It seems that the old idea that cartoons are for kids has finally been shattered. Hot on the heels of the stylized black and white animated exploration of the Iranian Revolution that was last year’s multiple award-winning (and Oscar-nominated) Persepolis comes another intriguing, award-winning take on another aspect of recent Middle Eastern history that’s largely unknown outside the region. And as with Persepolis, the animated approach may be unusual, but it is also an ideal way of increasing the accessibility of a subject that would, were it dealt with in more traditional forms, almost certainly turn many of us off before we even considered going to see it. Were this – or Persepolis – a documentary, few would have paid much attention. The gimmick of animation, especially animation done well, has worked a treat in expanding the potential audience.
The Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 is one of the murkiest and most unpleasant episodes in the long and decidedly unpleasant Israel/Palestine conflict that’s been raging on and off for a good six decades now. Yet it remains largely unknown and largely forgotten – hidden behind more dramatic episodes like rocket attacks, bus bombs, vast prison camps, “peace walls”, the Six Day War and the First Infatada. Part of the reason for this is that it is still unclear quite what happened – quite what led to the murder of several hundred Palestinian civilians in two Israeli refugee camps by Lebanese militiamen, supposedly allowed in by Israel for that purpose. Even the number of deaths is heavily disputed, so unclear are the events – ranging from 328 to 3,500, depending on who you ask. Because of this, even the name is disputed, with some arguing that this wasn’t merely a massacre – it was a genocide.
Thanks to all this confusion, the approach taken by the makers of Waltz With Bashir is totally appropriate. The film starts with the nightmare – again, highly appropriate – of a former Israeli soldier, a man involved in the massacres of 1982, yet who can remember nothing of what his role may have been in those horrific events. Determined to rid himself of his night-time terrors, he decides to track down old comrades to discover the truth – both of his own actions and of the events that took place during the war of the 1980s that led to the deaths of so many interned Palestinians.
The fact that the ex-soldier protagonist and the film’s writer/director, Ari Folman, share the same first name is no coincidence. The system of conscripted military service in Israel means that almost all Israelis have experienced the ongoing conflicts with their neighbours at first hand, and Folman had more than his fair share. This is as much the director’s own exploration of his past and his own personal feelings of guilt as it is a fiction.
As such, this is not an attempt to provide a broad overview of the politics behind the events of the early 80s, but a highly personal tale of what it was like on the front lines – and how the experiences of war can shape entire lifetimes. This may be an Israeli film, but the input of French and German finance should hint that it is anything but a defence of Israeli policy. This is a tale that could be about any war, any massacre of innocents. And as the numerous awards it has picked up should demonstrate, animation or not it is also one of the finest explorations of the psychological effects of warfare yet committed to celluloid. Not an easy film, but certainly an important one.