Waltz With Bashir is a stunning, profoundly moving animated documentary about war, memory loss, vengeance and guilt. It is based on true stories and memories gathered by the director, focusing on his own time as a soldier during the Lebanon War. It is his personal journey to recover hidden memories, to uncover exactly what he did, where he was, and what his role might have been in Beirut, cerca 1982.
I had no idea, going into the film, that an animated feature could be so powerful. Its slow pace at times proved deceptive, and the final shift into live action, archival footage from the time of the Sabra-Shatila massacres crushes the viewer.
What is most important about this film is that it puts the lie to the idea that war is glorious, noble, filled with heroes and heroism as a matter of course. While many recent films have painted war in a much deserved, horrific light, this film deviates from the usual Hollywood script by not portraying soldiers within those wars as particularly heroic. Ari Folman makes that point in interviews. He says that no one will watch this film and say, “War sucks, but I want to be in one anyway, cuz soldiers are cool!!” Folman’s soldiers aren’t cool. They seem lost, in a daze, a dream, even hallucinating their way through its horrors, detached from it as if by some subconscious, protective mechanism. One soldier holds it together by seeing everything as if through a camera. When he stumbles into a scene of a massacre of Arabian horses, his defensive shield falls apart for good.
Folman also made me think of the chaos, the sometimes droning chaos, the nearly zombified reactions and indiscriminate shootings of anything that moves during war time. Shots are fired all around the soldiers. They fire back at everything. Soldiers fall. Civilians fall. Snipers remain unseen. A boy with an RPG blows up a tank and the soldiers cut the boy down. It’s all automatic. It’s all insane.
Though he doesn’t get into much of the politics of the matter, a quick look at the Lebanese Civil War period (roughly 1975-1990) tells us it must have been impossible for soldiers to keep things straight. Alliances shifted. Countries entered and left the fray. Syria, the U.S., Iran, Israel, and several factions within Lebanon were all involved. The PLO played its part as well.
Waltz With Bashir, instead of digging into the causes of the war and its massacres, takes a different angle. It focuses on war’s insanity from the point of view of the common soldier. When we look at it through their eyes, all of the pretty speeches and calls for patriotism and sacrifice from leaders who never set foot on the battlefield — the very same people who send young people to die by the millions — rings less than hollow. Their words aren’t a call to glory. They are the words of madmen asking us to become one with their madness.