Sometimes I think that our memory is a capricious device inserted in human beings at some point during our evolution to act as a "Je t'accuse" tool. A reminder that no matter what we get up to in our life, there will always be a possibility that our mental capacity to revive facts will unearth an unwelcome one. From our past, for instance.
That is the thesis that runs through 'Waltz with Bashir', a feature-length animated documentary that focuses on a man's recurring nightmare connected to the time he spent in the Israeli army in the first Lebanon War in 1982. In the dream the man is being chased by twenty-six feisty dogs, a number that remains unaltered whenever he has this nightmare. Encouraged by his friend, Ari Folman (who is also the writer and director of the film) the man sets out to meet old friends around the world who were also involved in the military conflict. What he finds is disturbing to say the least. Slowly, images from the war creep up, mixed with other visions that he is not sure of having experienced. Did everything he imagines happen exactly as his dreams appear to dictate? Could his memory be tricking him, or could it be the effect of having fought a war where the civilian death toll was huge, especially in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps?
What director Ari Folman also addresses is how memory can be a selective tool to discriminate against unwanted, intrusive elements that might pollute our reputation at a moment in our lives when stability and domestic bliss are the goals desired. The nameless man in the film acts as a gigantic metaphor for the Israeli forces whose decision to allow Christian Phalangist militia into the Palestinian camps ultimately proved fatal for the civilians based there.
The movie benefits from a combination of dark colours, minimalist music and comic-like animation. The effect is like walking on a wide wooden plank above a precipice, with the board eventually getting narrower and narrower without us realising it. The atmosphere is stifling and almost claustrophobic, not just for the main character, the nameless man, but also for those around him. Even Folman doesn't escape this collective amnesia. When confronted by the man's nightmare and the spectre of the war looming large over it, he baffles his interlocutor by claiming that he cannot remember if he was near the camps at the time. The man's meetings with his ex-comrades yield some of the most beautiful moments in the movie, from an aesthetic point of view. One recalls being ambushed and escaping by swimming out to sea in the moonlit night. Another one remembers having an erotic fantasy of an enormous naked woman towing him away whilst his confreres are getting killed. The nameless man himself has a quasi/faux memory of emerging from the sea completely naked with his fellow soldiers and wading on the beach at Beirut. The macabre dance-effect of the latter scene could well have been drawn from the stable of the late Pina Bausch. And dance is even present in the movie's title, named after a scene in which a machine gun-toting commander executes a waltz in front of one of the posters of Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese president murdered in East Beirut.
'Waltz with Bashir' is a film about the reality of war from a dream-like perspective. One of the reasons why this approach works is because the director avoids pointing his finger at anyone in particular, except for at the Israeli Defence Forces for their role in the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. In what I can only call a 'snap of the fingers to wake the viewer up' moment, Ari Folman includes real TV news footage of the slaughter at the camps. To me the message is clear: it's OK to feel dreamy, and be intelectual and rational about it, but people did get killed. And no matter where you hide or how many years go by, your memory will hunt you down in the end.
Next post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 13th June at 10am (GMT)