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Film Review

Waltz with Bashir

The Jews are both blessed and cursed with the Talmudic commandment to remember, and to atone. In this powerful attempt to grapple with questions of memory and guilt, Ari Folman, an Israeli documentary film maker, has told his own story, and that of many of his friends, about the ill conceived invasion of Lebanon, and then Beirut, in 1982. Which culminated in the notorious massacre of the Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, by the Christian Phalangists, Israeli allies at the time. The title, Waltz with Bashir, refers to Bashir Gemayel, the head of the Lebanese Phalangist party, who was murdered during that period, and whose killing sparked the massacre.

Over 20 years later, Folman, who was in that invasion, is visited by one of his friends, Boaz, who was also there. Boaz, relates a nightmare that he continues to have: a vicious pack of 26 dogs runs through the city, stopping at Boaz's building, baying for his death. Boaz understands where this nightmare comes from, and relates his story of being assigned to kill dogs that barked and warned villages of night time attacks. Boaz asks Folman what he remembers. Folman doesn't remember anything, except being home on furlough. Folman is astonished that he cannot remember anything, talks to his psychiatrist friend who suggests that he ask other who were with him. He begins to located men that were with him during the invasion, and most speak in their own words of their memories or lack of memory. Slowly Folman begins to reconstruct his own memories, most of which are clearly painful. He begins to dream as well, including a chilling scene of him and his men lying in the ocean off Beirut, rising up and wading ashore naked with weapons. His psychiatrist friend tells him that his memory "will lead you to where you want to go".

Some do not remember him at all, others do. Each man tells his story, often hallucinatory, sometimes surreal, such as one falling asleep on the ship taking them to a raid, and sees a giant naked woman swimming toward the boat, who lifts him up, and cradles him in her groin while she backstrokes away. Another is the sole survivor of an ambush of his tank, who watches his friends die, then is able to swim away. A friend, now living in Holland, became rich from falafel stands, and takes Folman to his country house while he tells his story. All of the men are depicted as they are today, older, heavier, cynical, but as they begin to relate their stories they become young again. All of their stories share the horror, waste, irony, and real cost of war. And inevitably, since this is a history, they begin to assemble outside the refugee camps where the real nightmare is about to begin.

I haven't yet mentioned that Folman decided to use an animated format for this film, which seems an unlikely mode for a serious film, essentially a self documentary. Animated films are occasionally good, but most are silly or simply cute and clever (think Ratatouille). But here the animated technique is used to great effect, with very sophisticated coloring. The scenes are often beautiful, moving, and combined with the music, alternating disco and somber organ, give an enormous power to this film. Folman has produced a brilliant look at traumatic memory, both for the individual Israelis and the nation as a whole. My only criticism of Waltz with Bashir is that he chose to use actual historical footage for the very end, rather than continue the animation. It is as if he suddenly lost confidence in the capacity of animation to convey the horror. Some have criticized this film as anti-Israeli, but I think not. It is tribute to their capacity for introspection, self criticism, integrity, and atonement. And ironic that Waltz should be playing now, during the fighting in Gaza. Even though beautiful, this is not an easy film to watch, but it is a very great film, and an important one. Highly recommend, especially in a theater. Just opened this past weekend at the Clay.

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