The Israeli director Ari Folman's audacious Waltz with Bashir is called an animated documentary feature by its producers. It is much more than that - or at least, that is only one convenient way to describe it. The film moves towards a real mystery - a hole in memory - and it uses real people, searching their memories, to do this. And yet, because Folman has so deftly layered the work with elements of his own and others' obsessive fantasies and dreams, the small part that is not straight documentary gains a power beyond its weighting. In the process, Waltz with Bashir is transformed into one of the most unusual and compelling war films of recent times.
We open, with a breathlessness reminiscent of the opening minutes of Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run (1998), on a pack of snarling, yellow-eyed dogs rampaging through the streets of Tel Aviv under a menacing yellow sky. These terrifying animals, knocking everything in their path out of the way, come from the recurring dream of Ari Folman's old army friend Boaz Rein Buskila, who Folman meets up with in a bar one rainy night. Back in the early '80s, Rein Buskila's unit had gone on night patrols in Lebanon looking for Palestinian insurgents. The town dogs, smelling outsiders, would bark and give away the Israelis' position. Knowing that Rein Buskila would never kill a human, his fellow soldiers gave him the job of dispatching the dogs with a silenced rifle. Twenty-five years later, he remembers each of the 26 creatures he killed; each night they come back in his dreams.
Folman, our narrator, remembers nothing of those times. Rein Buskila is surprised: "Come on, you must remember." "That's not stored in my system," Folman replies flatly. Yet that night, after leaving Rein Buskila, he has a full-blown hallucination of floating in the gloopy water off Beirut as yellow phosphorus flares drift down the sky. He's unsettled, and sets off on an epic journey to track down old friends, to see if talking with them can help him remember.
The film employs the real audio recordings of these encounters - except for two of the participants, who didn't want their voices used, so actors played them from transcripts. On top of this factual bedrock Folman has built his autobiographical fantasia. Using animation has allowed him to protect his friends' visual identities. ("Can I sketch you and your son?" Folman asks Carmi Cna'an. "You can draw, but you can't film," Cna'an replies.) But it has also allowed Folman to take the film to realms far beyond traditional documentary. The result is sometimes like '70s TV cartoons and sometimes highly stylised, a mutant form of manga noir: Out of the Past meets Ghost in the Shell. As in the classic Coppola and Kubrick anti-war films Apocalypse Now and Paths of Glory, the attention to detail, to framing and flow, poeticises violence and trauma. It's dissociative, but deliberately so, since the film attempts to deal with the dissociative nature of war. Paradoxically, this renders the experience of combat - as these men encountered it, and as Folman tries to rediscover it - more personal. Folman's animated characters are exquisitely real.
Waltz with Bashir is stately, too, and yet it moves along at a cracking pace. Parts of it are framed like a spy thriller, like something out of le Carré: trench-coated men in the driving rain; meetings in the Dutch countryside. A great soundtrack, by Max Richter, drives it all forward. He blends urgent techno with baleful orchestral music, and at times an ominous synthesiser drone underpins everything and raises the film's temperature. At other moments, period music is used to great effect: Lebanese and Israeli pop songs of the era, Public Image Ltd, soldiers dancing on the deck of a boat to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's 1980 hit ‘Enola Gay'.
The event Folman is circling back towards is the massacre, by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen, of hundreds - perhaps as many as 3500 - men, women and children in the Palestinian refugee camps called Sabra and Shatila, in September 1982. Bashir Gemayel, the recently elected president of Lebanon, was a charismatic Maronite Christian leader much loved by his Phalangist troops. Ari Folman and the men he interviews were all soldiers in the Israeli army at the time. Israel, in response to the continuing bombardment of the occupied territories by Palestinian terrorists based in southern Lebanon, had invaded Lebanon and pushed north to Beirut. The Phalangists' stated intention was to purge the camps of Palestinian combat fighters ¬¬- though there were almost no such fighters left in the camps; they had already been evacuated to Tunisia. The Israelis did not enter the camps, but manned the perimeters and for two nights set off illumination rounds so that the Phalangists could carry out their searches. (Later, an Israeli government inquiry found the then defence minister, Ariel Sharon, indirectly responsible for the deaths and he was removed from his post.)
Folman focuses on the microcosm and lets us form our own opinions about the macrocosm. His thoughtful middle-aged men try to reach back to the bewildered teenagers they once were, and the film becomes a meditation on youth and memory. Carmi Cna'an turns himself into something of a fighter, because of his shame about still being a virgin. Roni Dayag finds himself in charge of a tank in the midst of battle, when his senior officer is killed, but is frozen with indecision and doesn't know how to give an order. He flees the tank only when a mortar shell hits it. Folman himself obsesses about his own death, but only because his girlfriend dumped him two weeks before he left for Lebanon: he imagines that if he dies in Beirut, it will be his revenge on her. "She would be ridden with guilt for the rest of her life." Typical teenage thinking, in other words.
"Why did you come here?" Cna'an asks, 25 years later.
"Me?" Folman says. "I lost my memory."
Cna'an, on the other hand, remembers some events with great clarity. One of the film's most haunting sequences depicts his feelings on the night before entering Beirut by boat. He dreams of a giant woman who will take his virginity and nurse him away from trouble. "I sleep when I'm scared," he says. "To this day, I escape into sleep and I hallucinate."
Roni Dayag's memory seems even more vivid. After the tank attack, everyone else has been killed, the other tanks have retreated and Dayag lies barely concealed by a hump of earth, somehow unnoticed by the Lebanese gunmen. There is nothing for it but to wait until nightfall. This waiting and hiding is also the essence of Polanski's excellent The Pianist: it is the least heroic, and the most recognisably human, of responses to the threat of death. When Dayag finally decides it is safe to move, he crawls into the sea - still as a pond that night - and breaststrokes far out into the darkness before turning towards the lights that may or may not be Israeli positions. A shell explodes nearby and helicopters clatter overhead, but it's serene in his recollection. "I felt calm and at peace. Just me and the sea." He reaches shore and gets picked up by the very regiment that abandoned him when its tanks reversed from the battlefield. Yet it is Dayag who feels guilty, believing that he abandoned the men who died.
The film's title refers to an Israeli unit's experience while on patrol through the Beirut streets. Pinned down by sniper fire from the gutted apartment buildings all around them, members of the unit are unable even to rescue their dead and wounded in the middle of the street. Shmuel Frenkel, one of Folman's interviewees, suddenly rushes out, shooting upwards in all directions. "I saw him dancing, as if in a trance. He cursed the shooters. Like he wanted to stay there forever. As if he wanted to show off his waltz amid the gunfire. With the posters of Bashir above his head." Bashir's soldiers will soon carry out their own waltz, inside the Sabra and Shatila camps.
"During the storming of Beirut," Cna'an remembers, "we were in the slaughterhouse ... that junkyard where they [the Phalangists] took the Palestinians, interrogated them and executed them. It was like being on an LSD trip. They carried body parts of murdered Palestinians, preserved in jars of formaldehyde. They had fingers, eyeballs, anything you wanted. And always pictures of Bashir. Bashir pendants, Bashir watches; Bashir this, Bashir that ... Bashir was to them what David Bowie was to me. A star, an idol, a prince, admirable. I think they even felt an eroticism for him. Totally erotic. Their idol was to become king. We were about to crown him. The next day he was murdered. It was obvious they'd avenge his death in some perverse way. It was as if their wife had been murdered."
The animation during this speech is like something from Conrad's Heart of Darkness brought to life - the sense of depravity, of a savagery beyond the pale, and a dark fetish-worship. Folman, trying to awaken from a form of slumber, doesn't say that all the world is brutish all the time. But he does show how brutish it can be. Waltz with Bashir captures something of Yeats's "terrible beauty": when so much is frightening, how can you mould an authentic life out of a bewildered one?
Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. Folman tells his best friend, Ori Sivan, another of the interviewees, that he is afraid of taking the path back towards understanding, in case he finds out something he doesn't want to know. Sivan is gently supportive of Folman's quest. "A human mechanism prevents us from entering dark places," he admits. But then again, "memory takes us where we need to go." This trust among old friends is the home base from which Folman can venture out, as the film moves forward into middle age and backwards into memory. In his profound reconstruction of what might otherwise have been just a bunch of talking-head interviews, Folman has wrought something grander and more gripping.
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