Saturday, February 14, 2009

Waltzing with Bashir

Many films have meditated on the tormented intersection of history and memory, but I can't think of a better one than the Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, which I saw yesterday in Manhattan at the Sunshine Cinema. Researched like a documentary but presented as an animated film, Waltz with Bashir explores Folman's attempts to confront his own memories of the 1982 Lebanon War and the Sabra and Shatila massacre. See it for its urgent lessons on the past and present.

The film opens with two middle-aged Israeli veterans of Lebanon. One has a recurring nightmare from the war whose meaning is obvious. But the other, Folman, has no memories at all. The film takes the form of his conversations with others, above all veterans, who share recollections with Folman as he attempts to fill in the blank spaces on his canvas.

With a few exceptions, the voices in the film are the voices of real people who were interviewed for the film. The genius of Waltz with Bashir is that it presents the sounds of these voices underneath animated images that are perfect for depicting surreal memories of war and tortured dreams about war. In its blend of documentary and animation, Waltz with Bashir expands the domain of animation just as Maus made us think in new ways about history, comics and the graphic novel.

But for me, this film was more than an artful history lesson. From my own efforts to recall my brush with death on 9/11, and from listening to veterans' unfolding conversations about my friend Frank Carvill's death in Baghdad, I've learned how memories of violence are riddled with time bends, distortions, and blank spots. Waltz with Bashir conveys all of these brilliantly. For me, it was helpful to see how other men who went through extreme experiences walk around with complicated stories in their heads.

Waltz with Bashir also conveys urgent lessons about Israel's past and present. The emotional climax of the film is the filmmaker's confrontation with the Sabra and Shatila massacres. In that awful episode, Christian Falangist militiamen (angry at the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, their leader and newly-elected president) slaughtered Palestinians while Israeli troops stood by. The still-disputed death toll was at least in the hundreds, and the film's Web site gives a figure of 3,000.

Protests and outrage in Israel prompted an Israeli investigation of the massacre; it found the Falangist militiamen directly responsible for the killings, but held that Israelis were indirectly responsible. Then, as now, it seems like the minimum acceptable judgement. Nonetheless, it was a sign that Israel's moral core was still vigorous. Watch the film and see what you think.

Then ask yourself if the years since Sabra and Shatila have helped or hurt many Israelis' sense of national morality. Waltzing with Bashir is a sign that there are still Israelis who can ask tough questions about themselves and their country. The recent Israeli elections, which show a strong drift to the right, are another story.