‘Waltz with Bashir’, by Ari Folman

Por Julia González García / julia.garciag01@estudiante.uam.es

Winner of a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and a Caesar for Best Foreign Film, “Waltz with Bashir (ואלס עם באשיר)” tells us about one of the most complicated moments in the life of the director, the Israeli soldier Ari Folman, who is the main character of this intimate and animation film. What would happen if someday you lose your memory and do not remember a concrete period? This is what happened to our main character Ari Folman. When he realizes what happens to him, he tries to recover his memory by talking to some companions that lived the same moment.

The film is set a few years after 1982, time in which the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, located in Lebanon, occurred. The author makes a journey through the stormy history that makes up the events, showing us the atmosphere of war and numerous episodes of it. The first scene shows us the dream of a Folman´s friend, which uncovers his darkest memories of the war in Lebanon. It is then, when our protagonist realizes that he hardly remembers anything about the war. The story unfolds from this moment from which Folman begins to recreate his time through the war, while discovering that it is quite likely that his lack of memory is due to the fact that he was an accomplice of what was, without any doubt, one of the crudest moments of all the war; the massacre of the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

Hostilities and conflicts between Palestinian and Israelis go back a long way in history. If we go back to the past, we can see how both two nations have been in permanent tension, and many times in conflict, for a long period of time that extends to the present day. It was in 1982 one of the moments in which this tension exploded in a war. The 1982 Lebanon War began when Israeli defense forces invaded southern Lebanon with the aim of expelling the PLO (a coalition of political and paramilitaries movements created by the Palestinian national council in 1964) from the country, after they began bombing northern Israel on July 10, 1981. “The offensive that the Israeli government launched against Lebanon in June 1982 involved the effective occupation of almost half the territory of the neighboring country, as well as the siege and destruction of its capital, unleashing the intervention of different powers, regional and global.”[1] “Aside from ending the PLO presence in Beirut, Israel’s invasion had a second goal: the installation of a Lebanese government friendly to Israel and willing to sign a peace treaty with it.”[2]

Throughout the film we can see numerous fragments of the war, although a negative aspect of it is that it is not contextualized enough, which can lead the viewer to feel out of place in the story (especially if they do not know or have never heard of the historical background). Anyways, the film is focused on a specific moment of the war, the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, a moment of which the protagonist has a recurring dream that he does not know how to interpret. The main aim of Ari Folman throughout the film, is to remember this concrete episode of the war. In September 1982, hundreds of Palestinian refugees were killed by the Lebanese Phalange, with Christian manorite roots, in order to avenge the assassination of the manorite Prime Minister Bashir Gemayel (also phalange leader), assassinated at the hands of the PLO, as well as the massacre of Damour (a Lebanese city with a Christian majority). When the killing started, militiamen groups modus operandi was entering homes, slitting throats, axing, shooting, and raping. They also took groups outside the camps, as it is shown in the film, and lined them for execution.[3]  Israelis, for their part, were complicit in the massacre, as they did not prevent it and allowed the phalangist militias to enter into the two Palestinian refugee camps.[4] Folman´s  recurring dream is related to the exact moment when him and his companions helped phalangists making this executions by throwing flares in the night in order to kill Palestinian people from the refugee camps at the night. As he does not remember what happened, he starts to ask some companions who were with him in the war in order to remake little by little the complete story.

Despite it is complicated to follow the story without this explanation, it captures the viewer’s attention thanks to other aspects such as the visuals or the soundtrack. I got completely into that time thanks to the wonderful soundtrack that accompanies the animation, which features pieces like Enola Gay, Good Morning Lebanon, or This is not a Love Song, contrasting with pieces of classical music. The colors of the film fit really well with what the director wants to portrait. A scene that from my point of view clearly shows the importance of colors in the film, is the recurring dream that Folman has, which finally becomes a memory and when this happens, the colors turn from golden tones to grayish tones.

As mentioned before, the film shows really hard moments of the war but, for me, the most dreadful ones are two. The first one, when Folman came back to his home. It was shocking for me how Israelis were living in a parallel world in which the conflict in Lebanon seemed not to exist for them, as if nothing was happening. The second one it may be the hardest moment of the film, and it is the end. The videos and pictures showing us the reality of the massacres in the refugee camps made me realize how hard those moments were and the null humanity the phalangists had. Nevertheless, it left me a very bad feeling, and this raised contradictory feelings in me; On the one hand it is perhaps necessary to see these images to understand the harshness and magnitude of the situation and on the other hand I did not like to watch them.

Regarding to the film characters, from my point of view, the secondary characters, who were Folman´s companions, being interspersed between sequences of the war and interviews with them, did not convey me so much. The main character is the most complete, but it was difficult for me to fully empathize with him. Despite this, it is really interesting Folman´s psychological background. How it is possible that he did not remember what happened? “It’s not that I had total amnesia about it,” he says now, “but I had worked very hard to repress those memories. I had the basic storyline, but there were large holes.”[5] Normally, stories do not talk about what happens to people who witness traumatic events, so it is really absorbing how the film treats this unknown topic. In war situations, it is normal to suffer post-traumatic stress. In the film, Folman goes to visit Dr. Zahava Solomon, who is specialized in post-traumatic stress, wondering how it is possible that he cannot remember such a hard and traumatic event, to which the specialist replies that he may suffer from a dissociative disorder, in which he has used a mechanism to forget and not get involved in his own memories, protecting himself. To explain this, she tells him a story in which a photographer said he lived the war through a “camera”, to ignore reality, until he reached a hippodrome full of shot dead horses and was suddenly forced to live the harsh reality. It is very interesting to analyze the entire film from this same perspective, since the viewer is offered an animated film, in which they are told a real story, but with animated figures. It is in the end when the director decides to break this barrier that perhaps tries to protect the viewer from a reality that is too difficult to assimilate and shows us devastating and really complicated images. This is undoubtedly a brilliant way for the author to explain how he has lived that transition from amnesia to memory, as a distant dream that suddenly becomes a shocking memory.

In conclusion, the film, despite being difficult to assimilate due to the harshness of the events, is very enriching academically speaking, and I highly recommend watching it to delve into a side of history that is normally unknown. The film has an important tinge of regret from the Israeli soldier, showing how on many occasions not even the soldiers themselves are aware of the scale of their actions. As a whole, I did not saw a self-criticism from Folman, but a way of escape and search for support to be able to deal with his own guilt. In a way, the movie struck me as a way to justify the unjustifiable.


Freedland Jonathan, “Lest we forget”, The Guardian (2008), https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/oct/25/waltz-with-bashir-ari-folman   Consulted on 08/05/2021.

Lion Javier, “Operación Paz en Galilea: ¿Cómo crear a su peor enemigo?” (2012) pp. 9-18

Shahid Leila, “The Sabra and Shatila Massacres: Eye-Witness Reports” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2002) pp. 36-58

Stone, R. A. , Ochsenwald, . William L. , Elath, . Eliahu and Sicherman.  “Israel. Encyclopedia Britannica” Harvey (2021). https://www.britannica.com/place/Israel/War-in-Lebanon    Consulted on 08/05/2021

[1] Lion Javier, “Operación Paz en Galilea: ¿Cómo crear a su peor enemigo?” (2012) p.2

[2]  Shahid Leila, “The Sabra and Shatila Massacres: Eye-Witness Reports” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2002) p. 37

[3] Shahid Leila, “The Sabra and Shatila Massacres: Eye-Witness Reports” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2002) p. 40

[4]  Stone, R. A. , Ochsenwald, . William L. , Elath, . Eliahu and Sicherman.  “Israel. Encyclopedia Britannica” Harvey (2021). https://www.britannica.com/place/Israel/War-in-Lebanon

[5] Freedland Jonathan, “Lest we forget”, The Guardian (2008), https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/oct/25/waltz-with-bashir-ari-folman

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