Slipping In and Out of Reality
Because the recollections of the eight men who were interviewed for the film slide so easily from reality into fantasy, animation is the perfect media to represent their stories; an old Israeli army boat is transformed into a party boat, and the titular image, a soldier and his MAG gun waltzing through a hail of bullets in front of a huge poster of Bashir.
But under the guise of personal narrative, Folman never questions whether the State has any right to be in Lebanon in the first place. A scene—familiar to fans of war movies—involving a soldier’s company entering into Southern Lebanon offers the trope of soldiers journeying into a seemingly idyllic virgin land. But the area is safe for these soldiers precisely because it has been ravaged by an earlier Israeli-supporting militia.
Similarly, an intrepid journalist, Ron Ben Yisahl, is portrayed as a superhero in Folman’s film, outraged at the atrocities of Sabra and Shatila, to the point of calling on the phone his “friend” Defense Minister Sharon to inform him of his outrage. But Yisahl lives in a flat outside of Beirut, clearly provided because of his country’s place as occupiers, and never questions the war or occupation itself.
While clearly placing the blame of the atrocity on the side of the Christian Phalanges militia, Waltz with Bashir also implicates the State of Israel for its complicity. This implication is powerful, and the film is brave to broach the topic.
But what of Israeli soldiers? In interviews and in the publicity materials, Folman has stated, “Israeli soldiers had nothing to do with [the massacre].” In a undated Q&A included in the DVD release, Folman answers question in front of a red-carpet event with Variety magazine logo on the wall behind him. Between questions about the current life of a romantic figure in the film (she was married and divorced and married again), and why two interviewees elected to be voiced by actors (he didn’t want the guys at work to know he smokes marijuana), Folman answers a question under the inter-title “HISTORY”.
“A lot of people thought that the massacre was done by Israeli troops,” Folman says. “And suddenly they see for the first time in [Waltz with Bashir]—we had more than half a million in admissions just in France—that it was done by the Phalangist Christian regime. And I mean, the Israeli government understood very quickly and cleverly that this propaganda can’t be bought with money and the film does it. So it’s another reason they support the film.”
Though there is no question that it was the Phalange that committed the atrocities in the Sabra and Shatila neighborhoods, Folman’s film places the Israeli soldiers right outside the perimeter. One can’t help but be struck by how the film easily slips from the personal account to what might pass as political propaganda.
The Personal and the Political
Until the last scene, Waltz with Bashir is a series of personal accounts. Folman finds few friends who can clearly recall their experience in Lebanon. Instead, the movie comes off as a hybrid between an oral history and a hallucination.
Then, in the film’s closing minutes, Folman abruptly abandons both his personal narrative and his animated technique, choosing instead to end Waltz with Bashir with live action television coverage. The Arabic speaker also contributes her voice to the chorus of personal experiences, but unlike the pictures that accompany her story, which are crystal clear, her words, a call to arms and a plea for unfiltered distribution, remain un-translated.
Folman’s film earlier finds empathy in two non-human species: dogs and horses, and one can’t help but wonder if Folman purposefully denies the woman her voice so that she might appear as a wounded and victimized animal rather than a human being, with a language (Arabic), nationality (Palestinian), and cause (outrage).
Ironically, Waltz with Bashir opened in New York and Los Angeles on 26 December, the very day Israel launched its most recent military campaign on the Gaza Strip. An estimated 1,300 civilians have been killed in a massacre whose images were censored by an Israeli army that prevented international journalists from entering the occupied area.
The few images that did emerge appeared on Al Jazeera, capturing the unspeakable carnage of men, women and children; images that were so similar to those from the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
Just more than a week before Folman’s film was to be released in the US, Israel’s new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the world and spoke of the possibility of a Palestinian state. His intended audience included US President Barack Obama, who has made many attempts in the early part of his term to engage the Arabic-speaking world in a dialogue. But a dialogue, as President Obama has repeatedly noted, involves listening, and it is hard not to hear the mourning mother in Folman’s film again pleading to be heard.
One may only hope that things will improve. If not, perhaps 20 years from now, another filmmaker will release a tragic work to a chorus of critical acclaim, a film that may be titled Waltz with Abbas.