You’d have to be made of granite not to be moved by Waltz with Bashir. From the first frame it explodes with the overwhelming energy of unleashed hounds snarling and roaring through a city, like an invading army or a black tide of anger, regret or perhaps guilt, only to end up baying for blood from the street below their human target. As a friend tells him about his recurring nightmare, Israeli director Ari Folman feels compelled to unlock its meaning. Visiting psychiatrist friends, he’s urged to reconnect to former army buddies. Each one Folman meets transports him and us inside their fractured, surreal recollections of their time as young men in the Israeli army. Folman’s choice of the fantastical properties of animation, rather than live action, perfectly suits his autobiographical psychodrama as he sets about recovering painful memories of his military service in Lebanon, buried deep but rising to the surface again. He gradually pieces together what he witnessed in Beirut in 1982 of the massacre of an estimated 3,000 Palestinian refugees by the ‘Phalangist’ Christian militia, fuelled by a desire for revenge for the assassination by unknown hands of their recently elected charismatic leader Bashir Gemayel.
Art director and illustrator David Polonsky’s style of animation is striking and stark, close to the grittiness, chiaroscuro contrast and bold flat colouring of DC Vertigo graphic novels. It’s no coincidence, as Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, of Bipolar fame, are among the artists behind the scenes, and a graphic novel is released of the movie in December from Metropolitan Books. Human movements seem occasionally unnatural and computerised, certain passages repeat largely unchanged, but there are some riveting sequences, such as the nude giantess from the sea who cradles one soldier to safety as his ship is blown up, or the soldiers wading naked onto the beach in the golden glow of rocket flares overhead.
Like those flares, illuminating dark places, Folman’s probings into the past gradually shed light on what he saw. He needs to confront what transfixed him, what he can’t see before waking. When he does, it is at this climactic point, that (SPOILER ALERT) the animation is abruptly replaced by archive film footage of what was before his eyes, the wailing wives, mothers and grandmothers fleeing the killings. Finally, however, Folman goes no further. He gives us no inkling of how this revelation affects him, whether he feels complicit in these horrors, or who should be blamed, aside from an anecdote about Defence Minister Sharon’s blasé attitude and slow response to the horrific news. It’s here that for me the film falls short in its reticence, its reluctance to follow through. It works undeniably as a general indictment of war, especially from the ordinary soldier’s perspective, but ultimately, leaving the words screamed by those Palestinian refugee victims un-subtitled only underlines that their cries of injustice are still not being heard. Unlike the sympathetic but removed Folman, they were there, they lived it, they survived it and they can never bury their awful memories.
Paul Gravett is the author of Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life and The Mindscape of Alan Moore. To find out more about his work on comics, go to paulgravett.com.
Waltz with Bashir is also showing as part of the Jewish Film Festival at the Tricycle, Kilburn, on November 9, at the Irish Film Institute (Dublin) on November 11, and at the Bradford Animation Festival on November 12. David Polonsky will be discussing the use of animation in documentary with Elizabeth Wood, director of DocHouse, at the ICA (London) on November 10.