Waltz with Bashir
Film director Ari Folman is probably the only man in Israel whose cartoon image is better known than his real face. On the streets of Tel Aviv, Folman - a tall, grey-haired figure - passes by unnoticed. But his animated self, as the main character in the film Waltz with Bashir, has left a clear mark on the Israeli imagination. The idea of Folman making a feature-length cartoon starring himself isn't as pleasing as it sounds. Waltz with Bashir is by no means a playful WALL-E-style adventure or a sweet Disney cartoon. Resembling a war documentary, yet based on personal experience, it details Folman's attempts to retrieve the lost memories of his youth as a stunned soldier under fire in Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon war.
Waltz with Bashir had already found fans well beyond Israel's borders and was nominated for Oscars in the best foreign film category. The cartoon's images may seem simply drawn, and move at a sleepwalker's dreamy pace, but Folman uses them together with slow music to capture war's senseless brutality. The title refers to a scene when an Israeli soldier, pinned down by sniper fire from the surrounding Beirut apartment blocks, jumps up and starts firing his heavy machine gun as he waltzes across a rooftop past posters of murdered Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayelit's a powerful, and incredibly magnificent moment.
But it was one that Folman chose to forget After leaving the Israeli army at the end of his three-year hitch, he broke all contact with the men in his platoon. "I didn't call them, 1 ignored their reunions," he says, sipping Turkish coffee in his Tel Aviv studio. "I would've lived my life without dealing with my war memories." Then, in 2003, a chance encounter with a psychiatrist opened cracks in his willful amnesia. Soon after, the terrible secret of Folman's worst memory came rushing out: under orders, he and his men had guarded the outer ring of the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila while Christian Phalangist militiamen went inside and butchered hundreds of women and children.
Waltz is more than simply a war movie; it's about memory, lost and regained, and how the mind copes with horrible things. "My mother and father were both Holocaust survivors," Folman says. "My mom talks about it always. My father never does. Some people leave the horrors of the past behind while others keep on analyzing them in depth until they go mad. Not to mention those who suffer from panic strikes day and night We all have our own strategies for dealing with tragedy." His strategy for over 20 years was to bottle it up. "I'd never heard my own story. It never left my mouth."
After Folman's memories came back full blast, he sank into other ex-soldiers' experiences of the Lebanon war, For Israelis it was a botched misadventure similar to America's war in Vietnam, and one nobody dared speak about afterwards. Folman posted notices on the Internet, asking veterans to come forward with their stories. He got over a hundred replies, and skillfully weaved into the film his ex-comrades' stories - and their nightmares. Waltz unexpectedly opens with a pack of snarling dogs racing through Tel Aviv's streets to gather outside an apartment belonging to a friend of Folman's. During the war, this friend's task was to shoot the watchdogs guarding the villages before Israeli troops carried out night raids. For years after, the dogs haunted the man's sleep causing his suffering from trauma.
Waltz also conveys the irritating dislocation that soldiers feel when coming home. "In Iraq or Afghanistan, it takes the Americans maybe a few days to go back home, giving them a little time to adjust," says Folman. Obviously, this does not exclude war trauma, sick associations or other problems both US and Israeli soldiers suffer from when facing civilian life again. Still the distance and time perspective allows the Americans to prepare mentally for the return to non-military reality. For me it was a 20-minute helicopter ride and I was back in Haifa, where the war didn't exist. Nobody there talked about it." In the cartoon we follow shell-shocked, teenaged Ari Folman as he wanders the streets, numbly watching a rack guitarist on a store TV, and his ex-girlfriend dancing with another guy under disco lights that are like the flares showering down on Beirut.
At the end, Waltz steps out of animation, using TV news footage to show the massacre of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. "I didn't want people to walk out thinking this was just another cool anti-war or anti-Israel - Palestinian conflict movie," says Folman. "I wanted to remind them this was not just a military embarrassment like Vietnam but a horrible event that really occurred. We Israelis not only allowed it to happen, we were also a part of it." After seeing his film, nobody is going to forget.