Waltz with Bashir explores the traumatizing events of the 1982 Lebanon war, in particularly the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The film though animated, is closer to a documentary than it is a work of fiction. The events portrayed are taken from interviews that Ari the filmmaker conducts, as he tries to piece together that tumultuous time in his young life as an Israeli soldier. He can’t seem to remember what happened to him, and all he has to work on is a single memory of him walking out of the water along with a friend and some other soldiers as the massacre was taking place. The film really uses the war as a platform for exploring a whole range of issues, philosophical and ethical. The film is surprisingly candid, especially in context of current events taking place in the middle east. It’s not quite un-biased, but so wrapped up in individual experience and subjective understanding that it allows a special kind of freedom in handling events that still seem fresh in the minds of many amidst the continuing warfare in the region.
The film is already known for it’s surreal bend, as it mixes dreams and hallucinations with the events that transpire. Far from a gimmick, it’s used as a relevant tool in exploring state of mind. It taps into the power of the mind, and how traumatizing events will manifest themselves in your subconscious. Sometimes, it will take years, or will be triggered by an event or something mundane like a conversation. Though I personally cannot claim to have dealt with something quite as horrific as war, I can personally relate to these emotions and confusion, through my own personal experience with tragedy.
Back in 2006, I had just started a new school, and within the first month a young man literally walked into the front doors and started shooting. I wasn’t in the cafeteria when it happened, and I never saw him, but I heard everything and was trapped in a small room with many other people. It’s difficult to go over the events, because I remember them more as strong emotions, and fabricated scenarios that ran through my mind. The fear of not knowing what is going to happen, or even what is happening around you is beyond words. Few films are able to capture this confusion, and the ensuing emotional aftermath as concisely and powerfully as Waltz with Bashir. It explores not only what happened, but the feelings of before, after and during these events.
The idea of exploring the nature of memory through hallucinations and dreams, seems even more tangible in light of my own experience. It took me well over a year to begin to feel the effects of what happened to me, and it first crept into my nightmares. They’re not clear at first, you find yourself in a place that is familiar, and then reality starts to crumble. It’s really the perversion of normality that is so troubling, which is in essence what surrealism is. It’s often mistaken for being totally out there visually, beyond normal conceptions, but in it’s true form, it’s so close to realism that the slight variations are painfully disturbing. In a way, that’s why dreams seem all the more appropriate in context of this kind of film, because the reality of war in itself is such a disquieting perversion on the world. Mixed in with giant naked women and rabid dogs, you have moments like an officer taking cues from pornography, or a young boy using high-end milliltary weaponry. It’s perhaps more disturbing than anything the mind can conceive, or at least on the same level, it’s no surprise that the mind would twist and mold the events of such a perverse experience into a sort of hallucinatory recollection.
One dream I had, maybe a few months ago now, I was relieving the events almost exactly as they happened. There was more immediacy, I was face to face with death on a far more literal level than what had happened to me. I eventually found myself locked in the basement, not knowing what was happening, only that we had to be quiet. There was something wrong with that room though, and it took me a while to realise that hanging above me were maybe ten or twelve students hanging from the rafters, they had killed themselves. I still don’t understand the meaning of this, but it was more vivid than the actual day. Waltz with Bashir taps into that, how often dreams can be even more real than what happens, though even at their worst, are rarely quite as traumatizing as the events that transpire.
The mind is equipped to prevent us from entering dark moments, to hide away what may disturb or prevent us from living, but there is no real means of escape. We are able to look at the world around us from the outside in cases like this, just as the story of the amateur photographer reveals. He was able to deal with the events of war, because he interpreted what was happening around him as a sort of set to take photos. He reached a breaking point though, when confronted with dying horses. It was this event that drew him back into the world, and lead to a breakdown. It could have been anything, and at anytime… for him, it was these dying Arabians who were suffering for no reason. As he said, they had done nothing wrong.
I think this story ties into the guilt and ethical culpability involved in the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila. The film never makes an accusation as to who is to blame, but explains coolly a series of events that led to that moment beginning with the assassination of Bashir. The film appropriately deals with personal experience and therefore, ties the interpretation and understanding of the events through it’s characters. Though the blame eventually fell on the minister of defence, who failed to even try to prevent what transpired, the guilt lay on the soldiers who were there. Events from the Holocaust are brought up, a reminder that the parents of these characters had lived in the Warsaw Ghetto, had been in concentration camps and had seen their own family murdered in cold blood. It evokes the line of command, and when is it right to defy orders. Who is to blame? In retrospect, we may watch and understand events in one way, pointing fingers at the guilty, how far does the circle extend? Ari lit the sky with flares, which allowed the Phalangists to carry out their ruthless murders. Guilty or not, him and the other men carry the knowledge of what happened, and what they did and didn’t do. Even though some of them did not even understand what was taking place, when it was brought into light, it was enough to evoke a deep sense of self-hatred and guilt over what was allowed to happen.
The last fifteen minutes of the film, as Ari finally understands what happened to him during the massacre, and the true impact of these events are startling, emotional and frightening. The surrealism is gone, as we’re only allowed the stark and painful truth of reality. The repression of these memories makes sense, and Ari doesn’t hold back to show how devastating they are. I’ve never been in a packed theatre that was so quiet, you couldn’t even hear the person beside you breath, as it seemed everyone collectively held their breath. I felt tears welling up, and stream down my face, as the grim reality hit me like a brick. As terrible as the dreams are, nothing compares to the harsh truth.
I apologize for the disorganization of this review, and part of me also wants to apologize for being so candid. The film does not offer much hope for meditation or therapy, it offers maybe art as a tool. I don’t know if I’d qualify this or what I do as art, but I think part of my own handling of stress, death and even guilt over what I had experience and continue to experience almost daily is to first come to terms with it. I don’t think I have fully here, offering just hints as to what happened. I have a hard time putting things down, either being too mechanical or too elusively emotional. You can’t let it fester inside though, you can’t squash away fear or pain, you have to set it free one way or another, because it will plague you for the rest of your life. I can’t even begin to fathom how terrifying and horrible war must be, and the events that these characters experienced could not be more disturbing if someone set out to create horrifying scenarios. The dreams seem rooted, naturally intertwined with thoughts, emotions and events. It’s not a gimmick, it’s one shade away from the real thing, and in the minds of these men, they’re just as tangible as “reality”. Animation seemed the most appropriate course of action, reflecting this sort of fantastic hallucinatory state, and in the final minutes you will understand the nature of this choice on an even deeper level.