I rarely pick up graphic novels to read, but when I do I almost always very much enjoy them, so I really must reach for them more often. One of the interesting things about Ari Folman and David Polonsky's Waltz with Bashir is that it came about as a result of the movie that was first made, but then follow this circuitous thinking--the film was inspired by the graphic novel genre. Also interestingly, whereas Art Spiegelman's Maus was the first proper graphic novel, I believe Waltz with Bashir was the first documentary animated film. The former Holocaust literature and the latter about the Israeli-Lebanon War. It all feels sort of tied together for me.
I really liked the graphic novel but I loved the film. Obviously they are telling the same story but the film felt more fleshed out and most definitely is a much more powerful way of telling this story. It begins as an exploration of one man's experiences as a young soldier in Lebanon but eventually the focus tightens on the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Phalangist (Christian Lebanese) troops which the Israeli army (at least initially) turned a blind eye upon.
Ron Leshem's Beaufort tells the story of the end of the Lebanese War when Israel was pulling out in 2000, and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir goes back to the beginning of the conflict in 1982. Folman tells his story from the vantage point of more than twenty years on. He's put the past behind him, but when a friend tells him of a disturbing dream he has over and over about his 'job' during the war (the friend couldn't/wouldn't shoot people so it was his job to kill the dogs guarding villages and alerting Palestinians who were on the most wanted lists), which opens a Pandora's box of repressed memories for Folman.
He's mostly forgotten about his experiences in the war. He was only nineteen when he was sent to Lebanon. This is a war that was unpopular with Israeli Society and not seen as a defensive war-at least not after the first invasion meant to suppress terrorist attacks. Folman recalls the Yom Kippur War when his own father went off to fight and everyone focused on supporting the troops--life at home came to a stop. But with Lebanon it was if the soldiers were forgotten and criticized. Life went on back home while soldiers were dying.
Most of the story is about Folman's search for what happened in Lebanon. He interviews friends and fellow soldiers he fought with as he tries to piece together what happened on the border and in Beirut and then later in the villages of Sabra and Shatila. 'Was I there', he asks each in turn. Yes, you were just beside me the whole time is the reply. What the book becomes is a mosaic of experiences these young men had, which are eerily reminiscent of the Vietnam War experiences of US soldiers. In many ways the experiences are parallel though separated by time and distance.
This is such a fascinating and effective way to tell a story. It doesn't feel like a documentary in many ways as the story is so gripping, yet it is very much a documentary in the way the 'characters' speak and tell their stories. At one point he even talks to an expert on PTSD and combat trauma and there are some interesting ruminations on memory and how humans can 'fill in the blanks' of what we think we know and remember and how we perceive our own pasts. What really happened and what didn't is the question.
As the conflict deepens Lebanon's recently elected President Bashir, a man idolized by his followers, is assassinated which is the impetus for the massacre. The Phalangist troops seek their revenge and the Israeli troops offer support by sending flares into the sky lighting it up; the soldiers not realizing at first just what is happening below. And Folman was there. Eventually his memory wakens and it all becomes vividly clear just what happened.
The film has a bit more story than the book. The visuals are striking. It is not a flat animation like you see in cartoons, but the scenes have a three-dimensional depth to them that you don't quite get from the book. This is a story with a moving, climactic and sobering end. I can read about wars in books, but I have a harder time watching war films, but this is one I very much recommend. I was riveted. The war may be particular but the experiences of soldiers tend to be pretty universal in many ways. This one certainly offers much food for thought.
I'm finishing Shani Boianjiu's The People of Forever are Not Afraid now, which is a series of interlinked stories about young female Israeli soldiers, which is a different and interesting take on army life. My class is about contemporary Israeli literature and is broken into different genres. The Boianjiu is the last one about army life and war and then we'll be moving on to a new topic. I read so many interesting and impressive books last semester and this semester seems to be equally good. More about the Boianjiu next week.
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If you like foreign films, by the way, there are two I recently saw at the theater. Zero Motivation is a satirical and humorous look at female Israeli soldiers who mostly have mind-numbingly boring desk jobs. I went with my class to see it as part of our army/war segment.
Purely by chance I also caught another Israeli/French film short. It has been nominated for an Oscar. Aya is an intriguing film that gives you just enough information to make you curious but lets you fill in the blanks. A woman is waiting for someone in the airport. A man holds a sign waiting for a passenger he will drive to Jerusalem. He gets called away momentarily and asks this woman, Aya, to simply hold the sign until he gets back. It's one of those truth is stranger than fiction moments, as she 'agrees' to drive him. It was the longest of the 'live action' film shorts--I saw the whole group of them and was pleasantly surprised by how good each one was. I don't usually watch the Oscars, but this year I have seen a number of nominees so I might have to pay closer attention to just who wins.