Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Waltz With Bashir": War's Horrors Recaptured

War, guilt, memory and suppression are powerfully evoked in "Waltz With Bashir," Israeli director Ari Folman's remarkable animated film about Israel's 1982 war in Lebanon. This autobiographical account focuses on Folman's memory loss of his experience as a 19-year-old soldier. 

Folman visits middle-aged members from his former unit, all in an attempt to dredge up his experiences into consciousness. Dreams and visions alternate with harrowing war scenes, in animation noteworthy for its vivid, three-dimensional style.

As Folman continues his search, the centrality of one horrific event becomes apparent: the massacre of as many as 3,000 Palestinians in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian Phalangist miltiamen, enraged by the assassination of their leader, President Bashir Gemayel. The Israeli Defense Forces let them into the camps, ostensibly to root out terrorists. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was judged by Israel's Kahane Commission as having indirect responsibility for "having disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance," and he was stripped of his post. In the film, newscaster Ron Ben-Yishai relates a conversation in which he wakes Sharon up to tell him of accounts swirling around the camps; Sharon gave no indication that he was ready to take immediate action.

The Israelis were stationed outside the camps; some, like Folman, set off nighttime flares after being told that they were helping the Phalangists remove terrorists. The fact that the main character didn't take direct part in the massacre and was unclear about what was going on does not assuage his inner guilt, which leads to memory suppression. His therapist friend Ori connects his trauma to an earlier nightmare: Folman's parents were Auschwitz survivors.

"Waltz With Bashir" is set within Israel's war in Lebanon and could attract further attention due to the current conflict in Gaza. Ultimately, though, the film makes a searing, universal statement, through groundbreaking animation, about the suffering of innocent civilians and the trauma of combatants in war.

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