed by it, but its subject matter – the Lebanon war in the 1980s – is not necessarily the most inviting when sitting at home in the evening after working all day. It’s a great example of the kind of film that benefits most from the enforced randomness of our viewing selection and, while I must still confess to know or understand little of the complex politics of the events portrayed, I was horrified and captivated in equal measures.
Writer-director Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated animated documentary is fascinating on both a technical and a psychological level; recollections of war represented through a distinctively comic-book-inspired aesthetic. Folman’s personal journey is triggered by a friend and former comrade’s recurring dream, which opens the film – a pack of wild, snarling, rabid dogs charging through an urban landscape. There are twenty-six of them, as there always are, and they don’t stop running. It’s a violent onslaught to the senses; as Folman’s friend later explains, his dream is directly related to a specific moment during his war service. While his friend is tormented nightly by his memories of war, Folman doesn’t dream, but this conversation unleashes something in him. Waltz With Bashir is the filmmaker’s attempts to discover why he can’t remember anything about his involvement in one particularly tragic, terrible event – the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when up to 3500 civilians were brutally murdered in refugee camps in Beirut – and why he is suddenly plagued by his own memory, in which he emerges, naked, from the ocean with some colleagues as the sky above him is lit brightly with falling flares.
Folman’s decision to present his story in animated form raises some interesting points. On a purely opportunistic level, it is perhaps the only way his documentary could be made. One interviewee states that he’ll only talk if he’s not filmed; Folman instead asks if he can draw the man and his son playing in the snow. Yet his reasons are not just to ensure his colleagues’ anonymity. Today, with the almost constant images of war on the news and recreated in movies, I’d argue that the general viewing public has become somewhat desensitised. Here, Folman shows us something unique – his memories, and the memories of his friends, are haunting and dreamlike. The animation subtly acknowledges that the images shown are the product of fallible recollections; they can be twisted and warped, they may not be accurate, they are the product of a mind that has been, quite probably, traumatised. Just as Folman himself has apparently locked away the truth to protect himself from his own memories, the images on screen can be fragmented, unreal, stylised, and edited.
The animation also has a direct impact on how the audience relate to the events being portrayed. The images, set against an evocative post-punk 80’s soundtrack, are shown in a detached manner – the lack of realism and the high-contrast graphics remove the viewer from the action, just as Folman has apparently emotionally removed himself from it. In flashbacks, his younger self’s handsome face is tinged with constant sadness but his expression never changes; he is blank, absent. Yet the stylised animation, which is beautifully rendered, creates an emotional barrier between the audience and the events, while simultaneously emphasising the true impact of the violence on those involved – and I mean here the soldiers, rather than the civilians caught in the crossfire. Their coping mechanisms – denial, amnesia, broken memories – reflect their sheer inability to deal with what they have witnessed and what they have done. In a sense, the animation reveals what Werner Herzog might describe as “ecstatic truth” and, just as Folman gets one recurring image stuck in his head, there are many moments in Waltz With Bashir that linger long after the film has finished.
In the film’s final moments, Folman makes the decision to suddenly jolt the audience into reality, showing newsreel footage of the aftermath of the massacre. It’s manipulative, but effective, and serves as a stark reminder that, despite the dreamy beauty that has enveloped the story to this point, these events were real, and dreadful. Thinking retrospectively about the film, I realise that much remains unanswered; yet maybe that is the point. As memories, the truth is only what we convince ourselves of, and our recollections are constantly changing, growing, evolving. Waltz With Bashir seems to acknowledge this, and the result is a harrowing, haunting, and profound documentary that, somewhat ironically considering its aesthetic choices, puts a very human face on a complex war.