Waltz With Bashir

"Waltz With Bashir" was not what I expected. An animated documentary from Israel, it focuses on the experiences of IDF soldiers during the 1982 Lebanon war, a war I personally don't know much about. The writer and director of this movie, Ari Folman, served in the war but can't remember any of it except a single fragmentary image of himself and two other soldiers floating in the sea and then coming ashore to watch the infamous massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, conducted by Lebanese Christians on Palestinian civilians while the IDF observed what was going on but did not try to intervene.

To regain his memories, Ari visits his army buddies and interviews them about their own experiences during the war. One is haunted by a dream where he is pursued by all the dogs he was forced to shoot during the war-- the dogs would bark when they approached the villages, so someone needed to kill them to prevent them from alerting the terrorists the IDF were hunting for. Another remembers landing on the beach in Lebanon and opening fire at everything--not even anything moving, anything that happened to be in front of his squad. A third recounts his survivor's guilt for being the only one in his tank to survive an attack. Gradually Folman regains his memories, with everything leading up to the massacres at Sabra and Shatila.

I liked how this film humanized the soldiers interviewed. Their stories show them to have been undertrained, unsure as to what they were supposed to do, and for the most part regretting their part in the war. Especially of interest was the sincere assertion that there was a strange sort of disconnect: everyone could see what was happening, but no one could process what it meant. That, combined with those in command claiming they were going to do something (eventually) made it oh so easy to do nothing to stop the killing. It's quite sobering to think about.

The animation is beautiful but minimal. There are some visually brilliant scenes (such as the opening sequence, where ferocious dogs rush at the screen, and the title scene, where an Israeli soldier leaps into the middle of a street and starts literally waltzing around, shooting at snipers while standing in front of a poster of the slain Lebanese president), but much of the film is just a shot of a former soldier sitting in front of the camera, talking. In scenes like this, there isn't much movement, and what movement there is can sometimes be jerky. More than once it seemed like the characters' mouths weren't moving when they were speaking. This is particularly noticeable on the animated version of Folman, who has a massive beard that hides his mouth a bit too much. Really, it's a trade off--brilliant sequences full of power, and not-so-brilliant sequences that are...not.

All in all, this is a powerful movie that really gets into the mind of soldiers who've had 2 decades to think about what they did during the war. It never undercuts the fear and danger of the war, and watching it can help to understand both the 1982 Lebanon War and the IDF. Watch it if you run into it to see for yourself.

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