An Israeli's Waltz with Bashir

The most talked about film at this year's Cannes film festival did not get any awards but has already started a buying frenzy in North America. 'Waltz with Bashir' is Israeli director Ari Folman's personal animated account of the massacre of Sabra and Chatila in 1982.

One of the most talked about films in Cannes this year is the animated documentary film Waltz With Bashir by former Israeli soldier turned animator and director, Ari Folman.

Waltz with Bashir describes the massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatila camps on the outskirts of Beirut in August 1982 by the Israeli-aligned Christian Phalangist militia, an event that Folman witnessed first-hand.

It is estimated that the Phalangist militia, a faction backed by then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon slaughtered up to 3,000 people over the course of three days. The killings took place immediately following the murder of Phalangist leader and recently elected President of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel.

Although there is no evidence that Israeli soldiers directly participated in the slaughter, it is an accepted fact that they stood by while their Christian allies went about their bloody business and even provided them with proper lighting by shooting off flares into the sky over the camp.

The following year, the Israeli Kahan Commission concluded that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon bore "personal responsibility" for the massacre "for having disregarded the prospect of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps and for having failed to take this danger into account when he decided to have the Phalangists enter the camps."

Sharon had to resign as a result, although he would make a succesfull comeback later. Ari Folman was one of the Israeli soldiers who stood by as the Phalangists took their revenge from the Palestinians.

A journey to the dark past

Waltz With Bashir illustrates the director's personal journey back to those dark days in the fall of 1982.

The opening scene shows a man telling his friend about a recurring nightmare he is experiencing. In the dream, the man is chased by a band of vicious black dogs. The listener is Folman himself and the friend with the repeated nightmares is a former just like Folman, who was also stationed in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion of 1982.

Folman and his friend believe that there is a connection between the nightmare and their participation in the occupation. Unlike his friend, however, Folman has blocked out those experiences from his mind and cannot remember one thing about the time he served in Lebanon.

"Don't you have flashbacks from Lebanon?" his friend asks him.

"No, not really," answers Folman with a dazed look on his face.

But the past inevitably catches up with Folman and the former soldier decides to interview old friends and comrades from that time to discover the truth about the occupation and himself.

The memories start hitting the former soldier in the form of hallucinatory flashbacks. We see Israeli tanks crushing passenger cars in the narrow streets of Beirut, the Israeli air raids on West Beirut, followed by a close-up of a bearded and tired-looking Folman standing next to a stack of sandbags, a machine gun in his hand, outside a Palestinian refugee camp.

The message

The film has been praised for its oddly beautiful animation as well for its music lyrics. Folman, however, warns viewers to not let the artistic portion overshadow the film's message.

"If you as an audience go out of the theater thinking that the animation and music are nice and beautiful, I missed the whole point. I want you to know that behind those beautiful drawings and animations, there were real people. There were slaughters, they were killed. They were kids and women. There were thousands of people there," he said in a recent TV interview with France 24.

The camera zooms in on the eye of one of the victims of the massacre. The fly-infested eye is gazing towards the sky. The bodies of killed men, women, and children are lying in the streets.

At one point in the film, the camera zooms in on a poster portraying Bashir Gemayel pasted to the destroyed wall of a building. Then it turns black.

The director also draws parallels between the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the July war with Lebanon in 2006. Nothing has been learned by previous mistakes, he says.

"The second Lebanese war took place just a few years ago. The same villages we were in 23 years ago. The same thing. We don't learn anything. The basic message of my film is a cliché. War is silly and worthless. No glamor. Children are being sent by cynical leaders to fight," he told The Huffington Post.

Film as therapy

Despite the charged political nature of its main topic, Folman emphasizes that his film is only a personal account and is not politically motivated.

"It is a completely non-political film whatsoever. It's a personal film. If it was a political film, we would have dealt with the other sides, meaning that we would have interviewed the Palestinian and Christian sides. And it does not. It's a very personal film," Folman told France 24.

It is clear that Waltz With Bashir is Folman's own way of dealing with the trauma suffered from his participation in the war.

Therapy, according to the director, is 'shit.'

"It is a religious cult you have to believe in. I don't. I was in deep depression and treatment for years. Art and film are more effective. Why? Because art is dynamic. You have to work," The Huffington Post quoted Folman.

Folman's film is scheduled to premiere in Israel on June 5 and open in Israeli theaters on June 12. There is little chance that it will ever make it to Lebanese theaters, let alone to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon where the survivors live.
But will it cause controversy in Folman's homeland?

"People have a strange idea of Israel," the director told The Huffington Post in Cannes. "You know, it is a free country. You can shout as loudly as you want. This film was paid for with government funds. They flew us here."

Waltz with Bashir did not bag any awards at Cannes in the end. But there had been so much hype around the movie that jury president Sean Penn felt it necessary to explain why.

"I was happy to find out that buzzes mean nothing; this jury was entirely not influenced and I can tell you that I would agree with you, but we had only so many prizes to give. There were several people – myself included – who found it a worthy film. There is not a good answer to this question. Even though I did not particularly argue for it ultimately, I think it was a wonderful film. I also believe that it is a film that is going to find its audience with or without us."