Phong appropriately chose the occasion of “Waltz With Bashir” to share with us one of his own short films – Rain Bather. This film is a true rarity, only recently restored to DVD and Blu-Ray from the original masters, and as such is neither to be found on IMDB nor are there any screen caps to grab on the web (though if Phong were so inclined to provide me with some, I’d gladly include a few here). Phong’s film combines footage of rain with his own narration — and his family’s recollections — regarding the possibility of rainfall during his time in a refugee camp in Camp Pendleton, CA (about 30 miles north of San Diego) sometime in the early-mid ’70s. By setting up the simple question “Do you remember it raining at the camp?” Phong is able to elicit rich memories of their brief life at the camp from his family which go far beyond the subject of rain and which paint a picture (narrow as it may be) of what life as a refugee is like.
Although the theme is normally in the background, the entire film is forced to carry with it a subtext — one of how unreliable memory can be. The family’s recollections are often vague, and even when they are not they can yet be contradictory. One example in particular is the story of a sister’s distinct memory of her grandmother’s house in Vietnam, accurate down to the floorplan despite the fact that she was too young — she could never have been there.
The theme of the unreliability of memory was not only echoed but amplified by Phong’s feature presentation, Waltz With Bashir (2008, Israel), which was written and directed by Ari Folman. The film is quite unique in that it is an animated documentary. Although the animation process bears at least a trivial similarity to rotoscoping (see A Scanner Darkly) in that filmed footage was converted to animation, apparently the similarities end there, and the process used here involved the creation of Flash animations from drawings based on the filming.
The film starts with a friend of Folman’s recounting to him his vivid, haunting dreams of being chased by a pack of dogs which he believes to be related to his experiences in the Lebanese War of 1982, in which Folman himself served at the age of 19. Folman is initally disturbed to find that he does not remember anything from the time of the war, but the experience triggers visions of himself and two other soldiers bathing in the Mediterranean as either flares or shell fire erupt over Beirut.
This snippet of a memory is just a tease to Folman, who seeks out his friends from the time in an (ultimately somewhat unsuccessful) effort to reconstruct the event. Over the course of the film, Folman hears stories of the war, some related, some tangential
and even travels to the Netherlands — twice — to interview one of his closest partners from the war, who insists on having no ability to help Folman with his recollection despite being featured prominently in it.
During the film, Folman only slowly gives exposition of the events which he eventually realizes must have surrounded his memory. Following the assassination of the the Israeli ambassador in London in June of 1982, Israel launched a full-scale invasion into Lebanon, which had been restively besieged with a civil war for some seven years. Although the political situation in Lebanon was complicated and shifted often, the factions at the time of the war can briefly be presented as the Palestinian Liberation Organization on one side, and the Christian-backed Phalangists (formerly allied with Syria but contemporarily allied with Israel) on the other. Shortly after the initial invasion by Israel the wildly popular Phalangist Bashir Gemayel was elected President of Lebanon. Despite renewed Syrian influence among the Phalangists leading to Gemayel’s rejection of a peace treaty with Israel, Gemayel was assassinated by an agent of Syrian intelligence only a few months later.
Immediately following the assassination, Israel occupied West Beirut, and although it is not specifically stated, the scene which gives the film its name probably arose from the fighting that established that occupation:
While being pinned down by enemy gunfire, an Israeli soldier takes his automatic weapon boldly into the street, shooting wildly into the air while dancing about underneath a banner depicting Bashir Gemayel. This “waltz” is just one of the many depictions of the brutality and senselessness of war in the film.
Eventually the Israeli Defense Forces occupied West Beirut, and under this occupation the Phalangists were either allowed or took their opportunity (how guilty Israel was in the events to follow is still debated) to exact their revenge for the death of Gemayel. The Phalangists seized the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and carried out a massacre of the civilians there, and the film depicts particularly a scene where IDF soldiers fire off flares during the night which allow the Phalangist forces to continue their work. Estimates of the death toll range from 300 to 3000.
Throughout the film, Folman’s bathing vision always ends with him moving into Beirut up an alley lined with storefronts as a crowd of people streams out in anguish. Finally, at the end of the film the style shifts from animation to actual documentary footage of the aftermath of the massacre, with the cameraman following a group of grieving Palestinians down the same alley with the same storefronts. Here, where animation meets documentary footage, where disjointed memory meets disjointed reality, where Israeli meets Palestinian, is where Folman’s search and his film both end together.
Kind of a downer of a night, but two excellent films nonetheless.