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Waltz with Bashir
Film Review by Sasha Simic, November 2008
Director: Ari Folman; Release date: 21 November
"Memory is...not disinterested. Not rarely it suppresses or regulates to an obscure corner episodes which go against the grain of the individual's controlling vital instinct" - Leon Trotsky, My Life.
This is a film about a war crime. On the night of 15 September 1982 Lebanese Christian Phalangist militias entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in West Beirut looking to avenge their leader, Bashir Gemayel, who had been assassinated the previous day.
That night the Phalangist militias slaughtered some 3,500 innocent Palestinian men, women and children. It was an atrocity which could not have been carried out without the complicity of the invading Israeli army whose forces encircled the camps, provided the Phalangists with logistical help and stood by while they carried out the massacre.
Ari Folman was in Beirut that night, a 19 year old soldier with the invading Israeli army.
Twenty years later he was sharing a drink in a bar in Tel Aviv with an old army colleague. When his friend described the vivid nightmares he was having as a result of his time in Beirut, Folman was shocked by how little he could recall of his own time there.
Worried about the gaps in his memory Folman consulted a number of psychiatrists who argued the memory loss was a subconscious defence mechanism to protect him from traumatic experiences. Nevertheless Folman wanted those memories back.
Now an accomplished filmmaker, Folman decided to make a documentary film about his time in Lebanon. He tracked down people he served with, taped their recollections and began turning them into an animated film which took four years to make at a velocity of six screen minutes a month.
The obvious question is, why animate it? For a lot of the film Folman presents material that doesn't seem to warrant animation. There are long sequences which feature Folman and his former army colleagues simply talking to each other. Though the animation is wonderful - with the same flavour of hyper-reality to be found in Richard Linklater's 2006 film, A Scanner Darkly - many sequences in the film could have been shot straight to camera. But Folman hasn't turned to animation on a whim - it is crucial to the story he's telling.
When the film flashes back to Folman's experiences in Lebanon it captures brilliantly the brutality and stupidity of war. But it also comes close to repeating the errors committed by many films that came out of US experiences of the Vietnam War. Films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon spoke of the horror of war but they did so from an almost completely US perspective.
The stories they told were about what the war did to US troops. The Vietnamese and their suffering are almost invisible in these depictions of US tragedy. For much of Waltz with Bashir there is the worry that Folman will fall into that trap and the Palestinians and Lebanese will be rendered invisible as he tells tales of alienated Israeli troops. But he doesn't fall into that trap.
That's because Folman is in absolute control of his material in this stunning film. The artistic choices he makes are brilliantly realised.
And once Folman's memory is restored, in a sequence of extraordinary power, it's clear that his amnesia wasn't simply an individual aberation. It is a social phenomenon, encouraged and fostered by a state which refuses to acknowledge its many, many crimes against the Palestinian people. Folman will not forget the horror of Sabra and Shatilla. Neither should we. Go and see this film.
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