by Ryland Walker Knight
[Waltz With Bashir had its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. It was the first official screening we in the symposium attended. As can be expected around these parts, lots of life happened in the week and a half between that viewing and this posting. Sony Pictures Classics has bought the film and will distribute it beginning in December after its festival run concludes. It's certain to be brought up again as more people see it; the opportunities will present themselves soon enough. Until then...]
Amber flares shower past high rise hotels on the beach of Beirut and youthful Ari Folman floats naked off the shore, ignorant and immobile. Two fellow Israeli soldiers wade to the foreground and Folman stands up to follow them ashore in silhouette where they dress in fatigues, their pliant limbs cut against the golden night skyline. In the streets at dawn, Folman turns a corner into a wave of women clad in black burkas wailing; as the cavalcade of cries pass the stationary soldiers, Folman stands fork, impassive. Survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, these wives and sisters flood the frame aimless and wretched, crowding Folman. Twenty-four years later, the grown man Folman cannot remember where he was during the massacre despite being stationed somewhat close to the bloodshed. In fact, he hasn't thought of it in ages. But after hearing his friend describe a dream about rabid dogs, and its links to the Lebanese Civil War where he shot canines not people, Folman has this dream about water and flares and the hurt of it all without specifics. To counter as much as to document this plaintive and guilty resonance, he makes a film. Encouraged that investigation produces understanding, even if such a project forges intuitive links that proffer more questions in lieu of definite answers, Folman starts to draw out his past. Waltz With Bashir is that labor of and for understanding.
The film opens in that dream about dogs: racing through a city, plowing through cafes and intersections, their snarls wet and fierce, seeking the dreamer, Boaz Rein Buskila, ragged. Not rotoscoped like Linklater and not as ugly as an Aqua Teen bit, the flash animation juts and floats in delicious washes of color. The dogs don't quite run but glide, the rain doesn't quite fall but simply slant, tables jerk upend and bodies skid aside; nothing is "real." Indeed, the real is the question. Bashir is organized around series of interviews that yield memories recounted as dreams, including one that explicitly goes into the dream world. Carmi Cna'an opens his war story, perhaps the most gorgeous sequence in the film where darkness pervades the frame, on a boat, where nerves get the better of him and, after vomiting, he lays down to escape: "When I'm scared I fall asleep and hallucinate." He dreams a giant, naked, blue woman boards the now-teal boat to save him; she brings him into the water where he lays between her legs looking back at the yacht, which promptly explodes a blood red. Another interviewee, Roni Dayag, tells a story about water: after an ambush, he flees to the coast to wait for dark; under nightfall he slips into the ocean and swims countless miles south in retreat, occasionally dipping under the surface to avoid helicopters' spotlights and armory, only to find the unit he thought abandoned him (and that he thought he abandoned). Folman's best friend, Ori Sivan, tells us what we know later: water is associated with guilt and fear, a fake haven from the blood on shore, that Ari's recurring dream (however material and palpable) is a projection. Thus, this Waltz is a reckoning, a search to account for Ari's intentionality, how his mind (which ours becomes in the film) has failed to be and is directed anew towards this terrible lacuna.
Ari understands he will never erase his (or Israel's) complicity, but if he can flesh out the picture, he can provide a voice to their limitedness that asks forgiveness without assuming endline benediction. The spike of the final five minutes reasserts that: after an animated zoom into Ari's face, standing at the edge of the Sabra and Shatila camps, watching another wave of wailers, the image breaks form into video coverage from 1982. Not quite a Kiarostami coda, but certainly effective, we see these women cry along with the image; the digital bleeds, combing the bodies massed in corners or piled in the thoroughfare, the trace immediately ephemeral, the world as a glitch. It's unmistakable -- this happened and you can't hide from it. But the animation isn't papering over guilt that the video unveils. It's a direct mediation, an admission that we mediate our memories, that memory may be matter but its image is metabolized over time.
Ari shows Roni a picture of himself from 1982: "Do you recognize me there?" Roni, always blank, offers, "No." Ari says, "Me neither." Roni begins his story and we see a tank troop set a camera on the canon, pointed back at the quartet; right before the picture clicks, the camera falls off that arm of destruction out of frame. The camera fails, lies even. This is not representation. Film is creation, making material. Unfortunately, this brilliant, subtle moment is trumped by a much larger explication of the same in a protracted monologue by a psychiatrist Ari visits who tells a story about another veteran who dealt with being in the war by pretending he was filming, pretending he was behind a camera; until the camera broke and his mind with it. However, Bashir does not suffer too heavily under this or other instances of literal interpretation. Its queries about documents and film documentary, about how we seek absolution and catharsis, about the ethics of the image -- all stimulate imagination and investigation rather than shut it down simple and closed. The film exists in tension with all this evidence, pushing its material, its memories (at one point across the globe and back in time from the Netherlands of now to that West Bank of then) past general dread into singular horror. If anything, at bottom this Waltz against death reminds that the image (memory, understanding, light) is alive and deserves (demands) our accountability at all events.