Waltz with Bashir is unlike any other film I have ever seen. Both a documentary and an animation film--it is competing for Academy awards for both best animation and best foreign film from Israel--it is a surrealistic, often harrowing and deeply thought-provoking film. I left the showing literally shaking and plunged deep in thought and a quagmire of varying emotions. The director, Ari Folman, took part, as a nineteen year old, in the First Israeli-Lebanon war in 1982. He was stationed just hundreds of yards from the Sabra and Shitilla refugee camps, where 3,200 women, children and old people were brutally massacred by the Christian Phalangists in Lebanon, with the connivance of the Israeli military top command. Eventually, the Kahane Commission in Israel found the Israel military, including Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, complicit in this horrendous, brutal war crime.
Folman seems to have suffered from some variant of post-traumatic stress syndrome. He can not remember where he was or what happened during key periods of the war when he and his comrades came under sniper fire. He has no recollection of being present close to the massacre and joining other soldiers in lighting flares in the night sky to facilitate the cruel and inhumane killings. Years after the event, he contacts comrades who served with him to try to reconstruct what happened. He undergoes therapy to facilitate the remembrance. Folman created the Israeli television series which served as the model for the HBO series, "In Treatment."
The soldiers mix actual remembrances with hallucinatory sequences which came to them during the war. One acquaintance has a recurring dream of 26 snarling, vicious dogs who come nightly to attack him. They re-create his guilt at killing 26 barking dogs, to silence their warning bark when his platoon landed in Beirut. Animation--often done in a style reminiscent of German expressionist wood-blocks--works well as a medium to link the dreams, imaginations and nightmares of the soldiers. In one sequence, from which the movie gets its title, a comrade of Folman, Schmuel Frankel wrests a machine-gun from his buddy and runs into an open square where he is both dodging sniper bullets and frantically shooting the machine-gun in what seems a spirited dance. All around the square are large posters of the assassinated Lebanese Christian Phalangist President, Bashir Geymayal. The Phalangists suspected that Palestinian terrorists were guilty of the assassination. In point of fact, later evidence lays the responsibility with the Syrians.
Nothing I have ever seen has so captured "the fog of war." What started, for the young soldiers, as a kind of lark and adventure (they sing as they ride into town, " We are Here to Bomb Bierut") turns into trauma. In one scene, soldiers, on the look-out for a red Mercedes car which they have been tipped off might carry a car bomb, panic as a car approaches at night and riddle it with bullets. In the event, they discover they had murdered innocent civilians, a family with children, whose car happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. While the soldiers are not explicitly aware that they were being used to provide cover for the war crime, they later have to live with the guilt of senseless and unjust murders. One Israeli journalist, interviewed for the documentary, said that seeing the straggling few survivors, children and the elderly, coming out from the camp reminded him of nothing so much as the survivors of Auschwitz. Many of those Folman interviewees remain rather uncertain about what really happened or what, now, lodges in their memories (often as surrealistic dreams). Twenty-five years on, the former soldiers, now grizzled, middle-aged men, either live with remnants of the trauma or fall into a kind of amnesia.
Americans, caught in two terrible and non-conventional wars of guerrilla tactics, would do well to go see the film, if for no other reason than to understand the myriad number of their own young men and women who will return--if the wars ever end-- from Iraq and Afghanistan with similar senses of blocked memories, acting out fantasies and, perhaps, complicity in the killing of innocents. The movie ends with non-animated documentary footage of the carnage and bodies and the shrieking and wailing women of the Palestinian camps, keening over their dead. The viewer feels very much that he and Folman have been embedded, much like traumatized reporters, in a vision of gruesome slaughter and a kind of hell. No one can come away from viewing Waltz with Bashir with simple bravado or jingoistic views of war. Because of the inevitable and multifarious fog of war, war can only ever be commenced as some true and tragic last resort, not, as in Lebanon 1982 or Iraq, as some supercilious "war of choice." How rare that the perpetrators of unjust war, if they win the war, ever have to pay the just price they deserve as war criminals. Sharon went on to become Prime Minister of Israel!
John Coleman, S.J.