Tensions escalated between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza just as “Waltz with Bashir,” Israel’s submission for the best foreign language film Academy Award, opened in U.S. theaters in December 2008. It was tempting to draw parallels between Ari Folman’s stylized images of the 1982 Lebanon War and the unfolding violence in Gaza and southern Israel. But watching the film dispels any easy comparison between conflicts and thwarts efforts to clearly assign guilt. “Waltz with Bashir” instead takes a deeply personal approach, focusing on the effects that the Lebanon war had on Folman and his colleagues in the army.
The film opens with a veteran’s nightmare of the dogs that he killed in war and follows Folman as he tries to piece together his own memories of serving as a soldier in the war, particularly with regard to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Folman seamlessly weaves together interviews with his fellow veterans with dreams and memories of the war using a combination of the rotoscoping technology pioneered in “Waking Life” and flash animation. These techniques allow Folman to create an eerie film that he describes as, “at the border of reality and the subconscious.”
As the film encounters more and more veterans, a picture begins to form of the inner world that these soldiers created. It is a world where lush gardens hide teenagers with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfights are interspersed with long, lazy periods on the Lebanese coast. The film communicates the sense of resignation for soldiers that have no control or understanding of their duties, but who see the toll that violence is taking on themselves and the Lebanese people around them. When the animation erupts into live-action archival footage of the Sabra and Shatila camps at the end of the film, the viewer’s trance is broken along with the soldiers’. The subtle terror of helplessness and confusion has become a full-fledged horror.
Ari Folman has made statements that acquit Israeli soldiers of responsibility for Sabra and Shatila, yet the film has no easy answers about the Israeli government’s involvement. Neither does it attempt to explore the experiences of the Christian Phalangist militiamen, Palestinian refugees, or other parties to the Lebanon war. But even without a comprehensive accounting, Folman’s story offers a glimpse of hope.
The trauma of Lebanon has taught Folman that, “war is so useless it’s unbelievable.” In a society where everyone shares the experience of war, those memories provoke a deep conversation about when war is, and is not, an effective solution. As the Israeli government takes form in the next few months, these conversations may bring us closer to a two-state solution that promotes peace for the Israelis, as well as their Palestinian neighbors.
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