Tel Aviv – With the academy awards approaching, I’ve decided that the best film I saw this year was Waltz with Bashir, nominated for best foreign language film (Hebrew). An animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir presents the experience of war in a unique and powerful way.
While the impending doom of the Sabra and Shatila massacre pervades the movie and pulls the viewer towards the culminating final scene, Waltz with Bashir is about the experience of young men sent to war. The story is told through the lens of (writer, director, and producer) Ari Folman’s struggle to recollect his wartime experiences. When a friend tells Ari about his reoccurring nightmare in which a pack of Lebanese dogs races through Tel Aviv to find him, Ari is confronted by his own nightmare as well as an inability to remember his time in Lebanon 20 years earlier.
In Ari’s nightmare, he and two other young men float ashore to downtown Beirut, M-16s in hand. The city is dark, lit only by the light of flares, drifting like shining feathers to the street below. The three young men rise naked from the water and look like a cross between emaciated concentration camp survivors and gangly teenagers. Ari and his two comrades don army uniforms and glide through the streets of war-torn Beirut, presumably in the direction of Sabra and Shatila. This nightmare sets Ari in motion on a journey to remember what he did in Lebanon, in particular during the 1982 massacre of the Palestinian refugee camp.
If the film was comprised of actual video interviews and newsreel clips, it would be a collection of soul-searching testimonies and horror-filled depictions of war and death. It would appeal to a select audience and be difficult content for everyone else. For this reason, the film’s animated style is remarkable. The animation presents the brutality and trauma of war in a way that allows all viewers to absorb the full picture, beyond the gore. The curly locks of a child beneath the rubble and the flies swarming the glassy eye of a fallen horse remain disturbing, but the animated versions make the images bearable and allow the viewer to consider elements of war beyond the in-your-face destruction.
While the animated style dulls the carnage of war, it deepens the humanity of the film’s main characters. As the now bald, long-haired, or bearded men recall their days as young men in Lebanon with vivid flashbacks, the age is clear on their faces and the scars shine through in a brilliant and simple way. In particular, Ari’s eyes, as well as those of his friend Carmi, have a depth to them that would be hard to achieve with live footage. The animated “sets” are equally remarkable, capturing the drama of each moment in an impossible way. There are poignant shots of Ari standing outside his car in the rain at the Tel Aviv port, of a Palestinian man with a cross carved into his chest being driven away in the back of a truck, and of the Beirut coast lit up at night by those drifting flares.
Further, the documentary’s animated style masterfully reinforces the message of “boys sent to war.” The animation accentuates their youth and irresponsible behavior, as Israeli teenagers machine-gun their way across southern Lebanon, crush parked cars with their tanks, and drink themselves into the night on a boat off of the Lebanese coast. For some reason, the sometimes jerky and sometimes repeating movements of the characters make the involvement of teenagers in the details of war more heinous. Watching a young Ari and his comrades float naked towards Beirut’s darkness, I couldn’t help but think of child soldiers in Africa. They are more like lost boys than an invading army.
It would seem that several of the boys remain lost 20 years later – the characters ring true and offer insight into another part of war. Carmi, the exile, is a boy genius who made a fortune selling falafel in Holland. Ronny, the “anti-hero,” is the now bald boy whose tank was blown up, his comrades killed, and who escaped, alone, swimming south along the Mediterranean coast. And then there are the traumatized ones, too, like Boaz who is haunted by the ghosts of the Lebanese dogs he killed years before and Ari, who in his dreams emerges again and again from the Mediterranean under the lit-up Beirut night.
Military service is compulsory in Israel and there isn’t a generation here who hasn’t had combat experience in the state’s 60-year history. Of course, mandatory service (in this case in Lebanon) is not a pass for shrugging off individual responsibility for one's actions, an area that Folman does not explore in this film. However, beyond this point, Waltz with Bashir successfully offers a sliver of insight into the effects of war on citizen-soldiers. With today’s news cycle, there is no shortage of coverage of the terrible impact that war has on civilians, most recently in Gaza in this last round of fighting. While the psychological trauma of soldiers returned home does not compete with the massacre of civilians and the destruction of cities and homes, Waltz with Bashir is successful in making clear that young men sent to soldier for their country are victims, too.