Vals im Bashir
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 09 October 2008
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
Categories The 46th New York Film Festival
The waltz occurs toward the end of the film, as a soldier breaks away from his troop into a blitz of fire, miraculously avoiding death as he sidesteps bullets with balletic grace. This is a flashback, and like the other memories in Waltz with Bashir, it’s difficult to tell what has actually happened and what has been imagined in the years since the war.
This moment of madness ties to the Lebanon War, which director Ari Folman, as a twentysomething soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, served in. His experience, or rather, his attempts to remember that experience, is the starting point for Waltz with Bashir, Folman’s autobiographical account of regaining a part of his past that most people might rather forget. Like a number of other excellent trauma narratives - Night and Fog, Hiroshima mon amour, The Sorrow and the Pity, and to a lesser degree, last year’s excellent Persepolis - Waltz with Bashir focuses on the power of language, and how dialogue may not erase past wrongs, but might help heal the present.
Waltz with Bashir is constructed around memories—a friend’s sudden dream about the war triggers Folman’s realization that he’s lost his memory, followed by his own haunted dream. That nightmare takes place during an invasion of Beirut, and more specifically, the Sabra and Shatila massacre.1 What Folman extracts here is not merely personal memory, but a history - and horror - unknown to many, while raising issues of responsibility far beyond this specific war. Although Folman was not directly involved in the mass murders that occurred during these two days, the psychological impact, a kind of guilt by association, has clearly weighed on his conscience for decades.
Folman’s peaceful present conflicts with his past; quite simply, he survived while others, fellow soldiers and innocent civilians, perished. Folman eventually recalls details of the massacre, and his vain attempts to inform his superiors of the slaughter taking place during those two nights. We already know that no one listened to Folman or any other questioning soldier, and the screams and shots that rang out from the refugee camps went unanswered—history can’t be undone, only reexamined. However, the way Folman acknowledges the past and his inability to prevent it urgently conveys these events as pertinent beyond their own timeline; the immense denial, both of Folman and his fellow soldiers, and certainly those “in charge” during the invasion, is as frightening as it is immediate. There is very little to reassure that history isn’t repeating itself decades later, within different nations and their inhabitants.
Folman’s decision to animate Waltz with Bashir is remarkably self-aware and certainly unusual for what is essentially a documentary. Nearly two-thirds of the way through, when we’ve seen not only animals but also helpless civilians butchered, it’s evident that animation may be the only means to endure the film’s disturbing accounts. At times, the film visually resembles a video game, the camera making sharp turns that could easily be performed via a controller. This technique, combined with stories from both a reporter at the massacre and a photographer who eventually couldn’t distance himself enough from death to remain on the battlefield is a cold reminder of how easily desensitized we may be to violence. While it’s not surprising in retrospect that Folman switches, however briefly, to actual documentary footage, it’s an instant jolt, and a deeply upsetting one. Clearly the animation doesn’t obscure the impact of these brutal memories—if anything, it enhances them.
There’s something tremendously brave about Waltz with Bashir: Folman draws out the political, but at the expense of the personal, exposing ugliness that many would want buried with them at their grave. Shame, however, is the source of many great stories, and in sharing his past Folman finds more than atonement—he revives history and its horrors for those unable to speak, both then and now.
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