Film Review: A Waltz for the War-Weary

Two hours before I watched Ari Folman’s docu-drama animated film Waltz with Bashir, a personal account of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, I listened to a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom recount his experience before a Washington D.C. audience.

“I had no problem blowing up buildings knowing there were people inside,” the veteran admitted nonchalantly. “I just couldn’t stare an Iraqi in the eye, man to man, and pull the trigger.”

That physical and emotional distance served as his protective armor, providing him with the psychological fortification needed to continue his job on the ground. But as soon as he returned home from Iraq, he found himself struggling to make sense of the war. To resume his life as a civilian he had to erase the chilling images he had suppressed during combat.

The Iraq War vet could have played a supporting role in Waltz with Bashir, a rare film that casts a revelatory spotlight on the themes of war, memory, and collective amnesia. The story and characters are Israelis, but they could just as easily be U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, or members of any occupying army.

Folman’s Odyssey

Ari Folman was 19 when he served in Lebanon as a member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). After 22 years in the IDF, he had enough. According to Folman, his commanders agreed: “So long as you go to the army therapist and talk about everything you went through.” Waltz uses intimate dialogue that lures film-goers into the drama as eavesdroppers on a therapy session. The newly released graphic novel version of the film stays faithful to the original script, but lacks the intricate layers of emotion radiating from the big screen. Indeed, Waltz has played in festivals around the world to critical acclaim. In January, Israel took home the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language picture and received an Academy Award nomination.

The film opens in January 2006, seven months before Israel’s second war in Lebanon with Hezbollah. Boaz Rein Buskila, another Israeli who served in Lebanon, shares with Ari Folman’s character a recurring nightmare. Twenty-six vicious dogs with menacing yellow eyes run through the streets of Tel Aviv, knocking down everything in sight in mechanical precision. To connect this visual with Israel’s first war in Lebanon, the film cuts to Boaz recalling the events of the summer of 1982, when the IDF entered Lebanese villages searching for Palestinians on their hit list. The village dogs would bark as soon as they smelled the intruders, allowing the IDF’s targets to escape. Boaz’s task was to shoot the dogs, whose facial features onscreen appear eerily human. “I remember every one of them. Every face, every scar, the look in their eyes as they died,” he confides.

Intrigued by Boaz’s dream, Ari confesses he can’t recall anything from the Lebanon experience. He doesn’t even remember being 100 yards away from the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, orchestrated by Christian Phalangist militiamen with Israeli complicity. Following the September 14, 1982 assassination of Israel’s ally, the right-wing Phalangist leader and president-elect Bashir Gemayel, the Israeli army occupied West Beirut and sealed and encircled Sabra and Shatila, preventing Palestinian and Lebanese civilians from escaping. The Phalangists “mopped up” the camps — allegedly home to “2,000 terrorists,” according to Ariel Sharon. Meanwhile, the IDF launched flares into the sky so the assassins could operate more efficiently.

From September 16-18, Phalangists slew an estimated 3,000 men, women, and children. They etched crosses on the bodies of several victims. The Israeli Kahan Commission found that then-defense minister Ariel Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for the deaths. Indeed, Sharon appears as a character in the film. Informed of the massacre in progress by Israeli war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, he hurriedly thanks him for bringing it to his attention and wishes him a happy new year. He does nothing to stop the killings at the camps.

The Persistence of Memory

While driving in the pouring rain, Ari has his first flashback from the war. It is a surrealistic confirmation of the persistence of memory. In blinding yellow and black hues, he sees himself emerging from the sea as a young soldier, naked and vulnerable, walking toward downtown West Beirut for his mission. This image haunts Ari as he seeks to recover his memory by meeting with old comrades to discuss their recollections of Lebanon.

In the second recurring flashback, he sees images of weeping, horrified women fleeing Sabra and Shatila. Ari stares stoically as they fling their arms in the air for help. Still missing for him, however, is the critical, bloody climax: What happened at the camps, and to what extent were he and the IDF responsible for the massacre?

Dreams and memories don’t unfold on a linear course. They also challenge the traditional colors of a spectrum. Accordingly art director and chief illustrator David Polonsky shifts the colors of Waltz’s comic-book style animation as Ari’s and his comrades’ recollections of war become more detailed — and grisly. This filmic device works more than conventional documentary format, because as director Ari Folman puts it, “War is like a really bad acid trip.”

In one such example, Carmi Cna’an recalls a hallucination. He tells Ari that as a young man on the IDF ship bound for Beirut he imagined his first sexual experience. In glistening, soft pastel hues, a voluptuous, towering woman emerges from the sea, carrying him off of the ship. She becomes his life boat, his refuge from the war on land. As he floats on top of her, from a distance he sees his comrades on the ship ignite in red, suffocating flames. Images shift to grey, black, and bluish colors, like old news reels, as Carmi then recalls waking up and landing in Lebanon.

“With all the pressure and the fear, we start shooting like maniacs. I have no idea at what,” he tells Ari. We see a car pockmarked with bullets, the bodies of a dead family lying inside. “When it’s fully light, you see the havoc you’ve caused,” Carmi concludes. His character, unlike Ari’s, has accepted the censoring of his Lebanon memories. He’ll never forget being with Ari in Beirut, he says, but admits, “The massacre’s not in my system.” Ari, however, cannot stop his quest for the truth about what he had witnessed at Sabra and Shatila.

Shmuel Frenkel, another Lebanon veteran, provides the film’s most memorable image and its title. When the IDF arrived in downtown Beirut, they encountered snipers on rooftops. Frenkel dramatically takes off from his unit. Dodging bullets, he begins a fervent waltz with his rifle as a dance partner in the intersection underneath a poster of the slain Bashir Gemayel’s watchful gaze. This creative, animated choreography demonstrates Israel’s political waltz with the Christian Phalangists, and more importantly, how war drives even the toughest of soldiers in the IDF to the point of insanity.

Changing Israeli Politics?

Ari Folman has said his film won’t change Israeli politics. He has a point, particularly in the wake of Israel’s war in Gaza. With the reemergence in the February elections of Likudnik Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu and the ascendancy of the even more extreme Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli politics seem to be heading in the opposite direction.

Change cannot happen until the prevailing, destructive narrative of war and occupation is challenged head-on, collectively shaking Israeli consciousness—and amnesia. Waltz with Bashir doesn’t hit filmgoers with the message, “End the Occupation!” And it doesn’t address the victims’ point of view. The Israeli government is even promoting the film because it fingers the Phalangists rather than Israeli soldiers as the direct culprits in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Still, by focusing on the impact of the first Lebanon war on Israeli soldiers, the film doesn’t dance around the essential point: the senselessness of Israel’s military actions and the need for more discussion about alternatives.

Farrah Hassen, a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor, is the Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.