One of last year’s most critically acclaimed films, the Golden Globe winning Waltz with Bashir arrives on DVD. Focusing on the Sabra and Shatila massacre of the 1982 Lebanon war, director, narrator and subject, Ari Folman reflects on personal and collective responsibility in the most hallucinatory depiction of warfare since Apocalypse Now.
In his middle age, Folman listens to the nightmares of his friend, assigned to shoot the dogs guarding Palestinian outposts during the war. Shocked by his inability to recall any of his own experiences, Folman seeks out former comrades, friends and undergoes psychological analysis. His one recurring vision is of himself and several others swimming naked with their guns whilst watching golden flares rain down on Beirut. As his memory slowly returns, Folman starts to face up to his role in the massacre, when the Israeli Defence Force allowed Christian Phalangists to enter Palestinian refugee camps in the wake of the assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel.
Obviously the films most striking aspect is its cartoon appearance. Comparable to Richard Linklater’s rotoscoping technique, Folman’s approach is in fact a complex mixture of thousands of spliced drawings and flash animation. Until the film drops us into the middle of the war, the animation seems quaint, bringing to life the imagined aspects of the film, such as the dream sequence when a giant nymph rescues a young soldier from the destruction of his boat. However, when faced with the devastation of an airport, children carrying bazookas and newscasters with ‘Superman’ invulnerability, the animation perfectly fits the hyper-reality of the situations. The film recalls Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 in Folman’s meditations on his culpability in situations beyond his understanding or control. Nineteen when called up to fight, he frequently finds himself ordered to simply point and shoot, and to his clear disgust at its sheer futility later gives these orders himself. With the modern strategy of shock and awe available every day on News 24, Folman reduces the IDF’s tactics to little more than caution and dumb luck.
A powerful and important film
Waltz with Bashir succeeds best as a documentary in its series of sit down interviews with those closest to the events of the massacre. As Folman flits between the real and the imagined, these vignettes provide the chronological backbone of the film. The most revealing of these are when Folman interviews from off camera. Even though rendered as cartoons the emotion that comes through the hard focus on the faces of his subjects perfectly captures their reactions to the events and is one of the films most striking achievements.
A powerful and important film, Waltz with Bashir deserved to win more prestigious awards than it did, and will hopefully find a larger audience on DVD. In the wake of the latest Israel-Gaza conflict and the dubious tactics of both the IDF and Hamas, this sombre reflection on the excesses of war is made all the more relevant. When the best received animated films to arrive in its wake have focused on a superhero dog, monsters and aliens, Waltz with Bashir shows the true potential of the animated medium, and viewers will be rewarded by its ambition and message.
Waltz with Bashir is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Artificial Eye now.