Waltz With Bashir (2008), directed by Ari Folman, is a Israeli animated film which explores the concept of trauma and its relationship with memory. Years after his service with the Israeli Defense Force during what Israel calls the Lebanon War, Ari Folman (the director, and also main character) meets a friend who explains that he is experiencing recurring dreams that seem to reference his experiences from that time. Ari reveals that he cannot remember anything from his service in the army, despite knowing he was there. After experiencing a symbolic dream of his own, he seeks out his old army friends, and other experts, to find out exactly what happened during his service.
I first watched this film in one of my counselling methods classes at university. At the time we were focusing on Freud, who was big on dream analysis and defense mechanisms (among other things). As the story of Waltz With Bashir involved both of these Freudian issues, my teacher showed it to us in our final class and we had a big discussion about it afterwards with direct reference to Freud’s theories. It was mindblowing. The film illustrates so clearly to me the impact that traumatic events can have on an individual’s working memory, and the repression of that memory. When you have done or contributed to something that is so morally reprehensible to you, how would you react? Freud says that the defense mechanism of repression would bury the memories of the source material so deep inside your psyche that your memory of it would be completely obscured. This is certainly what happened to Ari, and for good reason.
There are occasional surrealist elements to the film that are symbolic of the mind’s attempt to ‘cover up’ traumatic events with a more acceptable version. The image of the giant woman stealing Ari’s friend away from his army’s boat, swimming him away to safety while the boat explodes in the background, is one example of this.
Aesthetically, the animation is plain yet beautiful. It reminds me a lot of the rotoscope animation in Waking Life (2001), but it’s much more ‘flat’ than that. The music is a strange mix of classical and 80s pop, with an electronic film score that is an excellent accompaniment to the methodical pounding of bombs and bullets.
The storytelling is done in a really interesting way. It’s done through a mix of voiceover, internal monologue, discussions with friends, and also a couple of interviews with experts about the Lebanon War, such as a famous journalist who witnessed some of the events in the film. Up until one of these interviews, I wasn’t aware that the story was based on real people and events. I knew about the Lebanese Civil War and Israel’s involvement, but the film was presented in such a way that it was fairly ambiguous whether Ari’s central conflict actually occurred. In actual fact, the story is directly based on his experiences.
In terms of the film’s comment on war, I believe it tends to have a ‘show rather than tell’ approach. We never learn about Ari’s opinions on the war directly, but the impact that the war and its events have on him is definitely portrayed negatively. We see his face, drawn and tired, firing bullets into the night in order to hit anything that is hiding; we don’t need to be told his opinion on this. The war is portrayed in such a negative way that Ari never has to say “War is bad!” for the viewer to have that understanding. This film treats the viewer in an intelligent way, by assisting us to go along the journey with Ari and not be spoon-fed information or opinions. In this way, the film can be a process of discovery also for the viewer, to uncover how we feel about the atrocities of war.
Warning – spoilers!
The final scene of the film is so profound. As Ari’s memories finally unfold, and his missing experiences become clear to him, the film transitions from animation to real life film footage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut that Ari and his fellow soldiers inadvertently assisted. As Ari’s memories of the massacre return to him, his world becomes 3D and real, as opposed to the 2D of repressed memories and missing information. Watching this for the first time was incredibly upsetting. We are shown dead bodies, of adults and children. It is at this point where I reached an understanding with Ari: of course he repressed his memories and wanted to forget this, of course he wanted to avoid the pain of what actually happened.
Waltz With Bashir is one of those films that sticks with you for a long time. Not only because of the horrific reality of the events which it explores, but also because of the understanding of how the mind responds to trauma when it is experienced directly. From a counselling/psychotherapy perspective, this film is fascinating. From a historical perspective, and to put a face to a conflict that people don’t really discuss, it is essential viewing.
Watch the trailer here.