A cartoon about war might seem to trivialise its subject. When the cartoon is not so much about war as it is about the memories of war, the detritus left in the mind after war, then you might add the accusation that such an account would lack the power to make you identify with the novel experiences portrayed. Waltz with Bashir therefore comes with baggage in addition to the fact that it is about Israeli, Lebanese and Palestinian politics. I want to leave that politics behind- partly because not being involved it is difficult to write about it- and partly because that's not really what the film is about. It is about the fact of the war and the fact of Phalangist atrocities in the Lebanese conflict, not about the reasons for the war or the complex issues at the heart of the Israeli Palestinian process. The Phalange were the Christian faction in Lebanon- and the film suggests that on the night of the 15th September 1982, Israeli forces stood around and watched as the Phalangists murdered hundreds and possibly thousands of Palestinians.
Waltz with Bashir is about the invasion of Lebanon by Israel that occured earlier in that year- and the way it proceeded right up until the massacre. It deals with the experience of one soldier- remembering twenty years later (so in 2002) the events that he had been through- and attempting through interviewing others that he knew to find out what was going on at that point. The characters are all shown through the medium of cartoons so though we hear their words, we cannot see their real faces. The tale is mediated already- and is a tale about the way that memory mediates experience. It is definitely true that the leading characters' main memory of the massacre was wrong: memory is not a reliable tool in this film.
It is not a reliable tool partly because of the trauma of what happened to the central character. Again and again on this blog we come back to the experience of war as much as war itself shaping later history- when you have, as this man does, the experience of shooting a kid holding an RPG in your unconscious, you cannot but be effected. There are some wonderfully dramatic moments in this where you can feel the uncertainty of a soldier in hostile territory. One that comes to mind immediatly is where an Israeli force marches down through western Beirut, and comes across a junction, there are snipers in the building shooting down and as they shoot, two Israeli soldiers squabble over which gun they will use. The winner takes the gun and moves like a beserker into the centre of the junction, shooting wildly in all directions. Another has the Israelis, again in Beirut, move through the city shooting and surreally Lebanese families standing on their balconies watching. You might pick out too other moments- young soldiers taking the wounded back to a helicopter landing pad to be returned to Israel and coming across for the first time real wounds, or another young soldier swimming away from Lebanese forces who have just killed his entire unit, and always feeling guilty of desertion from then on in his life.
The portrait of military life is convincing. In particular the way that travel to Lebanon turned into a kind of fraternity party, with soldiers in tanks singing pop songs- or the way that another kid at war decided that if he died, at least his ex-girlfriend might regret she'd just split up with him- all makes sense. Furthermore these guys do not know why they are fighting- they have no real idea of what they are fighting for. Military life for some of them is an imposition- for others it is an escape or a means to prove themselves. Its not about the actual cause that prompted the war- whatever that was. This is important- for we need to recognise what the film seeks to do and what it does not: it does not seek to give a complete picture, it gives the partial picture of these particular people going to war.
SPOILER ALERT. The experience of war is described in cartoons- but that is not the only thing described here. For right at the end- the experience of atrocity is described in actual television footage. Personally this deepened the impact of the atrocities to me- and suggested that the experience of the soldiers who stood by as they happened was in some way less important than that of the people who suffered. It contributes to the sense that the rest of the film is something of an illusion besides what happened inside the camps. The sense of guilt an illusion beside the guilty deed. A feeling which afterall has an ethical resonance for us all- however guilty you are there is nothing you can do to rebuild what you have done. The deaths of the Palestinians in the camps could never be undone and their blood never return to their bodies. That sense of the irrevocable nature of the deed may be good ethics- it is definitely good psychology for one of the key factors in guilt as an emotion at least for me is the sense that guilt has a past. Guilt is always felt about something that one cannot undo.
The film was based on the director's own experiences at the front in the war. The political issues to me are less interesting here- though they were bound to be focussed upon- than the issues to do with the psychology of the troops. The youth of troops is important- as is the fact that their experience remains a chord in the symphony of their lives right into middle age and beyond. There is interesting discussion in particular of memory in the film. The war be like a shattered glass with every character holding a separate shard- our main character seeks to repiece together the experience of war- but I was left with a lingering doubt about whether he had completed the pieces or about whether anyone could. Tolstoy captured war best in War and Peace- and what he showed was that noone at the front or in the general's tent understands war- the movement of thousands of men, their individual stories, tragedies and grim triumphs are something that escapes our comprehension. What we have here is one of those shards- and its importance lies in the way that it pierced the rest of a man's life, rendering him incapable of remembering the deeds for which he felt most truly sorry.