By Ty Burr, Globe Staff
Every war generation processes horror and guilt in its own fashion, but Ari Folman has come up with a truly unprecedented genre: the animated repressed-memory atrocity-mystery documentary. Watching "Waltz With Bashir," Israel's entry for the 2008 foreign language Oscar, you feel like a 19th-century naturalist presented with a platypus. How can something made from so many different pieces draw breath?
"Waltz With Bashir" not only breathes but it howls - and sobs and curses and croons and, in the end, when sound proves useless in the face of calamity, falls into awful silence. The film is concerned with events of the 1982 Lebanon War but its echoes volley off the current conflict in Gaza, the history of Israel, the history of the Jews - the history of war itself. The film, devastating and distressing in equal measure, widens in meaning as it narrows in scope.
It begins very simply. Folman visits a friend, Boaz, who tells of recurring nightmares about the dogs he shot while on patrol in Lebanon, lest their barking wake the enemy. Afterward, the filmmaker realizes he has no memories of his own from the period. A quarter century on, the best he can come up with is a jagged image of fellow soldiers rising naked from a livid sea and coming ashore at the foot of bombed-out high-rises.
This film, then, is Folman's investigation into his own past and his generation's. "Waltz With Bashir" is animated, one senses, out of self-protection - from a need to get close to the nub of trauma while keeping it abstract enough to confront. The visuals are awkwardly realistic, similar to the rotoscoping technique used in films like "Waking Life" and "Chicago 10" but not quite as convincing. The colors are nightmarish; the movements have the repetitive smoothness of a Web cartoon. Animation serves as a diving suit here, allowing the director to plumb his psychic depths, but it's leakier than he'd like.
Still, as a therapist friend tells Folman, "We don't go places where we really don't want to go." So the filmmaker heads off to interview high school pals and platoon-mates, hoping their memories will give shape to his, like blips on a sonar screen. In Holland, he visits a friend who has made a fortune selling falafel to health-conscious Europeans and who recalls shooting up a Mercedes full of Arab innocents in a blind panic.
Other men remember other horrors: a child sniper shot to pieces in an Eden-like forest; a junkyard full of body parts; a soldier who watches his platoon wiped out and then floats through the night sea back to his regiment, feeling calm bleed into survivor guilt. Each step of "Waltz With Bashir" brings us closer to what one character calls the "disassociative event" - the September 1982 massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
The killers were Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen, revenge-crazed over the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel two days earlier. The camps were ostensibly protected by the Israeli Defense Force, of which Folman was a member. At first the filmmaker only knows he was within several hundred yards of the genocide, separated from it by soldiers and walls. Then, as his friends' memories chip away at his subconscious, "Waltz With Bashir" burrows closer toward the black core of personal experience. The IDF sent up flares. They only served to let the Phalangists see the women and children they were murdering.
At its rueful heart, the movie is a meditation on the lines where being present at an atrocity turns into being complicit, where complicity shades into guilt, where guilt becomes a shadow identity. Who knows how far up the Israeli chain of command knowledge of the massacre went? Folman's parents survived Auschwitz, and the line "Waltz With Bashir" brushes with its most inarticulate loathing is where a Jew might become a Nazi. Memory here becomes an act of poisoned expiation.
And then it becomes simply memory: bearing witness, no more. At the very end, when Folman has tunneled far enough into his past, he lets go of animation like an unwanted life vest and throws himself and us onto the rocks of real life. Footage from the camps in 1982; stunned women wailing "Photograph this!"; something unspeakable lying under an overhang of rubble. "Waltz" at last looks and sees and understands, and that understanding is the coldest comfort of all.
A short history of the sequence of events that led to the Sabra and Shatila massacre:
In June 1982, the Israeli army invaded South Lebanon after Israel’s northern towns had been bombarded for years from the Lebanese territory. The Israeli government’s original plan was to occupy a 40 km security zone in Lebanon in order to “cleanse” the missile range used by the Palestinians against Israel’s northern towns. In fact, the Israeli Minister of Defense at the time, Arik Sharon, developed a fantastical and ultra-imaginative plan: to occupy Lebanon as far as Beirut, including Beirut, and to appoint his Christian ally, Bashir Gemayel, President of Lebanon, thus eradicating the threat to the State of Israel from the north and expanding and increasing the front against Syria, a country that also borders on Lebanon and was always considered Israel’s cruelest and most tenacious enemy. Sharon and senior military leaders were actually the only ones who knew about the plan. While the Israeli government approved a 40 km range operation only, the IDF thrust full speed ahead all the way to Beirut.
Within one week the IDF inundated Lebanon and reached the outskirts of Beirut. However, just then, before entering the city, questions were raised: What business does the army have being in a foreign capital, so far from home? Why are Israeli soldiers being killed on a daily basis when their actions have no real link to the protection of Israel’s northern border? Suddenly, the correlation to the Vietnamese war was inevitable.
In August, two months after war broke out and the IDF was still waiting on the outskirts of Beirut for the command to penetrate the city, a treaty was signed with the Palestinians according to which all Palestinian combat fighters would be evacuated from Beirut on ships to Tunisia. In return, the IDF would remove the threat of penetrating the city. That week, Bashir Gemayel, senior commander of the “Phalangists” Christian militia, was elected President of Lebanon. Gemayel was considered extraordinarily charismatic, a fashionable young man, handsome and infinitely admired by all Christian militia soldiers and their families. He was especially esteemed by the Israeli leadership. Gemayel’s appointment as President of Lebanon was designed to ensure relative quiet on the tense border between the two countries.
While giving a speech at the Phalangist headquarters in East Beirut, Bashir Gemayel was killed by a massive explosive charge. To this day it is unknown who was responsible for the murder, but the assumption is that the assassination was orchestrated by Syrian or Palestinian factions or that they collaborated thereon.
That afternoon, Israeli troops penetrated a region in West Beirut that was mostly populated in those days by Palestinian refugees, and they surrounded the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Towards evening, large Phalangist forces made their way to the area, driven by a profound sense of revenge after the killing of their revered leader. At nightfall, Phalangist forces entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps aided by the IDF’s illumination rounds. The declared objective of the Christian forces was to purge the camps of Palestinian combat fighters. However, there were virtually no Palestinian combat fighters left in the refugee camps since they had been evacuated on ships to Tunisia two weeks earlier. For two whole days the sound of gunfire and battles could be heard from the camps but it was only on the third day, September 16th, when panic-stricken women swarmed the Israeli troops outside the camps, that the picture became clear: For three days the Christian forces massacred all refugee camp occupants. Men, women, the elderly and children, were all killed with horrific cruelty. To this day the exact number of victims is unknown but they are estimated at 3000.
News of the massacre shocked the entire world and a spontaneous protest of hundreds of thousands Israelis forced the Israeli government to create an official inquiry committee to investigate the liability of Israeli political and military authorities. Minister of Defense Arik Sharon was found guilty by the committee for not having done enough to stop the horror once he became aware of the massacre. He was dismissed of his duties and prohibited from serving as Minister of Defense for another term. This did not stop him from being appointed Prime Minister of Israel twenty years later.