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Waltz With Bashir: Memory vs. History

WALTZWITHBASHIR_QUADI just finished watching Waltz With Bashir.  Better late than never.  I really liked it.  Waltz With Bashir is the 2008 film by Ari Folman documenting an episode in the 1982 Lebanon War.  It is autobiographical in that the storyline follows Folman as he tries to reconstruct his lost memories of involvement in that incident.  The event in question was the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September 1982.  Following the assassination of Christian Phalangist leader and president-elect Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese Forces Christian militia group retaliated by killing many Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of Beirut.  The number of deaths remains in dispute ranging from 328 to 3500.

Blame was then leveled on the Israeli authorities for being involved in the massacre.  The Israeli Defense Force, of which Folman was evidently a member, had invaded Lebanon and was in control of both the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.  It seems as though, under the watch of the IDF, the Christian Phalangist militia was permitted to enter the camps and carry out the killings.  The ‘Events’ section of the Wikipedia entry gives a detailed account and makes for some fascinating, and sobering, reading.

Folman spends the length of the film interviewing other soldiers in his company and reporters familiar with the massacre trying to reconstruct for himself the event, the memory of which he must have suppressed from his conscience.

My first question about Waltz With Bashir is ‘why do it in animation?’  For an event as grim (and disputed) as this, would not the typical format of sober documentary news footage interspersed with filmed interviews of people familiar with the massacre be more fitting?  Well, typical yes, fitting… that may be a judgement call.  I did worry that animating the film made the event ‘less real’ in that it was in danger of feeling more like a graphic novel than an event in history.  If someone got shot it was no big deal, it was just a cartoon. 

But, for that one downside, animating Waltz With Bashir had many upsides.  First, it allowed Folman to explore his and his interviewees thoughts with ease by intermingling dreams and imagined occurrences with reality.  Thereby pushing the exploration of his own forgotten memories as to what was real, imagined, unremembered, adapted, etc.  This might have looked disjointed (not to mention time-consuming) if done with filmed actors.  Second, animation allows for a greater control of tone and mood, making the change of color, shadow, line weight, speed, etc. very easy.  Used with care, this can give the director greater narrative control and emotional impact.

But most importantly, I think, Folman’s decision to use animation to tell his story might have been an economic one.  Regardless of a protracted search for archived journalistic film footage that may or may not be there, the recreation of battle scenes, tanks in the streets of Beirut, refugee camps, etc. would have been a massive and costly undertaking.  Using animation, Folman was able to get the story of the massacre out into the public discourse again.  Which is probably the most important thing.  Learning about events like this I am continually reminded of how much of history I don’t know.  Even more sobering is that it was not that long ago.  Did you know about this killing and the motivation behind it?  Doubt it.  I sure didn’t. 

And this fact of Walt For Bashir bringing the Sabra and Shatila massacre back into the public eye brings me back to Folman’s use of animation.  If the film was not animated but compiled using conventional news reel footage and filmed personal interviews would it have been as widely seen?  I seriously doubt it.  Maybe a few theaters.  Maybe an airing on PBS. But I doubt it would have gotten the awards and widespread acclaim that it has.  All conjecture of course.  But it is my feeling that using animation to tell the story of Waltz With Bashir was a stroke of genius by Ari Folman.  It is a story worth telling.  And Folman tells it in a most compelling way.  If you haven’t already seen it definitely do.