Filmmaker Ari Folman’s friend has nightmares about dogs. As an Israeli soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War, Folman’s friend couldn’t be trusted to pull the trigger on another human being, so he was instead commanded to kill the dogs in a village to prevent them from making noise during an attack. More than 20 years later, the now middle-aged man claims to recall the face of every single canine he executed, and he begs Folman to make a movie about the experience, figuring a filmed confession might be therapeutic.
Folman’s animated documentary Waltz With Bashir uses that pitiful story as an introduction to a larger-scope but still highly personalized treatment of the war as a whole. The friend’s story invites Folman’s own unwelcome war flashback, an ambiguous and surreal scene of the war’s Sabra and Shatila massacre, which leads Folman to worry he’s repressed memories of his involvement in the killings. Desperate for information about his role, Folman begins tracking down and interviewing old friends from his time with Israeli Defense Forces. These other vets, naturally, have their own stories to tell, their own guilt to relieve, and their recollections of the war reveal common themes: As insecure and inexperienced young men given weapons and ordered to kill, they became paralyzed with panic or completely detached. Former soldiers recall driving tanks loaded with bullet-riddled corpses and mopping up the blood afterward, and confess to machine-gunning civilian cars out of fright — the sort of horrors American filmgoers have been desensitized to for decades.
War’s hellish dynamic — long periods of purposeless boredom punctuated by violent moments of mortal terror — has been illustrated ad nauseam by virtually every Vietnam movie released after The Green Berets. Bashir’s striking visual style — Flash-animated forms drawn with thick comic-strip ink lines — does, however, force the viewer to re-evaluate senseless human brutality in an unfamiliar form, and allows Folman to seamlessly shift between heavily stylized dream sequences and fact-based battle scenes and insert flashbacks inside of present-day scenes, both of which the film does effectively several times.
But the film’s most penetrating question is probably more familiar to German audiences.
Folman and his fellow IDF vets are haunted by the uncertainty of their own responsibility for the mass killings at Sabra and Shatila. Two days after Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, supervising IDF troops allowed Bashir’s Phalangist followers to scour the Palestinian refugee camps for terrorist troops. Israeli forces established a perimeter outside the camps and, according to the film, waited anxiously for further orders while rumors of the mass executions within the camps began to spread. For obvious reasons, these soldiers raised by Israel’s first immigrants (many of them Holocaust survivors) are particularly sickened by the idea that they’ve allowed or even facilitated genocide. The film (nominated for Best Foreign Film but robbed in the animation category as Israel’s official Oscar entry) does a suspiciously tidy bit of buck-passing toward its conclusion, and many Lebanese and Palestinians will be understandably offended. The stark, unfiltered scene of heartbreaking carnage at film’s end, however, indicts all of humanity. •