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TEL AVIV, Israel—A trio of young Israeli soldiers emerge naked from a black sea, flares in the night sky illuminating their still-boyish faces as they walk toward a Beirut of palm trees and high-rise buildings smoldering under the orange glow of war.
Ari Folman is one of those soldiers, and this is his first flashback—or is it a hallucination?—coming 20 years after he served in the 1982 Lebanon War. It is also one of the first scenes of his movie, Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary that tries to retrieve not only Folman's memory of the fighting, but also its consequences.
The film, which screens October 1 and 2 as part of this year's New York Film Festival, is based on the recollections of Folman and those he interviewed to help him trigger his own memory, mostly former fellow soldiers who were also on the ground in Lebanon. "People don't talk about their army service," said Folman, 45, a screenwriter and documentary filmmaker who lives in Tel Aviv and whose credits include writing for the original Israeli version of the television show In Treatment. "But the next thing I knew, I was trying to figure out the missing details and black holes of the past. I always imagined [the memories] illustrated and drawn, so I decided to go for animation."
At the film's heart is Folman's haunted conscience as he tries to remember where he was and what he saw during the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The killings remain a deep wound in the Israeli psyche; although it was Christian militiamen, known as Phalanges, who carried out the atrocity, they were allied with Israel and allowed into the camps by its army. In brief: The war is Israel's Vietnam, a quagmire that was costly in lives, as well as both the nation's international reputation and self-image.
Perhaps this is why, though lauded at Cannes—where Bashir premiered this past spring to critical praise and landed a distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics—Folman didn't get quite the same reception at home.
Folman thought the film might be dismissed in Israel as yet another lefty anti-war flick, but to his surprise, he was excoriated by some critics, who faulted him for not going far enough in condemning Israel's conduct.
"It was a progressive movie in the way it was presented with the animation, but in its conclusions, social and political, it was more mainstream than Shaul Mofaz," said Meir Schnitzer, the film critic of the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, referring to one of the country's more hawkish politicians.
Bashir's sentiment is an extension, Schnitzer said, of what is known derisively as "yorim v'bohim," Hebrew for "shooting and crying," a critique leveled by peace-camp Israelis at what they see as the hypocrisy of their fellow left-leaning citizens who serve in the army, sometimes party to unsightly missions, and then criticize the military and government after-the-fact—without actually acting to change the state of affairs.
Still, Folman's portrayal of the military brass's conduct is a damning one, from his depiction of a brigadier sitting in a Lebanese mansion barking orders while watching porn to an account by journalist Ron Ben-Ishai of his phone conversation with Ariel Sharon, then defense minister and architect of the war. When Ben-Ishai tells Sharon about the reports of a massacre in real-time, Sharon's reply lacks any hint of concern. He even ends the call with wishes for a happy Jewish New Year.
Eventually, Folman's recall of the massacre unfolds on-screen: He remembers launching flares from the roof of a building, unknowingly providing the light that helped the Phalanges carry out their killings. And he remembers the next morning, staring out from a roadblock near one of the camps as a wave of Palestinian women run by, wailing. Abruptly, the animation ends, replaced by video footage of the casualties—piles of tangled bodies, entire families slaughtered together—to close out the film. Folman never offers his reaction to the horrors he's presented; he said the footage speaks for itself.
Kobe Niv, the head of screenwriting studies at Tel Aviv University, was among those disappointed by the ending. He ascribes to the view—supported in part by an Israeli-government investigation—that even if Israel was not physically to blame for the massacre, it still bore much responsibility: "Sabra and Shatila put a moral stain on us by the world and ourselves, [but] this film reflects the Israeli consensus that once again cleanses us from a sin I don't think we are free of," Niv said, interpreting Folman's account as placing the bulk of the blame on the Christian militiamen inside the camps—not the Israelis standing guard on the outside.
But Folman defends his choices: "The film deals with the chronology of massacre, and if there is something really terrible going on around the corner, when do you process all the information you hear or see or are being told and put it in one 'frame' to be able to say, 'There is a massacre going on'? I think the film deals with the guilt of what it means to be part of that first circle or second circle," he said, referring to being physically close to the scene of a crime but not witnessing it firsthand.
For Folman, the son of parents who survived Auschwitz, the issue of personal responsibility and testimony seem to take on special resonance. But he acknowledges that memory can be distinct from reality, which is where the animation comes in. "Using animation is like magic. You have freedom to go from one dimension to another pretty quickly, a freedom to move from the subconscious to the conscious, from dreams to memory and hallucinations and testimonies."
Polonsky emigrated with his family from Kiev, Ukraine, to Israel at the age of eight in 1982, the year the Lebanon War began. Perhaps it is his feeling of being slightly outside of Israeli society, he says, that drew him to observe it through art. Painting almost every frame in the film, which took almost four years to make, he found himself in the role of illustrating someone else's memory and dreams of a place he had never been. In drawing Lebanon, he took inspiration from Israel's own landscape, so close geographically to the north of the country where he grew up.
"How do you depict a dream? You can write it down, which would be fairly accurate, but if you want to film it, you would have to have a set and actors," he said. With animation, however, "you get rid of the 'middle-man.' And in some cases, you have a tool that is more truthful."
Walking out of the film, which has been screening in Israeli theaters since June, a father in his fifties describes to his 25-year-old son how his unit in Lebanon was ambushed by young Palestinian boys with RPGs in scenes similar to one depicted in the movie. "For me, this was hard to see," he says of the movie, his eyes wide and almost unblinking, still absorbing its images. Looking at his son, who brought him to see the film, the man who requested to only be identified as Eli says before turning away: "I don't want my son to go through what I did."
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