Waltz With Unbearable Memory

The tank rumbles north into Lebanon. The Israeli commander and another crew member are standing, their heads out of the hatches, singing boisterously. They're young men out on a road trip. Then the commander goes silent, hit by a bullet, and he dies inside the tank, as his stunned soldiers forget their training and what they are supposed to do next. A missile strikes the tank; flames blossom from it; the young men, naked of weapons, are running, zigzagging through bullets. Only one survives, finds shelter, and watches as the rest of his unit retreats. And this is only the outset of the journey from childhood toward the inferno.

Young soldiers lie on a beach, terrified, firing madly, perforating an approaching car with bullets. At last it stops. When they approach it, they find the corpses of a Lebanese family inside. And this, too, is but the beginning of the journey toward Beirut, toward events too awful to remember or to leave forgotten.

These scenes -- rendered in dark, realistic animation -- are from Waltz With Bashir, a documentary about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon that is deservedly Israel's most talked-about film this year. The movie recounts director Ari Folman's effort to restore his own lost memory of his service in Lebanon, especially of the days when he was deployed in Beirut on the outskirts of the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, where Israel's Christian Lebanese allies were massacring Palestinians.

By seeking his own memory, Folman assaults national forgetfulness -- about the war, the massacre, and Ariel Sharon, the man who planned the invasion and let the massacre take place. As in the best stories, the specifics point to the universal: This is what happens when old leaders, overconfident and reckless, send young people to war. (Given that message, it's a shame that Waltz will open in the United States only in December, rather than well before Nov. 4.)

To dispel some forgetfulness: The Israeli army invaded Lebanon in June 1982, ostensibly to push Palestine Liberation Organization forces out of the southern part of that country. Sharon, then defense minister, quickly expanded the invasion to fit his real goal of remaking Lebanon -- of shattering the PLO and putting Israel's Maronite Christian allies in power. Israeli forces reached East Beirut, besieged the PLO stronghold on the city's west, and forced most of the organization's fighters to leave by sea. Lebanon's parliament elected Bashir Gemayel, the charismatic commander of the Christian Phalangist militia, to be the country's president. Gemayel was assassinated in September 1982, before he could take office. Israeli troops moved into West Beirut. Sharon assigned the Phalangists to take control of the Palestinian refugee camps. They did so in an orgy of vengeance, slaughtering hundreds, possibly thousands, of men, women, and children.

Facing a tidal wave of domestic protest, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government established a commission of inquiry, which recommended Sharon's dismissal. Yet Sharon survived politically. When Folman began making Waltz Sharon was prime minister. During the four years it took to produce the film, Israel again invaded its northern neighbor.

Folman's film begins with the repeating dream of his friend Boaz, who also served in Lebanon and who is pursued each night in his sleep by the dogs that he shot there so that they would not give away his squad's presence. For Folman, the months he spent in Lebanon are a blank. He begins to interview others who were there -- childhood friends, other soldiers, a legendary war correspondent -- to piece together what happened. The alternation of interviews and scenes from the past is standard documentary fare. For nonfiction, the plotline is unusually tight: Each regained memory is a step further from boyhood innocence toward the horror of involuntary culpability.

Folman's film is not the standard documentary montage of talking heads and archive footage. Virtually the entire film is presented in film-noir animation. Folman thereby bends the boundaries of his genre (even more than the recent, partially animated Chicago 10 did). Waltz may be to the documentary what Art Spiegelman's Maus was to the novel. Strangely, animation makes the film less fictional. Not restricted to old footage, Folman can portray scenes that no one photographed, just as a historian can recreate the past with the written word.

Animation brings us Boaz's vengeful dogs and the flies crowding onto the eye of a murdered Arabian horse at Beirut's hippodrome and the soldier reflected in the eye. Animation can show an “RPG boy” -- one of the PLO's child soldiers -- firing a rocket-propelled grenade at an Israeli patrol and the Israelis returning fire, killing him and their own image of what they looked like as children. Animation emphasizes the similarity of Tel Aviv's beachfront towers and Beirut's, so that this could all be happening where the film's core audience is sitting, rather than in some distant battlefield. That visual blurring echoes a much deeper ambiguity evoked by the word “camps,” used constantly in the film to refer to Sabra and Shatilla. A friend explains to Folman that “your concern about camps begins in those camps,” in Auschwitz, where Folman's parents were inmates.

What will happen in Beirut’s camps is presaged by Israeli obtuseness and Lebanese cruelty. Through the animated image, Folman shows an Israeli commander bivouacked in a lavish Beirut mansion, watching a German porn video as he deploys his soldiers. Through animation, Folman can paint the “slaughterhouse” where, well before Gemayel's death, Phalangists tortured and killed Palestinians and took their fingers and eyes as souvenirs. After the Phalangists enter Sabra and Shatilla, the animated figure of war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai dines at his Beirut apartment with Israeli officers and hears their suspicions of a massacre in the camps. Ben-Yishai phones Ariel Sharon late at night at his ranch in southern Israel. Sharon thanks Ben-Yishai for calling and goes to sleep.

In his film, Folman accuses himself and his primary audience of amnesia. Yet his forced march to memory has become a national cultural event, the film to see and to send friends to see. Watching, I ask myself whether I should take pride in the stark honesty of Israeli debate or only feel shared guilt for forgetting.

That question, in turn, points to the questions left from 1982: a democracy decided to initiate an unnecessary war. Its elected leaders allowed a war crime to occur. Yet afterward, demonstrators filled Tel Aviv -- reports at the time gave the impossibly high figure of 400,000 demonstrators, out of a national population of 4 million -- and forced Menachem Begin's government to establish an inquiry commission. The commission found that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” because he should have known in advance that the Phalangists would engage in slaughter. Did democracy fail or did it show its moral power?

Watching Sharon on screen, I realize that after years of writing about the Israeli leader, I am unsure I know the full extent of his culpability. On the night when Ben-Yishai called, how did Sharon go to sleep? Did the commission fail by not examining whether Sharon should face criminal charges? Afterward, how did he continue his political career? I was at the demonstration of 400,000 in Tel Aviv and the march through Jerusalem after the commission report and other protests too numerous to remember. Did we settle for too little?

Yet Sharon had immense popular support, from those who saw him as a war hero, or as the voice of everyone pushed aside by the old Israeli elites. The furies were loose in Israel that year. When I got off the bus from the demonstration in Tel Aviv, still holding a sign, I was chased home by toughs who threatened to rape and murder me. The protest march after the commission released its report led from downtown Jerusalem to the prime minister's office, through a pro-Sharon neighborhood, where people cursed us, punched us, hurled burning cigarettes in our faces. At the end of the rally, a rightist hurled a grenade. One protester died, others were wounded.

Those of us who wanted a moral reckoning had pushed as far as we could. Yet it was not enough. Democracy allowed the debate. It was not enough to insure that the country would remember or learn. Waltz With Bashir arouses such questions about going to war and about judging what leaders do. When the film opens in December in New York and Los Angeles, some viewers will see it merely as an Israeli self-indictment. In Ari Folman's spirit, they should not let themselves off so easily.

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