If Rob Reiner gave us a “rockumentary”/”mockumentary” with his famous This is Spinal Tap, the Israeli director Ari Folman has now created a new genre of “documation” with his Academy Award-nominated animated film Waltz with Bashir. Whereas Reiner’s intentions were clearly satirical, however, and his film made no pretense to being factual, Folman’s intentions are deadly serious and his film aspires to get at a truth that is somehow even “deeper” than the mere facts. That “deep truth,” namely, is the responsibility of Israel for the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre during the 1982 Lebanon War.
Folman — in animated form, of course — is the star of his own film. He was a soldier in the Israeli Army during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He does not recall participating in any war crimes and he specifically does not recall having anything to do with Sabra and Shatila. The perpetrators of the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps are known, in any case, to have been Lebanese Christian forces. But Folman does have an enigmatic dream placing him on a beach not far from the camps at the time of the massacre. His lack of recollections from the war troubles him and he sets out to fill the gap by talking with other persons who were present in one capacity or another during the invasion. In the manner of someone attempting to recapture repressed childhood memories through psychoanalysis, the entire exercise is thus premised on the assumption that Israel was indeed somehow complicit in the massacre. (In the only scene that adds a touch of ambiguity to the film, however, a psychologist tells Folman that experimental subjects can be readily induced to recall events that never in fact occurred.)
As concerns Folman’s personal involvement, the results of his efforts at self-examination are notably meager. In the end, he manages merely to “recollect” that he was present on a rooftop while Israeli troops set off flares in the vicinity of Sabra and Shatila, an action that seems to him to have been designed to aid the killers.
Along the way, however, the viewer is served up a veritable orgy of Israeli violence and vulgarity. Israeli soldiers are shown firing indiscriminately into fields and crushing civilian vehicles under their tanks. They are depicted carousing on a military vessel headed for the Lebanese coast (a kind of “love boat,” one character says) and cavorting on Lebanese beaches. They are depicted slaughtering defenseless animals and blowing holes in what appear to be residential structures. “I bombed Beirut every day,” the rock soundtrack blares, “Sure we kill some innocent along the way.” During the “I bombed Beirut” sequence, amidst the scattershot images of varied carnage, Ariel Sharon is depicted sitting down to a breakfast of beef and no less than five eggs, while holding a knife menacingly in his hand. Sharon was the Israeli minister of defense at the time of the Lebanon invasion.
In what may be the single scene most certain to inflame anti-Israeli — if not indeed outright anti-Semitic — prejudice, a portly unshaven Israeli officer is seen slouched half-undressed in an armchair while watching a porn video in an occupied villa on the outskirts of Beirut. (For lord knows what reason, the soundtrack of the porn film is in German.) By virtue of physiognomy and theme, the image is creepily reminiscent of the anti-Semitic caricatures featured in Julius Streicher’s infamous Nazi propaganda sheet Der Stürmer. (See here for an example. The cartoon is titled “Jewish Culture.” It shows a svelte “Aryan” couple contemplating nature, while the Stürmer cartoonist’s stock “fat Jew,” seen in profile, attends a porn flick titled The Sweet Sins.)
All of the above is, of course, neither documentary nor “documation.” It is quite simply fiction — even if Folman might want to plead that the scenes are somehow based on “recovered” memories.