Bright Lights Film Journal

The Responsible Dream: On Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir

“We were the Nazis.”

[D]ream-images are often rapidly forgotten although they are known to have been vivid, whereas, among those that are retained in the memory, there are many that are very shadowy and unmeaning. Besides, in the waking state one is wont to forget rather easily things that have happened only once, and to remember more readily things which occur repeatedly. — Sigmund Freud

Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s Cannes-nominated Waltz with Bashir (2008) is a cinematic standout for many reasons. Genre-wise, it is a unique sort of animated, fictional docu-psycho-autobiography. It also features a well-crafted plot of mystery, anticipation, and discovery (which will not be completely spoiled here) with a first-rate soundtrack that is an important character in itself. Most of all, the film is a brave grappling with the responsibility for genocide from the point of view of an individual, an Israeli veteran thinking under the weight of the Holocaust.1

Waltz with Bashir’s opening is a remarkable one — twenty-six wild dogs bounding down the street, frothing at the mouth, trampling everything in their path, but also passing some humans by and fixing on a particular target to tree. It is disturbing, moving, and also a kind of symbolic foreshadowing.

That opening flows into the primary scene triggering the entire plot, a conversation between two Israeli military veterans. One, Boaz, is tormented by nightmares about these dogs, which he relates to his service at the time of the Sabra and Chatila massacres of the 1982 Lebanese war and his own responsibility therein. The nightmares have driven him into psychotherapy. Nervously puffing his cigarette, slamming his drink, and tapping his foot, he asks his friend “Ari Folman,” the focal character of the film and a successful filmmaker, if he isn’t haunted by the war and the massacres. Strangely, Folman doesn’t remember anything at all about this gloomy chapter of human history. The problem is he was supposedly there, or at least very near. Why do the dogs pass him by and go after Boaz? Why don’t they pursue Folman? The rest of the film involves the filmmaker-veteran’s attempt to recover his memory of what happened, where he was, what he saw, what he did.

The Sabra and Shatila massacres took place between September 15 and 16, 1982 at the hands of the Lebanese Forces militia group. Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), in charge of the camps, allegedly permitted Lebanese Christian Phalangist soldiers to enter two Palestinian refugee camps and massacre the civilians inside. It has been argued that the Israelis should have known that a massacre was very likely. The total number of victims is disputed, but ranges between 320 and 3,500. Due to international and internal Israeli outcry, the government established the Kahan Commission to inquire into the conditions surrounding this massacre. The Commission found Israel indirectly responsible for the event. The report said that Israeli commanders should have recognized the possibility of a revenge attempt and not permitted Phalangists into the camps. What’s more, crimes that have been charged against the perpetrators have been forcefully “forgotten” in some cases through the assassination of key witnesses. For example, Elie Hobeika, the Phalangist commander during the massacre, was murdered in 2002, months after victims had filed a lawsuit in Belgium. (For more background, see the wikipedia entry, which is quite detailed and well documented).

Folman’s repression can thus also be seen to represent the larger, uncomfortable place of Israel itself with regard to these events, a place that is, as just noted, the subject of debate and confusion.

Despite his memory lapse, Folman also has a recurring dream. In it, he and his comrades emerge from the sea, like zombies belched by Neptune onto the beach in Beirut, under night skies ghoulishly illuminated by the pyrotechnics of war. As part of his quest to recover his memory, he becomes obsessed with this fascinating dream.

The film invites psychoanalytic interpretations, and the Freud quote above partially explains the way one may forget horror, whether as a perpetrator or a victim. When one speaks of entire nations or peoples and their alleged distance from historical memory, one is tempted to invoke Freud to praise the film as a kind of national and “everyman” psychotherapy, since the history of so many nations is soaked in blood:

Total forgetting is without seriousness; but partial forgetting is treacherous: for, if one then starts to recount what has not been forgotten, one is likely to supplement from the imagination the incoherent and disjointed fragments provided by the memory . . . . unconsciously one becomes an artist, and the story, repeated from time to time, imposes itself on the belief of its author, who, in good faith, tells it as authentic fact, regularly established according to proper methods . . . .2

If this is the case, as Freud stated in The Interpretation of Dreams, then collective identities known as nations, as well as individual actors, dream about their responsibility, and are prone to hallucinate.

Waltz with Bashir’s animation superbly depicts the complex line between dream, reality, and revisionist history. Folman uses a kind of animation that looks very similar to the rotoscope technique pioneered digitally by Richard Linklater in The Waking Life.<3 While pre-Linklater animation may have often been stigmatized as unreal fantasy and entertainment-lite, here it is an indisputable reality bound up with the present, simultaneously far away and terribly close. The animation style and often the lighting give a surreal glow to the events being narrated, which works perfectly to illustrate the story of a man’s trip into his own psyche. Former comrades in arms whom he tracks down, from Israel to Holland, aid that voyage. Piece after piece is recovered in a fashion reminiscent of films like Memento, though more coherently than in the latter. A psychologist-friend also plays an important role in helping him remember, noting the inevitable relationship of this massacre to the ethnic trauma a post-Holocaust Israeli must to some degree bear. At one crucial juncture, the psychologist makes the point starkly: “We were the Nazis.” Folman’s parents were Holocaust survivors; this connection, certainly controversial since the Sabra and Shatila genocide did not occur over years, is thus unavoidable for Folman.

Many will hear echoes of Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now in Folman’s film.  But this is not Marlowe or Martin Sheen sailing down the Congo or into Viet Cong territory to discover an icon for the hypocrisy of the Enlightenment or American freedom-loving foreign policy. Because of the cross-generational Holocaust trauma, an Israeli thinking about another denial of a different genocide, to which Israelis were allegedly willing accomplices, the memory voyage is into a very precise kind of horror. And yet there is something universal with which to identify in this particular voyage.

Folman’s use of music enhances this puzzle-piecing. The electronicist composer  Max Richter has rendered a majestic score, also featuring songs by Navadei Haucaf (“Good Morning Lebanon,” written for the movie), The Click (“Inkubator”), and Zeev Tene’s remake of the Cake song “Korea,” retitled “Beiruth.” OMD’s ’80s, darkly ironic electro-pop cult fave “Enola Gay” accompanies Israeli planes pouring bombs onto Lebanese combatants. Later, the alienated Hemingway-esque soldier returned to civilian life is captured in P.I.L.’s cheeky minor hit “This Is Not a Love Song.” It’s clear that war, as it probably always has been, is often dealt with through repression and depression.

The music, narrative, and animation style coalesce and culminate in a final scene where the filmmaker-veteran recalls where he was during the massacre. At this point, the animation gives way to real footage of that historical event. The dream is over, the harsh memory recovered. The footage is extremely graphic, people herded into buses and bodies piled high — the visual indicator of the Holocaust inevitable for many audiences. The symbolism of this switch is obvious, but given the impressive build-up of the narrative to that climax, it is difficult to read as trite or cheap. In fact, Folman uses animation expressionistically to present a surreal ethos, the mind driven through dreamscapes in pursuit of an elusive memory. Thus, when that dream surrenders to the recovered memory, it no longer makes sense to continue the animation; and it makes more sense that the footage is not just in color, but graphic and disgusting for viewers.

Waltz with Bashir is a powerful and deeply human meditation, first on individual responsibility and ethics — especially when faced with the consequences of an individual acting within the constraints of an institution, in this case the Israeli army. It is as old as Sophocles’ Antigone. At what point should one stop taking orders in the hierarchy or stop going along with the norms of the group — intervene? refuse?

The film is also a reflection on the insanity of war, encompassed in the film’s title, which refers to a comrade’s insane reaction to an insane situation in war, worthy of Shakespeare’s Henry IV (albeit with much less comic relief). It is a rumination on the irony of somehow being a historical victim and culprit, as well as on the mysteries of the human psyche, how we deal with trauma, how we live on, sometimes with unclear ethical costs.

The Sabra and Chatila massacres are what we prefer to see as the inhuman side of humanity. Strangely, the character “Ari Folman’s” (and thus the filmmaker’s) challenge is the struggle to recall them, to confront them, to preserve their ugly memory. Paradoxically, as horrific as those events were and are, there’s something magnanimous about Folman’s determination to investigate them — and his role in them — from a dream “suggestion” and a friend’s question. War continues today as it did yesterday, in many places in the world (and the genocides of Rwanda and Darfur are not as distant as some might think).  Following the narrative of the film and reflecting on responsibility brings the viewer face to face with some nearly maddening ethical questions, for soldier and citizen alike. Indeed, it is distance, willful ignorance, and convenient unconscious forgetting that allow us to shirk that burden.

  1. The term “genocide” is also contested. Some have argued it is simply a rhetorical strategy to embarrass Israel, even though the United Nations General Assembly voted to describe it as such in December 1982. See the Wikipedia entry. []
  2. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Here he is quoting V. Eggers. []
  3. However, Folman has emphasized that he did not use rotoscope, but that art director David Polonsky and his assistants went back and drew from scratch, instead of painting over the real video. []