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The Futility of Truth or Reconciliation in Waltz with Bashir

Although it examines culpability and responsibility in service of truth and reconciliation, this film fails to address the structures of power, and arguably perpetuates the very atrocities that it sets out to condemn.

“Where are you Arabs?!” a grieving Palestinian woman begs to a camera crew filming the aftermath of the 1982 massacre in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila neighborhoods. “Produce images and distribute, produce images and distribute” she pleads, “and send them overseas!”

These lines appear without subtitles, and remain the un-translated last words of Ari Folman’s new film, Waltz with Bashir. DVD: Waltz With Bashir

Film: Waltz With Bashir

Director: Ari Folman

Cast: Ron Ben Yisahi, Boaz Rein Buskila, Ori Sivan, Roni Dayg, Carmi Cnaa’n

Year: 2008

Rated: R

US DVD release date: 2009-06-23

Distributor: Sony

Image: film, Israel’s entry for the 2008 foreign language Oscar, the winner of the prestigious Golden Globe, originally appeared in the US in Hebrew with English subtitles, and the DVD, released 23 June, adds a version that is dubbed in English. Despite DVD’s linguistic options -- the film’s subtitles have been improved, and even the credits appear in English rather than Hebrew -- this mourning mother, and all Palestinians in the film, are in effect silenced.

The unidentified woman pleads for the distribution of the images of the mass-murder, and one wonders if by denying her a voice, Folman is playing a private joke on himself, commending himself for fulfilling her mission. Or does he believe he is actually helping us “feel” rather than “hear” her pain? The images are also notable as they are the only live action footage in an otherwise “animated documentary” that seamlessly travels between the real and the surreal while exploring war’s psychic trauma.

“From the very beginning of writing the screenplay I knew it will end with live footage,” Folman’s commentary reads over shocking footage of the massacre. “I just wanted to prevent a situation where someone, somewhere, anywhere will see Waltz with Bashir and walk out of the theater and think that it’s a very cool animated film with great drawings and music and it’s an anti-war movie. It’s much more than that and I think those 50 seconds of live footage it puts the whole film into proportion. It puts my personal story into proportion. It puts the animation into proportion.”

With the abrupt transition from animated dream sequence to the final, arresting moments of actual footage, Waltz with Bashir transforms from an ostensibly personal film into an unquestionably political one. Praised for its “searing moral power” (New York Times’ critic A.O. Scott) and lauded almost universally in the US, Folman’s film undoubtedly pushes the limits of filmmaking in examining culpability and responsibility in service of truth and reconciliation. But for a film about the trauma of genocide, Waltz with Bashir fails to address the structures of power, and arguably perpetuates the very atrocities that it sets out to condemn.

Within the four corners of the film, left on the cutting room floor, and lurking just outside Folman’s frame, is the broader claim -- taboo in his home country and in America -- that state sponsored violence exists not to prevent massacres like Sabra and Shatila, but rather to perpetuate such atrocities as part of the core of the state’s very existence.

Ultimately it is difficult to emerge from the film without the impression that both truth and reconciliation are impossible in a society that has been complicit with, or has perpetuated genocide. In the end, Waltz with Bashir is a film whose bravery is only matched by its ambition, but if it is, as Folman hopes, to be heard as more than an anti-war movie, it must be asked what does the film have to say for itself?

Unconventional Medium for Conventional Message

For all of the buzz of technical innovation, Waltz with Bashir fits comfortably within two well-worn genres: the “weeping and shooting” soldier trope of sensitive Israelis dismayed or guilt-ridden at having to go to war, and the classic war movie. A US audience is likely to be far more familiar with the latter, but the other trope is just as present in artistic representation in Israel.

The genre is summed up by a professor of linguistics: “One…encourages rituals of self-accusation, shame and remorse. All this neither hampers nor mitigates the calculated, efficient and effective implementation of the atrocities of war on the operative level. On the contrary: the former may serve as a justification and affirmation of the latter.” But all guilty acts are not absolved through regret, and the soldiers’ alleged innocence fails to exonerate the violent nature of their State.

Waltz with Bashir centers on the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982 and the massacre of Palestinian civilians, the events unfolding through the first-hand recollections and nightmares of Israeli soldiers. Carried out by The Phalange, a Lebanese Christian militia Folman accurately paints as a group of blood-thirsty extremists seeking revenge for the assassination of President-Elect Bashir Gemayel. The incident is one of the most notorious massacres of the last 30 years, and was committed under Israeli protection and with its leaders’ complicity.

The film begins simply enough. Folman is visited by his friend Boaz (one of two interviewees who requested anonymity, voiced by an actor named Boaz Rein Buskila) who has been terrorized by a recurring nightmare involving the ghosts of 26 dogs he murdered while serving during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon more than 20 years before. Folman, troubled that he has no recollection of his army service, dreams that very night of a ravaged Beirut lit up by flares.

The film proceeds with a series of Israeli soldiers recounting their involvement in the 1982 war. Many have repressed precise occurrences, but with the help of a smarmy psychiatrist, a thoughtful expert in post-traumatic stress, some marijuana, and a heavy reliance on hallucination/dream recollection, Folman pieces together a narrative of events leading up to the massacre.

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