WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Ari Folman, 2008)

Israel’s 1982 Lebanon war included the massacres of Palestinian civilians in refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila. Phalangists, Lebanese Christian militants, committed these atrocities, but with Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s heads-up. Under orders, then-soldier Ari Folman, writer-director-star of Vals Im Bashir, set off flares that in turn set the Phalangists to their murderous task. Now—Folman probably adopted all this for the film—he is “dissociative” regarding his experiences that fateful day; he cannot recall the massacres. To piece together his memory of the historical event, he interviews old army comrades and a psychoanalyst.
     This remarkable, haunting film is (until a final coda consisting of news footage) an animated documentary! The action nearly starts in a recurrent nightmare belonging to a friend of Ari’s; bad dreams seem to stick to combat veterans like flypaper. This friend, Boaz, killed dogs so that they couldn’t warn people of what was coming; he explains, “You know, I wasn’t capable of killing people.” Well, but what he did facilitated the killing of people. Indeed, the entire film is hallucinatory, dreamlike, eerie, nightmarish. The title refers to Lebanon’s back-then just-assassinated Israel-friendly president, Bashir Gemayel, posters of whom abound. The “waltz” is a soldier’s dance as he indiscriminately fires his weapon—an image that encapsulates a denial of responsibility. Not everyone kills; but the burden of guilt, hence the denial of responsibility, is generous and wide.
     Some of the details here of this guilt are inapt and ridiculous—for example, Ari’s feeling like a Nazi at a Second World War death camp. No matter. The use of animation exquisitely distances both the gross and unearthly horrors of war. A field of wounded and dead Arabian horses reminds one of a passage in Wajda’s Lotna (1959), which Folman’s version surpasses.

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