I’m writing this review moments after Vals Im Bashir (Waltz with Bashir) was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar—the first time in Oscar history that Israel has had back-to-back candidates in this category. (Last year, Joseph Cedar’s film Beaufort became the first Israeli candidate in this category since 1985.)
Waltz with Bashir was created by Ari Folman, an Israeli filmmaker best-known for his television work. In 1996, Folman released a feature film with co-writer/co-director Ori Sivan named Saint Clara (Clara HaKedosha). Saint Clara received numerous Ophir Awards from the Israel Film Academy, but was rarely seen elsewhere. It’s an interesting little film, but when I saw Saint Clara, I would never have guessed that these two filmmakers were destined for such incredible international acclaim. (Sivan has gone on to become one of the creative forces behind the phenomenally successful TV series BeTipul, the American version of which, called In Treatment, has become a big hit for HBO.)
Waltz with Bashir is a first-person documentary that uses state-of-the art animation techniques to depict the memories of a man who has kept a part of his mind sealed off for over 20 years. As a 19-year-old soldier, Folman participated in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, but he can’t remember any of the details. Then a friend haunted by nightmares shakes his conscience. Why can’t he remember? Did something happen in Lebanon that he’s been willing himself to forget ever since?
Suddenly compelled to face the facts, whatever they may be, Folman tracks down other members of his unit, probing their memories in an effort to release his own. He also interviews scientists who explain current research on human memory, and others who might shed light on his dilemma.
Since the film’s title explicitly invokes the ending, critics like me have no reason to hide the “big reveal.” The “Bashir” in question is Bashir Gemayel. A senior commander of the Christian militia (“the Phalangists”), Gemayel was elected President of Lebanon in August 1982, and then assassinated nine days before he was to take office. Assuming Palestinian fighters were responsible for the massive explosion that killed Gemayel (as well as almost two dozen more Phalangist leaders), militia members stormed into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut bent on revenge.
News of the resulting massacre (in which approximately 3,000 Palestinians died) shocked the entire world. In Israel, hundreds of thousands of people protested, forcing the government to investigate the liability of both political and military authorities. Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon was found guilty of not having done enough to stop the Phalangists once he became aware of what was actually happening inside Sabra and Shatila. Sharon was a political pariah for almost twenty years before returning to political power after the Second Intifada.
Once his memory of these events returns, Folman is quite sure that Phalangists were fully responsible for all acts committed inside Sabra and Shatila, but he also knows that, as a young soldier, he was certainly a participant/observer. He was a grunt, so he doesn’t know, and will probably never know, what was happening above him. Therefore Waltz with Bashir can tell us nothing new about exactly what Ariel Sharon (and others in the Israeli government), knew or didn’t know as Folman and his unit “guarded the perimeter.”
For me, the significance of this film is twofold. Like Beaufort, Waltz with Bashir was created by artists working at the highest levels of accomplishment. Using state-of-the-art visual and sound design, they fearlessly dig into the deepest political, moral, and psychological questions, confident that their countrymen will understand the necessity of this painful probing. What could be better evidence of the vibrancy of a democracy that Israelis (and Jews everywhere) can support with pride?
Second, I have long been frustrated with first-person accounts that are literally “too good to be true.” While studying cognitive psychology as a graduate student, I learned to be extremely suspicious of eye witness accounts. And I also have personal knowledge of cases in which my own clear memories have been upended after rereading letters written at the time actual events took place. So books and films that rely solely on narrators who offer no factual back-up usually leave me cold. (Man on Wire, one of Waltz With Bashir’s co-nominees, is a current case in point.) But Folman goes one step further; he actually has psychologists explain the dynamics of repression as well as how we embellish facts and sometimes even create false memories.
Folman’s obsession with the mysteries of human memory is far from academic. As the child of Holocaust survivors, he’s always known that some people must bury their memories if they are to survive. When we spoke face-to-face during his recent trip to Chicago, Folman told me: “I think about my parents; they lost everything—brothers, sisters, parents. So how on earth could they go on living (having families, making a career) if they lived it all over again all the time? There's no way! So repression, it's not such a bad technique of survival when you look at it.”
As I write this review, my head is still filled with the images of Barack Obama’s Inauguration just two short days ago. There’s a fragile ceasefire in Gaza, the Senate has just confirmed Hillary Clinton’s nomination as Secretary of State, and she’ll soon be on her way to the Middle East. After years in which Israeli films were out-of-sync with American audiences, no film could be more timely.
Innovative, thought-provoking, and fully worthy of every possible accolade, Waltz with Bashir is quite simply one of the very best films in any category to be seen on screen anywhere in the world right now. After years of psychotherapy and artistic success, a 45-year-old man has finally found the personal and professional resources to confront his demons, and in so doing, he offers the world both new insights into current events and new techniques for documentary filmmaking. Bravo!
Waltz with Bashir opens Jan. 23 at the AMC Pipers Alley Theatre in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, and at the Cinemark Cine Arts in Evanston. Waltz with Bashir will also open Friday, Jan. 30 at Landmark's Renaissance Place in Highland Park.
To read my rant about The Reader, nominated today in the Best Picture category, visit:
To read my review of Beaufort for Jewish Film World, visit:
For more reviews of current films, visit the “Jewish Themes” section of my website: http://www.films42.com/columns/JUFN-5769.asp
© Jan Lisa Huttner (January 22, 2009)