The Weekend Watch: Waltz with Bashir

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The Weekend Watch: Waltz with Bashir

Welcome to The Weekend Watch, a weekly column focusing on a movie—new, old or somewhere in between, but out either in theaters or on a streaming service near you—worth catching on a cozy Friday night or a lazy Sunday morning. Comments welcome!

After a heavily themed June, I considered doing another theme month for our Weekend Watches in July. But “summer movies” or, even less appealing, movies inspired by Independence Day (and we’ve already written plenty about Independence Day) didn’t quite fit. And I couldn’t shake something that’d been haunting me all year, or longer. Something molded over, its stench in the back of my mind no matter what I tried to focus on: The ongoing genocide in Palestine. There might not be any movies about that yet, but it just so happens that Waltz with Bashir, the endlessly lauded animated documentary about its veteran filmmaker’s PTSD from the 1982 Lebanon War, is widely available to rent this month. It is time to embrace the mold, to head towards it, just like the filmmaker-subject of this film does with his own rotted memories. Waltz with Bashir is also available on the unfairly prosecuted Internet Archive.

For some of the Israeli veterans who filmmaker Ari Folman served with, guilt is a thing to flee from. For others, it’s a pack of dogs always barking outside your window. For Folman himself, guilt is a void to peer into. It’s an absence. He can’t remember much at all of his experience in the Israel Defense Forces, which feels more and more conspicuous when he reconnects with his peers who can. His ensuing pursuit of his own truth, marching back in time, uses all the freedom animation has to offer, applying the juvenile comicky style of Yoni Goodman’s Adobe Flash Cutout technique to an army filled with foolish teens and twentysomethings.

The anecdotes and memories Folman coaxes from his subjects and, eventually, himself are horrifically matter-of-fact even when juiced up with the rockin’ music and flashy colors of youthful vigor. The frivolity of these foolish kids, evoked in the very aesthetic of the film, is juxtaposed with the trauma they’d all inflict and have inflicted upon them. For every moment of goofing around—taking pictures and tanning on a beach that recently saw the death of dozens of men—there is a harrowing scene of wartime panic. The killers are as disconnected from ideology as any Vietnam War movie’s young soldiers, embracing the horrible position into which they’ve been thrust without any drive to do so beyond circumstance. Young IDF soldiers, trained to kill and scared out of their minds, go ashore and open fire on the first vehicle they see: a family car carrying Lebanese civilians, shredded by their bullets.

As frank and necessary as Waltz with Bashir’s spotlighting of PTSD and war crimes is—especially in its crushing, fourth-wall break of an ending—this sequence is one of the few that specifically damns the Israeli soldiers instead of passing the buck to the Lebanese Christian militia who perpetrated the Sabra and Shatila massacre of thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians. The crux of Folman’s film is complicity, yes, with his own repressed memories reflecting his involvement in the forces who were supposed to be watching over the Lebanese militia. But around this and complicating this is a phenomenon often called “shooting and crying” when it applies to ex-IDF soldiers.

Waltz with Bashir is critical of the military, its conscription of young people, its involvement in forever wars and its entrenched callousness towards humanity. It also conveys this through those who perpetrated atrocities and are either haunted by them, or have found ways to justify it all to themselves. The nudging notion of self-victimization keeps brushing your shoulder throughout the film, like a needy cat a few minutes before dinner time. You can feel the shame and the anger and the regret, but—especially as another genocide is being perpetrated every day in the here and now—you can’t help but feel those emotions as tugs away from those who’ve been murdered. “Who am I to tell their stories?” asks Forman. “They have to tell their own stories.” That’s all well and good, but it’s awfully hard for “them” to “tell their stories” when they are constantly being bombed, displaced, starved, shot. Perhaps the Palestinian and Lebanese victims deserved at least as much care in this film as Ron Ben-Yishai, the journalist-turned-government-spokesperson lionized for his role in bringing the massacre to light—and for establishing the narrative that the IDF were simply ignorant (but not that ignorant) bystanders, innocent even of aiding and abetting.

That’s not what the U.N. determined (they determined that the IDF was, in fact, responsible), but when has that ever had any effect? Waltz with Bashir is a film with a specific perspective, an antiwar perspective, but it is also a film about limits. And it feels limited. I don’t need all movies dealing with the IDF and the tumultuous history around it to be as heartbreaking as Innocence, Guy Davidi’s documentary about the many, many conscripts who take their own lives during training. But I would prefer them to have a more thorough and thoughtful intent, rather than seeming like one of the subjects in Waltz with Bashir, who, abandoned by his regiment, floats alone in the sea, letting fate’s current carry him where it will. The film is beautifully animated and certainly a bold first step in critiquing the ongoing occupation and its conflicts, but it is also a perfect opportunity to apply all the media analysis one must use to read the news to an art object.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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