'Waltz With Bashir'

On The Aisle

By Tony Macklin


The Israeli film “Waltz with Bashir” looked like a sure thing to win the Oscar as Best Foreign Film. It had received raves; it had garnered more than 90 percent favorable reviews. It had better distribution than any of the other candidates. “Waltz with Bashir” looked like a lock. It wasn’t. The Japanese film “Departures” was selected as Best Foreign Film.

What happened? “Waltz with Bashir” obviously offended, provoked and bothered some of the voters. In its anti-war stance, it suggests that onlookers from the Israeli Defense Force were complicit in the Lebanese Christian Phalangists’ massacres of Palestinian women, children and old men in 1982. 

The movie implies that these Palestinians in the refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila were massacred on Sept. 15 and 16, 1982, as the Israeli force stood by. When one of the Israeli participants, in retrospect, says, “We were the Nazis,” it is a brutal indictment. 

“Waltz with Bashir” begins 20 years after the massacres. Boaz, one of the men who was a very young man in the war, meets fellow veteran Ari in a cafe and tells him about a recurring nightmare he has.

The nightmare is the opening sequence of this animated documentary, and it is potent and harrowing. Twenty-six ferocious dogs with glinting yellow eyes bound furiously down a street, snarling and frothing. They stop under a man in a window high above them. These are the dogs of war, and they’re alive in Boaz’s memory. He shot 26 dogs in the war, and his sleep is haunted by their revenge.

Ari, who is the filmmaker Ari Folman, has his own dream. In it he and other men are walking naked in the dark night through the black sea toward the shore with orange flares in the distance.

Ari needs to discover the meaning of his dream vision. He has few memories of the war in which he participated, so he sets out to interview others who participated, in the hopes of unlocking his memory and understanding his dream.

Ari interviews several individuals, and in all but two of the taped interviews, we hear the real voices. Only two are portrayed by actors.

The interviews reveal memories of fear, dread and guilt. They are a combustion of illusion, hallucination and contemplation. A few are comforting; most are anguishing.

The truth is hard to fathom. A psychologist friend of Ari tells him, “Memory fills the holes with things that never happened.” But he also says, “Memory takes us where we need to go.”

Earlier in the bar a character had asked, “Can’t films be therapeutic?”

Folman, who wrote and directed “Waltz with Bashir,” creates an intriguing film. He uses unique animation, which features muted, ochre imagery.

Several sequences are startling. Several times Folman shows young soldiers, bold or frightened, firing their weapons mindlessly and purposelessly and indiscriminately.

There is the fateful fall of Arabian horses, an image of ugliness destroying grace. This will be too much for some viewers to bear. The image that gives the film its title is when a young soldier does a devil’s dance, a wicked waltz, reeling in front of a poster of Bashir wildly and crazily firing his weapon. 

Bashir Gemayel was the Phalangist leader and president-elect of Lebanon, who was assassinated two days before the massacres. The assassination motivated his followers to commit their subsequent ruthless atrocities, while others failed to intervene.

What is the bystanders’ guilt?

Insights in “Waltz with Bashir” are like the bursts and explosions that go off during the film. They’re sporadic. But the flares that Folman fired in the past ironically bring resolution. He understands his culpability.

Some viewers will reject Folman’s point of view. The sober surrealism may deflect others. But most viewers will be moved in some way by “Waltz with Bashir.” It’s like a nightmare from which you awake. But you stay unsettled for a long time.

Categories: Entertainment