Waltz with Bashir, an autobiographical “animated documentary” from Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, examines the repressed memory and guilt of an IDF soldier’s participation in the horrific 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees, while simultaneously offering a sobering reminder of Israel’s current, brutal military offensive in Gaza.
The audience accompanies Folman on this unique, aesthetic journey a vivid animated film originally redrawn from real, taped interviews fluidly existing in a mental purgatory of unreliable recollections, suppressed memories, and haunted images. Through the movie, which is a striking collection of original interviews, flashbacks, dreams, and war vignettes, Folman attempts to recollect his blocked memory of the fateful night of Sept. 15, 1982, when nearly 2,000 innocent Palestinian refugees were brutally massacred in Lebanon by enraged Lebanese Christian Phalangist forces seeking revenge for their assassinated president, Bashir Gemayel.
A psychologist reminds Folman that “memory is dynamic; it’s real it fills in the holes.” To illustrate how soldiers preserve sanity when faced with trauma and horror, he relates a tale of an IDF soldier who remembered the carnage in Lebanon as a detached, neutral observer merely viewing the events through an imaginary camera as if seeing a movie. However, a horrific single memory of an open graveyard littered with slain, beautiful Arabian horses “breaks” this camera by forcing him to confront his traumatic experiences from the war, thereby inviting him “inside” the movie (his memories), instead of seeking protection outside it.
Watching this scene, I contemplated how Israeli leaders viewed the Gaza crisis through their “imaginary camera” as seemingly diplomatic leaders committed to defending their civilians against illegal rocket attacks endangering their border. By simply engaging in political double talk, perpetuating eternal victimhood, and rationalizing disproportionate violence against a civilian population as self-defense, do the military actors absolve themselves of their complicity in the current Gaza crisis, which has so far killed nearly 800 Palestinians, wounded 3,000, and officially been labeled as a “full-blown humanitarian crisis” by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)?
Although Folman’s movie deals with his attempts to remember his complicity in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon nearly 27 years ago, the movie’s depiction of Israel’s relentlessly aggressive militarism resonates powerfully as the world currently watches the Gaza Strip being turned into a “concentration camp” according to a senior Vatican official due to two weeks of nonstop Israeli bombardments.
Folman’s striking animation portrays his IDF unit as young, horny, terrified kids who simply do as they are commanded, and thus proceed to shoot at everything in sight as they tear down Sidon, Lebanon, with mortar shells, machine-gun fire, and tank guns for hours on end. In an absurdly violent scene that would be comical for its surrealism if it were not a tragic reminder of an all too common reality, Folman highlights Israel’s misuse of force and penchant for reckless violence as they destroy roads, apartment buildings, and villages just to eliminate a single rogue Mercedes commandeered by terrorists.
And yet, today we turn on the television and witness Israel striking clearly identified United Nations schools, killing at least 30 civilians, on the pretext that it was a hideout for Hamas militants. In pacifying Gaza, Israel affronts the Geneva Treaty by using white phosphorus, a weapon so deadly it burns to the bone for those unlucky enough to be caught underneath its unforgiving cloud, on one of the most densely populated areas on earth. In retaliation for Hamas firing outdated Qassam rockets that have killed 20 Israeli civilians in the past eight years, Israel’s Operation Cast Lead military offensive follows its two-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has deprived 1.5 million Palestinians of necessary food, water, medicine, fuel, and essential supplies. For good measure, they have also used dense inert metal explosive (DIME), which cuts its victims to pieces and reportedly causes cancer in survivors.
Should Israel and Hamas be condemned as the sole perpetrators of this unending tragedy, or does the United States also shoulder some responsibility in stoking this conflagration that has enveloped the Middle East for decades? After all, Israel attacks Gaza with American F-16 jets, Apache attack helicopters, and tanks bought with U.S. money, courtesy of the $3 billion Israel receives in U.S. taxpayer aid each year. Recently, the U.S. emerged as the only UN Security Council member who abstained from voting on a resolution expressing “grave concern” about the growing humanitarian crisis and heavy civilian casualties in Gaza.
If Palestinians are blamed for inviting Israel’s wrath by democratically electing a reactionary, hard-line Hamas government, then are Israeli citizens also guilty for electing Ariel Sharon prime minister in 2001? He won despite his avowed, lifelong legacy of hawkish militancy and his active role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Furthermore, in 2005 he oversaw Israel taking control of Gaza’s borders, airspace, and territorial waters, thereby effectively turning it into a sealed prison, according to UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk.
In the movie, Folman refuses to personally condemn specific people, and all the interviewees, including IDF soldiers present at the massacre, acknowledge they knew what was occurring but merely deferred to their superiors. However, Folman does single out Ariel Sharon, the defense minister at the time, who was found by his own government, through the Kahan commission, to “bear personal responsibility” for the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Folman also depicts the IDF encircling the refugee camp, controlling all entrances and exits and providing cover and logistical support for the Phalangist militia, giving it free reign to “clean out terrorist nests.” The subsequent massacre of Palestinian refugees was declared an “act of genocide” by the United Nations General Assembly.
Eventually, Folman remembers his participation in the massacre: he fired flares that illuminated the darkened Lebanese night sky, providing the militia with enough light to continue their bloodshed until the morning. His suppressed memory reveals not only the horrors of war, but also a burdensome, unspoken guilt. Questions of “the banality of evil” and the depths of one’s complicity in aiding a massacre haunt him and other soldiers involved in the tragedy.
As in life, Folman’s penetrating film offers few resolutions to such critical questions. Because Folman cannot remember the massacre, or his role in allowing it to occur, his journey begins in “denial.” Subsequently, his pursuit of discovery is fueled by “awareness” of a traumatic event as he interviews IDF soldiers, psychologists, and journalists and slowly begins reassembling his fragmented and tortured memory. Only at the end, as Folman’s animated avatar finally stands in front of the grieving Palestinian women exiting the refugee camps, does he finally “accept” his role as a partner in this bloody waltz. At this moment of epiphany, Folman jarringly switches from animation to real, documentary footage depicting the devastated Palestinian survivors and the corpses of their brutally slaughtered men, women, and children. As the “imaginary camera” breaks, we awaken from the hallucinatory dream and are transformed into active observers forced to experience the horrifying reality of the massacre. Although Folman and his interview subjects never admit it, the film serves not only as their mea culpa, but also perhaps as an entreaty to atonement.
In order to achieve a similar awareness, however, Israel must break her imaginary camera and remove the blackened veil that has forever blinded her from confronting and accepting the crimes she has committed against the Palestinians, and ultimately, against herself.
As of today, Israel dances her waltz to the symphony of injustice.