Waltz with Bashir – Ari Fisher (2008 Israel) Animation using testimony from Israeli soldiers who fought in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Not so much Waltz with Bashir, rather Tango with False Memory Syndrome.
AT the heart of Waltz with Bashir is a fundamental philosophical problem. If you have lost your memory of certain traumatic events, how do you know whether any of your ‘retrieved’ memories of the events are true or false?
In Waltz with Bashir (WB) I have to conclude that Ari Fisher, in failing to address even obliquely, fundamental issues relating to memory retrieval, uses animation as a means of reducing history to a Disneyfication process. That is to say WB turns the real events and the people involved into displaced de-intensified images that tell a story that is a travesty of truth: in effect he uses graphics imagery to muddy the real and to misrepresent the actual.
I noted that whereas the film tells its story of the war, using the metaphor of memory retrieval, reliant only on animation, Fisher lays aside this stylised format at the end of the film when we see the consequences of the Israeli sponsored Phalangist massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The final pictures of this slaughter are not ‘toons’ but actual images. The stylised animation of WB cannot ‘contain’ the real human effects of the Israeli sponsored slaughter: any attempt to convey these scenes using ‘toons’ would at once reveal the immoral impoverished and dishonest nature of employing animation to retrieve history. Hence at the click of a mouse, for the final sequence, Fisher abandons animation and cuts to archive footage of the bodies and the mourning broken Palestinian women. Of course once the cut to ‘the real’ is made, there is no way back to the funky little line drawings that represent ‘the human’ in the film; so the movie has to end.
Before WB begins there is a statement of intent, a sort of disclaimer, that reads, white on black: “This film is an attempt to recover the memories of a young soldier in the 1982 Lebanese War.” Of course memory retrieval here feels like a metaphor for a wider forgetting by Israeli society, perhaps not only of the atrocities they sponsored during the invasion of Lebanon but also of the traumatic psychological damage done to their young men who were both invaders and witnesses to the criminal activity at Sabra and Shatila. Memory retrieval however is not a straight forward process. It is a process in which there is no guarantee that memories retrieved and lodged in the mind will be truthful. In fact there is strong evidence from clinical studies to show that false memories can be easily absorbed and assimilated into identity by compliant minds. Judging by the evidence presented in WB, this movie is about the absorbion and internalisation of false memory.
The reason for this conclusion is that at the heart of the movie is a major provable historical error. There is a lie at the heart of the film. The memory retrieved by Fisher of the Palestinian camp massacres was that they took place over one night. This allows for a plausible Israeli claim that, by the time they realised that a massacre had been perpetrated by their allies the Phalangists, it was too late to prevent. The Israelis would still have to explain: their use of flares to light up the camp so that the Phalangists could see their way around; the Israeli blockade of the camps to prevent any Palestinians escaping; and the presence of senior Israeli officers on the roofs of strategically placed high buildings overlooking the camps. But the time factor as represented in the film is critical to the Israeli plea for mitigation of their failure to stop the Phalangist revenge. But the duration of the massacres is misrepresented in WB. The massacres took place over two nights; two nights of killings and Israeli collusion with the slaughter. There is no plausibility to Israeli claims that there was not time enough for them to comprehend that massacre was taking place in the Palestinian camps. They had all the time they needed to intervene if they had chosen so to do. They chose not to. So WB is exposed as a metaphor not for memory retrieval but the Israeli need to implant false memory into its collective history to shield itself from the shame of complicity in the slaughter of defenceless innocents.
The use of filmed animation technique to paint a picture of and hear the voices of historical events is I think highly problematic. WB has an opening that shows us a pack of bestial dogs running wild through an urban setting. It is sequence that would not be out of place in either Lady and the Tramp or 101 Dalmatians. The dogs, figments of a dream, eventually lead us to the main character, represented as a two dimensional line drawn figure, the main character author and film maker Ari Fisher, whose quest is to recover his memory of the 1982 Lebanon war. Fisher’s journey through the ‘toon’ landscape of war leads him back to his ex-comrades, and their witnessing and testimony; and like him rendered in the form of drawn simulacra. These simulacra, the ex-soldiers give accounts of their experiences in the war. And as they so do, they assist Fisher rebuild his own memory (or perhaps false memory) of the events.
The problem presented by these line drawn simulacra is one of credibility. Animated figures, testifying on film can be given little credibility by the viewer. The problem is that each of the individuals, represented as simulacra of themselves, carry as much resemblance to themselves as human entities as do the drawn dogs to a real pack of baying hounds. However the dogs are drawn they still look like Disney creations; the vital animal nature of their dogness is absent. Anthropomorphic qualities displace and abstract their dogness. The problems presented by animal simulacra are replicated but compounded many fold when we try to appraise the testimony of the animated interviewees, the avatars of ex comrades that Fisher seeks out in the two dimensional world of WB .
Words are fragile things. The more so when we want to appraise and evaluate their worth and weight, and when we know that those speaking the words may have good reason to mispresent or distort what they say, either with or without self belief. When we see actual people interviewed we can appraise their responses and statements by some monitoring of body language, by observing pauses and hesitations, verbal errors etc. With the use of simulacra in WB none of this is possible. There is in fact little of the human in their spoken transcripts: no humour, no irony no uncertainties. Just a two dimensional flat line phonetic rendering of testimony as monotonous as the picture. Further when we see interviews on film conducted in the flesh, we can at least see where there have been cuts and edits of the material. When the interview is represented in animation everything in the editing process is opaque, hidden from the scrutiny of the viewer who has no means of re-marking anything in the editorial process.
For myself, WB represents a distressing mode of quasi-documentary form. The film is caste as a heroic quest by one man for the truth But with actual human input represented by the use of line drawn figures and all the tricks of drawn facial manipulation to depict emotional honesty and candour, Fisher has produced a film in which the heroic national quest is for false memory and the fake replaces the real at the core of historical experience.