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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Waltz with Bashir

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Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
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Waltz with Bashir

Despite the elegant title, Waltz with Bashir is a dance of pure sorrow.  From the disturbing, dog-filled dream sequence that opens the film to its harrowing newsreel ending, it bears somber witness to the events that occurred as a result of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Director Ari Folman (Made in Israel) also wrote and produced this first-ever animated documentary, based on his own experiences in the Israeli army during the invasion.  As his friend Boaz recounts a recurring dream of 26 dogs racing through the streets of Tel Aviv, he realizes that it is connected to a grisly army mission; Folman discovers that he himself has no memory of his service in Lebanon.  He sets out on a multi-country journey to find those who do remember.

Folman’s nine interviews (7 actual participants, 2 actors portraying the more reluctant) were cut as if he were making a conventional live-action documentary.  The footage was given to his team of animators, who used three kinds of drawn-from-scratch animation for the finished product.  Waltz with Bashir was five years in the making.

A bit of history is in order here for context.  The assassination of Bashir Gemayel, newly appointed President of Lebanon, in mid-September, 1982 by Palestinian factions triggered a retaliatory strike by The Lebanese Christian Militia, (also known as the Phalangists, who were Israeli allies at the time).  The Israeli command authorized the entrance of a force of approximately 150 Phalangist fighters' into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, under the guise of hunting for terrorists.  The result was a massacre in which at least 800 civilians were slaughtered by the Phalangists, many of them women, the elderly and children.

Folman allows successive stories, reminisces, and interviews from fellow soldiers, a psychiatrist, a high ranking Israeli officer, and a war correspondent unfold in confessional and revelatory ways.  Incorporated are dream sequences, a porn clip (still animated) and hallucinatory images which may have been real but are left to interpretation.  There are nuances of shame, guilt and trepidation, but the journey carries with it no histrionics, only quiet reflection and the somber recitation of unnerving images and atrocities. The waltz part comes from the movements of a lone soldier battling unseen snipers with his rifle, crossing a deadly street in a hail of bullets.  A huge portrait of the slain Gemayel can be seen in the background.

Waltz with Bashir will haunt the viewer in the way it haunted Folman, who has done his best to take the audience with him on his personal journey.  Regret, sadness, delayed shock and numbness accompany the participants in varying degrees.

Men are the tools of violence here.  When women appear, they are either animated sexual fantasies, fond memories, or newsreel mourners in the final, disturbing sequence of events.  The surreal, pointless quality of war, vengeance and destruction is juxtaposed with the beauty of a tropical paradise, its miles of beachfront property and palm trees swaying in a graceful breeze.   A closer look reveals a skyline scarred by bombed out buildings rendering the prospect of an intact window anywhere a veritable impossibility.  Flares light up the night as three young Israeli soldiers emerge naked from the sea and silently dress for battle.

The film begs the question:  are those who did nothing as guilty as those who actively fired upon unarmed civilians?  Folman’s indictment is unsentimental and that adds to its power.  His subjects’ quiet declarative sentences can resonate like an exploded RPG shell, launched from the shoulder of a twelve-year-old, who is then gunned down himself.  Tha animation helps mask the ugliness, but it is there and you will eventually meet it in grotesque abundance.

The psychological damage of war is hidden as a deep scar in the mind of the individual soldiers who experienced it.  Reality, hallucination and dreams are braided in such a way that no one strand is more valid than the other.  Discovery is left to the graphic newsreel footage at the very end, where all is revealed.  .

You may never partake in a dance of this kind, but you will understand the steps that were taken (and how they were learned) with a terrible, newfound clarity.  The typical insulated American viewer will be shocked.  The ultimate tragedy is that there will inevitably be many more who won’t.

(Hebrew with English subtitles)