December 3, 2008

'Waltz with Bashir': The Fallibility Yet Persistence of Memory

From 'Waltz With Bashir'

Israeli director Ari Folman can't remember the time he spent as a 20-year-old IDF soldier during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. When a fellow veteran recounts his own haunting by a recurring nightmare from the war, a single vision appears from the mires of Folman's mind: He and two other recruits rise naked from a black sea like some modern myth, clutching machine guns, their somnambulant lurch toward Beirut's Corniche illuminated by flares in the night sky. Are these the Israeli flares that lit the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra-Shatila refugee camps? Folman knows he was there during the infamous massacre, when Phalangist militias stacked bodies high in the narrow alleys as Israeli commanders stood watch; the event burns on the edges of his subconscious. So he sets off to retrieve his own memory of the war by tapping the memories of his comrades--and in turn rouses the collective consciousness of a nation.

But memory is a strange beast. At once fallible and persistent, over time it inevitably colludes with imagination to reveal things that might have otherwise remained hidden. Objective truth, while the overt impetus of documentary, proves not only fallacious but less interesting than the subjective, visceral truths elicited from an imaginative retelling. Reality, we find, is only intelligible through imagination.

Thus Folman's journey to reconstruct his personal experience of the massacre, which a comrade agrees "is not stored in my system," takes on a life of its own, moving freely through dreams, memory--and the dynamic spaces in between.

From the beginning, Folman saw Waltz with Bashir as an animated feature, drawing inspiration from graphic novels--many coming out of post-war Bosnia. "If you look at this film," he says, "with [its] lost memory, dreams, war--which is pretty surreal--there is no other way to tell this story."

Funding this vision, and the challenge it poses to documentary stricture, proved more difficult. "The budget for the film was such a tough mission," says Folman. "People [in the industry] couldn't understand how it could be a documentary...and why they should support this kind of film."

Before sending a script to animation, Folman edited original footage of real-time interviews with several comrades whose memories of the war might overlap with his own, on which the drawings were modeled. This footage was then cut with their vivid, sometimes surreal visions of the war--which Folman thought would be best conveyed, "like a bad acid trip," by the artists' renderings.

Some scenes convey the unthinkable beauty of death; elsewhere, death is lyrical, poetic and absurd.

"There is a contradiction in the film," says the director. "It's really beautiful: War is horrific, but the design is romantic. I'm aware of that, and it's one of my main intentions to attract you as an audience."

The unorthodox use of animation makes us keenly aware of the form--and how we experience representations of war, violence and suffering.

In the film, a trauma specialist tells Folman about a soldier who walked through combat "looking at everything through an imaginary camera." Then, confronted with a field of slaughtered horses, his camera breaks. "Watching the war on film protected him." We might ask: does it protect us?

As much as Folman stresses the apolitical nature of his personal journey, it is disingenuous to remove the film from its wider historical context (Israel's invasion of Lebanon and the 17,000 Lebanese casualties that resulted, most of them civilian). Like all films dealing with contested or painful historical events, this one contributes to the social meaning of the event, and determines how we will remember it.

And as all documentary, it implies a responsibility to convey truth about history. Knowledge is subjective, but it is also shared.

In Lebanon, where the film will not be shown, Christians might notice that they are only represented by the Phalangist militiamen--barbaric, bloodthirsty, oafish, inhuman. Palestinians might recognize their victimized ghosts.

In Israel, where a recent surge of government funding has resurrected the national film industry, reception has been positive, with some criticism for leniency in portraying Israel's role in the massacre--or the conflict surrounding it. (At the time, Sabra-Shatila generated enough outrage to force then-defense minister Ariel Sharon to step down).

As it continues to rack up prestigious honors and stir critical acclaim, the film raises difficult questions for Israel, and the world is watching. Asked if he thinks Israel would have received Bashir similarly 10 years ago, Folman replies, "No. Five years ago, even three years ago, it would have been different. The second Lebanese war changed things. Israel was exposed to a lot of embarrassment. And the army was shown in a very embarrassing manner. It was on television, soldiers came back and spoke about the war. Compared to this reality, this is a cartoon movie."

It was also the government's "chance to show that it wasn't the army that did the massacre," he says. "This is a thing that the government couldn't buy in money, this propaganda. They understood that, and they went for it."

At the end of the film, Folman finds his way backwards to the moment he "realized" what had happened inside the camps, and the question arises, "What do these camps most resemble?" Indelibly pressed with the suffering of the six million who died in the other camps, the Israeli consciousness is quick to make the connection: A death camp is a death camp. The guilt, even by association, that weighs on Folman and his comrades (most of whom have parents who survived the Holocaust) reflects their own psychic weight of annihilation, and the wider context of the suffering of the Palestinians--not just at the moment of their execution.

Thus, when 45-year-old Folman is shaken from his coma, seeing his 20-year-old self finally realize why women run screaming from Sabra-Shatila, this ending is also a conception of sorts--a moment designed to cross boundaries. In the last frames of the film, Folman switches to real documentary footage of the aftermath inside the camps. The camera breaks. We awake from our dream, unprotected. The broken bodies and wailing women are no longer faceless, and speak almost as loudly as the silent suffering that still lingers.

Folman remains skeptical.

"I just don't think that films can change the world," he says. "How many Americans know about the massacre in Sabra-Shatila?"

Cautiously, the director will admit that he has opened a door. "If people walk out of the theater, go home and read about it," or if "teenagers see what war really looks like when you're a common soldier, then it's something."

 

Beige Luciano-Adams is a Los-Angeles-based journalist and former associate editor of Egypt Today and Business Today Egypt magazines in Cairo, Egypt. She is also co-founder and managing editor of EastsideLivingLA.com.

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