Film Review : Waltz with Bashir
A JOURNEY IN MAGIC REALISM FOR PRYING MEMORIES FROM CONFLICT-NUMBED MINDS.
16th February, 2021
Written by Rubin Mathias
Artwork by Aryan Srivastava
The film is filled with such moments of magic realism. There are surreal scenes of frying omelettes on the carcass of a blasted car and a glowing girl appearing behind an ice cream truck while they're waiting for a car bomb
Folman realizes this and as the movie comes to its conclusion, he grasps his passive but possible role in aiding this massacre.
This is due to a delusionary apathetic bubble in Israel which can be seen when Folman momentarily goes back home and everything is normal
The winner of several awards including the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Picture, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is universally praised for its animation, narrative style, and anti-war message.
The film centres around his experience during the 1982 Lebanon War around the Lebanese Christian Phalangist-perpetrated and Israeli enabled Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese Shias which killed an estimated 800 to 3000 people.
In June 1982, against the backdrop of the ongoing Lebanese Civil War between various Christian, Sunni, Shia, Syrian, Druze, Leftist, Palestinian sectarian militias, Israel invaded Lebanon. The Yasser Arafat-led Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had shifted its base from operations from Jordan to Lebanon, a place that had witnessed an influx of Palestinian refugees. The PLO and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) attacks had been going on in southern Lebanon and northern Israel. The war was triggered after the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom by a PLO breakaway anti-Arafat rival faction. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin used this as an excuse to attack Lebanon to dislodge the PLO base. Israel at the time was aligned with the Christian Maronite militia led by right-wing Phalange party leader Bashir Gemayel, the namesake of the film. The title is a symbolic reference to Israel’s relationship with the Bashir-led Christian militia in their bid to have a pro-Israel President installed in Lebanon. It’s also literally played out in the film where the infantry commander waltzes between the enemy fire while shooting back under the backdrop of his posters.
Ari Folman uses the narrative device of trying to recover his memories from his experience as a nineteen-year-old teenage recruit in the conflict and interviewing other fictional or real people in the process. The film is stunning in its imagery and animation revolving around the experience of young men and their mental state being involved in the conflict, such as when the young soldiers are seen celebrating at one point and clearing up dead bodies out of a tank in the very next moment. The theme of having to prove courage and masculinity keeps coming up. A former friend of Folman whom he goes to visit in the Netherlands speaks of his interest in maths and chess, only to join the combat unit in the army to make evidence of his masculinity. Another interviewee is made to feel like a deserter and stops visiting the family and graves of his friends. They remember the whole thing as an excursion.
The sea is the primary motif throughout the film as Folman’s dreams and memories along with his interviewees revolve around it. It is addressed in the film itself when the psychologist Folman meets talks about its symbolism of fear. The film is filled with such moments of magic realism. There are surreal scenes of frying omelettes on the carcass of a blasted car and a glowing girl appearing behind an ice cream truck while they're waiting for a car bomb. He has fantasies of his death and the ensuing guilt it would cause his former lover. Another such moment is when what seems like a normally functioning Beirut airport, transitions into its actual dilapidated and bombed reality.
Folman eventually meets Zehava Solomon, an Israeli social worker and researcher who specializes in the field of psychotrauma. She tells him that he has dissociated from the events he believes most brutal. She recounts the tale of a war photographer who was able to do the same till his camera malfunctioned and he descended into insanity, unable to deny the horrors around him, which till now he had only literally and figuratively been able to see this through the lens as an observer. Folman has such a repressed memory, where his battalion kills a young boy holding an RPG, the scene playing to the tune of a classical music.
After the assassination of Bashir, which is assumed to be by the PLO, Israeli Prime Minister Begin calls Defence Minister Ariel Sharon and orders are passed down the chain of command. Finally, the soldiers are sent to Beirut, supposedly to maintain order. There they are to aid the Christian Phalangist militias “purge the camps of Palestinian terrorists”. However, soon it's realized that the militias are slaughtering women, children, and the elderly in the camps while the IDF is lighting flares on their request unaware of the pogrom. The IDF military headquarters on the ground ignores the massacre while soldiers and journalists on the ground start to report to the higher-ups and the media in a slow response. Folman realizes this and as the movie comes to its conclusion, he grasps his passive but possible role in aiding this massacre.
Journalist Ron Ben-Yishai also features his call to Sharon about the pogrom who replies passively that he would look into it. In reality, Sharon’s role was pivotal and he was directly liable for the massacre. In declassified conversations, the then American envoy to the Middle East, Morris Draper’s discussions with Sharon show the complete aptness in Sharon’s characterisation as the Butcher of Beirut, and his personal responsibility for the massacre. The Israeli leadership would only put an end to the horror after reports of the deaths would reach the media prompting them to stop the Phalangist militia. The United States led Multinational Force was also responsible since it had guaranteed the safety of civilians when the PLO pulled out of Lebanon. However, their withdrawal based on their absurd trust in the Israeli and Phalangist forces led to a preventable massacre.
The film despite its somewhat accusatory message on the role of Israel still is not satisfactory in its scope. It doesn't include the civilian casualties caused by the war which is estimated in the thousands. In its empathizing with war trauma of the soldiers, the actual victims are left as the other with no voice, only as passive receptors of violence. This is due to a delusionary apathetic bubble in Israel which can be seen when Folman momentarily goes back home and everything is normal. He recollects as a child, that his parents wouldn't let their kids out. However, now the situation has been normalized for them with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and their affirmation of military dominance in the region.
Sharon would go on to become Prime Minister, his visit to the Temple Mount would catalyze the Second Intifada. He would encourage the illegal Israeli settlements but culminate the disengagement process in the Gaza strip. The United States continues their enabling role for the internationally-recognized illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories even today due to the influence of organizations which call any criticism of Isreal as antisemitism while ignoring the humanitarian crisis of Palestinians. Recent highway projects which allow the West Bank settlers to go Israeli cities like Tel Aviv while bypassing Palestinian towns display the reality of a modern apartheid state and the fast-eroding possibility of a liberated Palestinian state or people.