One of the major obstacles to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict is the lack of a clear history that both sides can agree on. Each side dismisses the narratives of the other as mythology. In a discourse dominated by strident voices that blame the conflict entirely on “the occupation” or “militant Islam,” it is refreshing to find an Israeli film that explores the moral failures of the Israeli side. But rather than degenerating into an ultra-leftist malaise of self-loathing, “Waltz With Bashir” offers a nuanced approach to contentious events. Although the discussion yields no clear conclusions, the film’s honesty is combined with a stunning technical presentation to deliver a gripping, beautiful 86 minutes.
The plot centers on filmmaker Ari Folman’s struggle to remember experiences from his time as a 19-year old soldier during the 1982 Lebanon war. He seeks help from other former soldiers to fill in the gap in his memory surrounding the massacre by Christian Phalangists of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps.
Throughout flashbacks and Folman’s conversations with his comrades and shrinks, a central theme emerges: memory is something we construct after events, rather than a faithful recording of the details of events. Early in the film, Folman seeks counseling from a friend who works as a therapist. This character sets the framework for the film by explaining how memory works according to supposed psychological studies: “Memory is dynamic. It is alive. If details are missing it just makes them up.” When Folman expresses his fear that he may discover something unsettling about himself, his friend retorts: “We don’t go to places we don’t want to go to. A human mechanism prevents you from going to the dark places.”
As a result, we realize early in the film that Folman’s goal is to not to define an objective history, but rather to explore the psychological processes involved in recalling trauma. In fact, the distinction between history and myth becomes hazy. The image of floating in the Mediterranean bleeds from one character’s memories of a battle into another character’s hallucination about a giant naked woman and back into Folman’s images of Sabra and Shatila.
With such a tenuous presentation of reality, the film at times veers into an unmoored, Post-Modern world devoid of any objective truths in which incongruous ideas mingle unchecked. In describing what the Phalangists thought of the eponymous Bashir, Folman comments “They felt for Bashir what I felt for David Bowie.” But the medium of the film handles this murky reality adroitly, with brilliantly animated scenes that transition smoothly from a marijuana-filled living room in a snowy Dutch forest to a party on a military boat off the coast of Lebanon. Artistic director David Polonsky and animation director Yoni Goodman accomplished an astounding degree of detail in the illustrations, particularly in the realism of the body language and the weather effects.
Although the film does not arrive at any clear conclusions or make any convincing political points, it adheres to Socrates’ dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And it certainly reveals something about the relative sensitivity to human loss in the Israeli-Arab conflict that there is no corresponding Palestinian film about the Hebron massacre of 1929 or the Dolphinarium bombing of 2001.
Waltz With Bashir is now showing at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton. For show times please visit www.esquiretheatre.com.