Art, Music, Books & Film

Composing memory: Waltz with Bashir

Georgia and I went to see Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman’s remarkable animated documentary about his days as a young Israeli soldier in the war with Lebanon in 1982. Or better, about Folman’s efforts to reconstruct these days, to fill in, as he says, the extensive gaps of memory that he has about his experiences in the war.

The film begins with a hellish opening scene of a pack of feral dogs, their eyes a sickly glowing yellow, teeth bared, charging down a city street as if driven by some frenzied blood lust. The dogs stop and gather around a building in which we see a man standing at a window.

It is the recurrent dream of the man at the window, who we then see recounting the dream to his filmmaker friend. A pack of 26 dogs, he says. Always 26. He then recalls while out on patrol he had been ordered to shoot the dogs that would begin barking as they approached a village. He says he killed 26 dogs that night. Or did he, he asks? His filmmaker friend doesn’t remember.

The conversation has set something in motion for Ari. He begins to want to know, to fill in his own gaps in memory. It is as much a therapeutic as a cinematic journey, built from episodes of conversations about the war he has with men who had been with him as fellow soldiers, some of them friends, others he seeks out, like the guy who left Israel and opened up a falafel stand in Utrecht (a business whose success made him a very wealthy albeit still uneasy man). The tone of the conversations is subdued, deliberate, slow; this is how a confession might sound. And this tone, together with the heavy use of shadow and the muted colors of the animator’s palette – ochre, grey, blue, black – lends the film a hauntingly surreal noir aesthetic.

Each of his friends recounts his experiences, at times harrowing, at times comical or crazy; the juxtaposition of these elements makes  Waltz with Bashir very much a soldier’s story). Each episode is intermixed with dream sequences and fantasy, like a soldier lying atop the crotch of a huge floating blue woman. This collective storytelling helps Ari remember more and more of his days in Lebanon, until he eventually can remember the horror of the aftermath of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Christian militiamen. The film is also about coming to terms with the past and with his country’s shared responsibility in the slaughter (it is clear in the film that the Israeli army could have stopped the militiamen from committing these atrocities).

Memory is never a photographic reproduction of details, faces and fact, imprinted faithfully within a network of synapses to be retrieved later. We only have bits and pieces of sensation, fragments of images and feelings, scraps of events, which we infuse with intention and direction and bring into a coherent whole, often if subconsciously according to our present needs. We don’t retrieve a memory, we compose one.  The story of the war that Ari has been able to retell through the interlocking separate narratives of his friends is probably close to what actually happened, though we are not entirely sure; his own recurrent dream, in which he emerges naked onto the shores of Beirut, wielding a machine gun, isn’t corroborated by his friends.

The film would have been hard viewing anytime, but it was even more in light of the civilian casualties in the current Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. Georgia was very uncomfortable during the movie, and only managed to relax again after the first glass of Etna Rosso at Il Crudo. Arguably ensconcing ourselves in the minimalist chic of a hip vineria in Kerameikos after a film like Waltz seems a striking non-sequitur. But it echoes a scene in the movie itself, when Ari returns to the city for a one-day leave from the war to find the bars and cafés packed, the streets filled with people, and life essentially… going on as before.

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