In 2008, Waltz With Bashir, a documentary exploration of the First Lebanon War, was released to wide critical acclaim. The film is animated, told from the perspective of Ari Folman, who dictates his experiences via selective memory. In his search to find what truly happened, specifically regarding the events surrounding the Sabra and Shatila massacres, Ari pieces together the events leading up to the war through candid interviews with old war brothers and on-the-scene non-combatants. In 2009, a graphic novel adaptation was released. The result is a well crafted summation of the film, articulating the conflict as well as redefining principal genre conventions that support the graphic novel format.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and how the condition affects veterans of war, is prominent in Waltz With Bashir, with much focus on the trauma of memory. Trauma narrative, which encompasses holocaust and genocide literature, begs the question, “is memory reliable?” How stable is the mind and what does it do to cope with events of tremendous hardship, given the psychological impact survivors feel? Ari’s journey to discover where he was at the time of the war atrocities of Sabra and Shatila is guided by his close friends and their memories; Ari becomes a war correspondent in proxy. Dissociative memory explores the relationship between war journalism and the compilation of facts and data that go into reenacting extreme violence via the written word. Ari’s struggles to remember derive from his own efforts to place distance between himself and what, in reality, happened. Throughout the reconstruction that takes place in the narrative the use of scopes, sights, cameras, and artificial night vision place the reader at the same distance created by Ari. Because the simulation yields Polaroid-like collages of experiential data, going in to the work, the reader, ironically, experiences the war second hand. The disassociation surrounding war is the foil by which war is experienced, stymieing the entire program of war journalism, a problem that Waltz With Bashir addresses.
Most graphic novels conjure images of caped vigilantes serving up justice, but Waltz With Bashir breaks this mold decisively, primarily because the tale concerns the memoirs of real people from real events. Sequential art captures moments in time, eulogizing each frame as iconic moments that demand our attention. Though Waltz With Bashir was originally an animated film, the graphic novel adaptation allows a new level of immersion that was not possible with the film. The rotoscope effect employed by Ari in development of the film forces the viewer to embrace the film as some kind of surreal fantasy. Again, it poses the question, “did the massacre of Sabra and Shatila really happen?” The stillness of the graphic novel enhances the meditative reflections of Ari. Moments of cruelty, like the killing of animals and non-combatants freeze frame as moments of time. The lack of sound, which played an integral part in the film, specifically in the scene where Frenkel “waltzes” with his machine gun to Chopin’s Waltz in C-Sharp Minor, enhances the casualties of war and roots the reader in each frame. In the graphic novel are, at least, a half dozen sequences, silent crescendos that narrow perspective and filter through the lens of Ari’s experiences. The impact is profound, and claustrophobic. In a war fueled by nationalistic ambitions and the defense of arcane lands, why is it that the Israelis and Palestinians yielded so little regard for the very people each side was trying to preserve. The answer is clear, but subtle, as Ari recalls being ordered to port an APC full of the dead and wounded to a staging area littered with corpses.
Interestingly enough, Waltz with Bashir reflects on a war that by all intents and purposes never happened, at least in the minds of those that stayed behind. Ari recalls the dichotomous relationship between war and peace as a line quickly dissolving into ambiguity. The nature of his father’s war, World War II, was that life was “put on hold” for those away. People watched as the young men went off to war, some never to return. Instead of the salience of war, Ari finds the people quickly complacent, and completely disconnected from the outside conflict brewing on their doorsteps. The oddity of living “normal lives” during times of war underscores the absurdity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Frenkel recounts the days spent on the beach, tanning himself as Israeli bombers dropped munitions on his own men, serenity is emphasized. A soldier smokes weed with a bong fabricated from a coca-cola bottle as his comrades are killed in action. A general, while eating breakfast, calls in orders for Frenkel’s men to go “hunt for terrorists,” and in the following frames, Frenkel opens fire on a child soldier armed with an RPG. These details highlight the absurdity of sectarian conflict. Each sequence conjures confusion, anger, complacency. Even during the actual massacre, those that Ari interviews confess that while Maronite Extremists carried out the acts of death in the camps, the Israeli army watched unabashed at the slaughter of unarmed civilians.
This wanton violence isn’t without consequence either. Bashir Gemayel’s assassination was the death knell for peace in Lebanon. Those that could clean their hands of the affair did so, leaving the rest of the countryside embroiled in sectarian conflicts that endure to current affairs. What is so fascinating is the normal lives Ari and his friends have lived in the wake of such conflict. Carmi, one of Ari’s squad mates, relocated to Holland, where selling felafel earned him a ten acre estate. Frenkel is a martial arts champion, and Ori a successful lawyer. Their relative success in the wake of conflict compounds the anger over the loss of life during the siege. More importantly, is underscores the futility of war.
“Graphic novel” is a somewhat illusory term then, in light of what Waltz With Bashir actually is. Graphic novels often reflect serialized works now in a renewed state of completion. Not only that, the convention creates an artificial cohesiveness across disparate works. Waltz With Bashir differs from this paradigm. The work is a complete whole, telling a story with a continuous narrative flow from beginning to end. The irony, then, is how a story far removed from bombastic displays of vigilante fantasy emerges to better utilize the conventions of the graphic novel. Waltz With Bashir stands among great art comics like Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman, as a commentary on memory and the willingness to ignore what one should never forget.