“Waltz with Bashir” is an Israeli animated documentary film which took four years to make. It was released in 2008 and made into a graphic novel in 2009. We have both the book and the DVD. Since I watched the DVD before reading the book, it was difficult for me to evaluate the merits of the book by itself. The book is a fairly seamless adaptation of the movie, so it mostly served to remind me of how I experienced the film. Although the shots in the book are chosen with care, the bleakness and the violence portrayed have a greater impact in the movie then from the book’s pages.
Ari Folman started working on the film after a friend who had served in the Israeli army brought to his attention a recurrent nightmare he had that stemmed from his wartime experience. Folman realized that he himself had blocked out memories from his own time in the military. He then began dreaming of himself emerging on a beach with two other young soldiers, going forward to encounter streams of women and children, all in great distress. Because he couldn’t remember where this dream came from, he began to talk to others who served with him. Eventually the scenario of a particular event emerged, a 1982 massacre by Lebanese Christian Phalangist soldiers of residents in two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut.
War had been going on in Lebanon since 1975. Many Palestinians lived in Lebanon and some of them waged war on Israel from Lebanese territory. Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, seeking to wage war on the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), with the support of the Lebanese government. Eventually Israel forces controlled Beirut, and they agreed in September to let the Lebanese Christian Phalangist forces enter the two camps in West Beirut, ostensibly to flush out PLO fighters. Instead of which the Lebanese soldiers killed, raped and mutilated men, women and children for three days, while Israeli forces provided light by shooting flares and kept residents from fleeing the camps.
The film has won numerous awards and accolades for both the director and the artistic director. It shows the fighting from the young soldiers’ viewpoint - how they fire because they are told to fire, and because they are afraid. The film has been faulted for indirectly slighting or minimizing the massacres by focusing on what it meant for the Israeli soldiers to be part of the killings, without full knowledge or consent. What is interesting in the political fallout is that some higher ups in the Israeli army were removed from their commands as a result of their collaboration in the massacre, but no Christian Phalangist soldiers were ever charged with their crimes. Ari Folman simply terms his film as “anti-war”; and as an exercise into how horrific events can go unacknowledged even when people see them with their own eyes.
The film shows us the cruelty, the wantonness of war, and how combatants try to protect themselves by blocking out events. But this specific war has specific circumstances. How people live with unsafe borders, how soldiers deal with being fired on by 13-year olds, how displaced people wait for liberation and a job… “Waltz with Bashir” raises more issues then it can deal with. Ari Folman, in a BBC interview, comments sardonically that Israel has had no issues with the film and its depiction of events. This may be because while we see the bodies, and hear the wailing of those left alive, there is no real unearthing of what happened, of how this ferocity was unleashed.