Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir) is an interesting experiment: an animated documentary. It has received numerous awards and been nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar. While it is a fascinating effort, I found it ultimately unsatisfactory.
Writer/director Ari Folman hears an old friend tell of a recurring nightmare in which he is pursued by 26 vicious dogs. They decide that it must have something to do with his experiences during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which they both experienced as infantrymen in the Israeli army.
Folman realizes that he himself remembers almost nothing about the war, so he sets out to interview the other men who served with him to try to recreate what happened. As he interviews them their memories are shown in flashback sequences. The use of animation avoids one common issue with documentaries: there is no confusion about whether we are seeing actual footage of the events or staged re-enactments.
The movie makes extensive use of Rotoscoping, a technique in which sequences are first filmed with live actors and the individual frames are then enlarged and used as a guide for the animators. This has an honorable place in the history of animation. It was used to good effect in some classic Fleischer Brothers shorts, and in some of the earliest Disney features.
However in recent years the use of Rotoscoping in a film has generally been a sign that the director has a death wish. For one thing it is the most expensive animation technique known to mankind, making it highly likely that the film will lose money, or even run out of money in the middle of production. Also, unless the animators are very talented the results will likely end up looking surreal and creepy.
In this case surreal and creepy is exactly the effect the director wants and the early parts of the movie are quite effective. It resembles many of the movies about Vietnam made by angry young American directors during the 1970s and 1980s. Disturbing dream sequences alternate with stories about confused young soldiers thrown into a new type of combat that they have not been trained for (urban warfare in Lebanon vs. jungle warfare in Vietnam), under the orders of leaders who don’t seem to know what they are doing.
The movie falls short when it gets to the climax: the Sabra-Shatila massacre which blackened Israel’s international reputation and helped turn public opinion against the war. This happened after a ceasefire has seemingly ended the fighting. Under the agreement Israel promised to keep its forces south of Beirut, the Lebanese capital, and Palestinian fighters left the country, while international peacekeepers were supposed to protect the civilians left in the Palestinian refugee camps.
The ceasefire broke down with the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the newly-elected President of Lebanon. Gemayel, a Maronite Christian, was considered friendly to Israel. Though there is no evidence that the assassination was done by Palestinians, it was widely assumed at the time that they were responsible.
Israel responded by sending its troops into Beirut, surrounding and cutting off the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps. They then allowed troops from the Christian Phalangist militia (loyal to Gemayel) to enter the camps to round up suspected Palestinian terrorists. For a 48-hour period the Phalangists proceeded to slaughter the inhabitants while the Israelis outside took no action to stop them, and even seemed to help them by firing flares to illuminate the camps at night.
Here is where I think the movie fails. Any documentary trying to do justice to such a horrific event should make a serious attempt to bring both the victims and the killers to life, and show them as real people. Instead we see them as vague, fuzzy and usually faceless images.
The movie focuses entirely on a few Israeli soldiers standing outside of the camps, confused and only dimly aware of what is going on, calling their superiors for instructions and getting no real response. This strikes me as self-absorbed and inadequate. These people know that their behavior was less than praiseworthy and feel vaguely guilty, but compared to the suffering of the victims this seems insignificant. I’m not sure exactly what we should expect from a documentary on this subject, but I want more than this.