Speak, Memory

Seeing Ari Folman's prize-winning film, 'Waltz with Bashir,' is having an unexpected therapeutic effect, not only on soldiers who served in the first Lebanon war - the film's subject - but also on those who fought on the Egyptian front, in the intifada, or in the Second Lebanon War.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

Thirty-six years later, he returns to the "Akabish" route in Sinai. Without wanting to, he finds himself back at that moment when he saw hundreds of burned and distended bodies heaped by the side of the road. "I returned to my private war experiences, the burnt tanks, the stench of the dead near Ismailiya, the looting of the bodies of the Egyptian soldiers," says the writer and psychotherapist Dr. Dror Green. "In particular, I returned to my friend Ehud Matanya, with whom I was discussing art when he was ripped to pieces by a machine gun fired from an Egyptian plane."

It is the day after he watched the animated film "Waltz with Bashir," and Green, 54, is still distraught. He talks about being jolted. "Viewing the film is a meaningful experience. I experience a similar feeling when I watch, as I do at least once a year, [Francis Ford] Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now.' I allow myself to identify with the sense of horror that pervades Coppola's film precisely because it takes place so far away, in the Vietnam of a different era. The distance allows me to unpack the baggage of nightmares in a controlled manner. The truth is that I find it difficult to watch Israeli films, and I usually avoid them."

He finally decided to watch "Waltz with Bashir" late at night in the study of his Safed home, which has a view of Lake Kinneret. "The film grabbed me," he says. "Maybe because it does not depict the combat stress reaction or the severe post-traumatic phenomena of those who went through the war. The film's point of departure is coping with the memories of the war, which is the start of a long journey of everyone who is affected by post-trauma. I feel that the film touched me personally, because like many who suffer from combat stress reaction, I feel that no one around me is capable of understanding what it means to experience the horror of war."

For the past nine years, Green has managed a forum for those suffering from combat stress reaction (www.doctors.co.il - in Hebrew) and closed forums at his online psychotherapy site (www.psychom.com - in Hebrew and English). His work as a therapist, he says, led him to form an inner attachment to the animated figures in the film. "When I watched the film, instead of identifying with the protagonists - which would have reinforced my sense of trauma and hurt me - I preferred to empathize, to 'understand' them and feel compassion because they did not yet understand what lay in store for them, and how much greater the difficulties they would cope with in the future would be than those they went through in the war itself. They do not know that the difficulties will intensify over the years, and that they can expect many struggles with themselves, with their partners and with their families, with their near and remote surroundings and with the establishment. They do not know that they are embarking on a journey of torments that will last many years."

Green is one of a growing number of Israeli combatants who have found that "Waltz with Bashir" - which is about the memories of an Israeli soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War - has helped them cope with their still-open wound. By identifying with the characters, the former combatants return to the battlefields they left behind.

For Green it began in the Yom Kippur War, when he was a soldier in the Artillery Corps. "My crew crossed the canal on rafts with Arik Sharon's division," he relates. "Even now it is hard for me to recall the war experiences. I had a feeling of total destruction. I was certain that the Egyptian missiles were destroying Israel and that I would never come out of the war alive. I reconciled myself to death, and the fact is that something already died inside me back then. That is what is known as combat stress reaction or post-trauma. It is not a mental 'problem' or a mental 'disease' but simply a disability, like an organ that is cut off from the body. It is something that has died inside and that prevents me, and many others, from trusting the world around us. It is not a wound that can be healed. The part that is cut off from the psyche cannot be rehabilitated and every attempt to 'reenact' the experience or even talk about it only aggravates the difficulty."

Attorney Nir Melamed underwent a different but equally wrenching experience. He viewed "Waltz with Bashir" in a movie theater, together with his wife. Sitting in a cafe in a shopping center in the upscale neighborhood of Ramat Aviv Gimmel, he says that watching the film was a therapeutic experience that generated a sense of relief. "It was a crazy flashback," he says, his green eyes glistening in the light of the winter sun. "What I saw was not an animated film, but a totally realistic film, my film. It was done from my viewpoint, exactly in the way I saw the war. I saw the road, the sea, the groves I crossed in Lebanon, one by one, exactly the places I was in. The film connected me concretely and powerfully to that memory."

Melamed, who was 19 at the time of the first Lebanon war, fought in Shaldag, the Israel Air Force commando unit. He and his buddies landed on the seashore at the city of Damour on the second day of the war. "One Yassur [helicopter] after another dropped the whole unit," he relates. "It was after the battles had begun. The jeeps were lowered from the helicopters and we got into them and set off on the road. We were totally wired. On the road were bodies of terrorists who had been killed some time before. My first encounter with dead, wounded and doctors hunched over the wounded was in the house in the village of Doha in which Major General Yekutiel Adam was killed. He was the deputy chief of staff at the time and our unit was part of the force that was guarding him. On that day, the fourth day of the war, he entered a building that had not been cleared out and terrorists killed him."

Not long afterward, Melamed and others were sent to a nearby ridge to evacuate wounded soldiers. "Another team of ours was hit," he recalls. "I remember huge forces dropping everything, grabbing stretchers and running to help. It was a 200-meter run. I was then the radio man for the team commander, Amir On. We ran there and heard shooting and explosions. Nothing was clear. There was total shock. We reached the place and the doctors started to treat people and the guys started to pull out the wounded. At this stage, during the shooting and the chaos, Amir and I propped ourselves against a huge boulder. We took cover. There was a similar scene in the movie that connected me to that moment in a way that was absolutely physical."

Melamed is referring to the scene in which a tank crewman flees from his tank, which has been hit, runs toward the sea and hides behind a big rock. "At that moment, as I watched the film, I felt myself merge with the rock, felt myself pushing up against it. I returned to the moment when I hid behind a rock, too, and felt that it was the only thing that could protect me, that I was liable to be shot at any moment, that I was waiting for the moment when a bullet would kill me. As I watched, I re-experienced that moment - the whole war. In the years since the war I remembered that event, but until the movie I didn't remember it with such incredible power. Sitting there in the movie theater, I could feel the pressure I was putting on the rock and also Amir's back, protecting me from the other side."

Being there

"Waltz with Bashir," written and directed by Ari Folman, is on the short list for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film - the ceremony will take place on February 22, in Los Angeles. It tells the story of an Israeli filmmaker, Folman himself, who embarks on a quest for his lost memories from the first Lebanon war, in which he fought. The animated autobiographical documentary tries to throw light on three black days in the 1982 war, days of combat that were repressed, followed by the massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut.

Melamed was there, too. Like Folman, he too was burned by the light of the illumination flares that cast a cold phosphorescent glow over the human atrocity that showed itself the next morning. "Among our other activities, we secured the forward command post of the senior officers in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], which was near the Sabra and Chatila camps," Melamed says. "We saw the illumination flares that were fired, and in my estimation, looking back on it, the forward command post could have understood what was going on there. Even though we did not know exactly what was happening, we later had the feeling that we had indirectly been part of something terribly grave. That is why on one of our furloughs, most of the team went spontaneously to a Peace Now demonstration in uniform and bearing arms, without checking whether that was acceptable or permissible. We felt that this was the least we could do."

A few weeks after seeing the film, Melamed met with his commander in the war, Amir On. "Straight off I asked him if he had seen the movie," Melamed says. "He told me: 'I started to watch it but left in the middle - I couldn't bear to watch.' I told him I thought he owed it to himself to see it again, that it is very therapeutic. We went on talking and returned together to the incident in which we were pressed up against the boulder, while evacuating the wounded. We remembered that after the evacuation he and I had combed the area and were the last ones there, collecting classified equipment. Everyone had disappeared and we remained there in the quiet, with the blood and the bandages and carrying Eyal's shoe - the commander of the second unit, who lost a leg in the firefight."

Those two events, Melamed says - the evacuation of General Adam and taking cover behind the boulder - resurfaced in his consciousness as he watched the movie. "Those are events that I never talked about as formative and that I never processed," he says. "In the wake of the movie, they reemerged. They were highly traumatic events, which did not engage me all these years, and the movie brought them out of me. It was only when I got older that I was able to identify a type of connection between fear and sadness, but the movie simply told me, in a physical experience: Now you are there, that is the reason for the sadness and the fear. After the movie I was able for the first time to identify precisely my crisis point. The movie focused the moment; it sent me back exactly to the point at which my fears began."

Fear of death

Since Melamed saw "Waltz with Bashir" the film has won six Israeli Ophir Awards (the local equivalent of the Oscars) and several prestigious international prizes: the Golden Globe award for best foreign language film, the National Society of Film Critics award for best picture and the Directors Guild of America award for best documentary. It was also accepted for the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Half a year after going into general release in Israel, the film continues to stir interest. To date, about 120,000 people have seen it in Israel, both in movie theaters and private screenings.

For many former soldiers, the film has become a fulcrum for their memories. Folman's personal quest has touched a nerve in soldiers who had not perceived the horrors of war as traumatic. Yaron Dror, 28, a biology and linguistics student who lives in Jaffa, was unprepared for the emotional roller-coaster ride the film took him on. "I was a tank commander in the 7th Brigade," he says. "The only event in my military service in which I took part in fighting was the operation to capture the assassins of cabinet minister Rehavam Ze'evi. I was taken directly from a training exercise in the Golan Heights to Tul Karm."

The year was 2001. "I was a relative veteran, yes, but I had no combat experience," Dror continues. "In the first stage of the operation, my tank covered a bulldozer that uprooted an olive grove from which shooting had been directed at our forces. In the second stage I entered the city, onto the streets. In the dark. Suddenly I accidentally ran into a car with the tank. There was an absurd scene in which, while navigating a certain area, I saw a gate in front of me. It took me a minute or two to decide what to do. Today they would go through the gate in a second, without giving the matter a thought. But for me it was all new. I had never been in the territories, had never been shot at and had never entered a built-up area with a tank."

From the outset, he relates, things began to lurch out of control. "There was no proper battle order. I arrived just before the start of the operation and didn't know exactly what was going on. Nothing was clear. Amid all the chaos, I was supposed to be the last tank, but I suddenly found that I was the lead tank. At that time the orders were that when a tank enters a built-up area the commander had to keep his head outside so he could get a better view of what was going on around him. I remember that when we came under fire from Kalashnikovs we felt safe despite the stress and the fear."

But that feeling changed an hour after the start of the operation. "My driver spotted someone shooting at us," Dror relates. "As soon as I spotted the shooter myself, everything went black for me. Rapid thoughts raced through my mind. At first I thought I had taken a bullet in the face and that I was going to die any second. After that I even managed to think about the journalist Ofer Shelah. I told myself that if he could get along with one eye, so could I. Suddenly I was really glad to be alive. Even if I had lost a great deal of blood and my whole face was swollen. As it turned out, I only took some shrapnel in the face. I was evacuated to Hillel Yaffeh [Medical Center], where everyone treated me like a hero, even though I was only wounded."

The wound led to a new chapter in Dror's life. "I felt that this was one of the best things that ever happened to me," he says. "Mentally, something good happened to me. Like a magic wand, it solved many problems for me, such as fear of crowds. I became a far calmer person. After being wounded, I went on with my life as though the event in Tul Karm had been something positive and I was perfectly normal and everything was just fine."

But then along came "Waltz with Bashir." "I went to see the movie with the feeling that my war experience had been minor, even positive," Dror relates. "The movie grabbed me very quickly. There is a scene in which a tank crew is seen having a good time - kids passing around Bamba [a snack] and busy taking pictures of one another. Kids who have no idea what they are about to enter. And then, as they are driving, the commander is seen sticking his head out of the tank, and in a second, without any connection to anything, a bullet whistles and catches him in the throat. At that moment I felt as if the bullet had hit me. I was rocked. I felt anxiety and fear all through my body. Terror. It returned me to a moment of fear of death.

"I started to cry, which I had never done after being wounded. Before the movie I was completely unaware of the negative and harsh feelings that had remained within me. My reaction surprised me very much. It was the first time it had happened to me. I got a little stressed. No war film I had seen before generated that kind of emotional identification for me. What I understood after seeing 'Waltz with Bashir' was that I did undergo a traumatic experience - and one which had not been resolved, as I had thought. I realized that if I, whose war experience was not rough, responded like that to the movie, then probably half my family must suffer from combat stress reaction, maybe half the country."

At its conclusion, "Waltz with Bashir" also offers healing. That, at least, is the feeling of Yuval Ben Ari, 46, who saw action in the Shaldag unit in the first Lebanon war. The film, which began as a personal quest by one soldier, became an antiwar statement that imputes responsibility for Sabra and Chatila to the Israeli side as well. Those moral insights, Ben Ari says, make the film a significant cultural document.

"My personal experience from the war is that one's personality very quickly becomes quite flat," he says, sitting on a white rocking chair on the wooden balcony of his home in Hod Hasharon. "You contract. The war contracts your soul to survival size. With me it was an emotional severance, mostly because of the sights I saw. The first images I encountered in Lebanon were bodies on the road and a smell of smoke. No matter how trained a soldier you are, sights of death, such as half a body of a woman under a car, are very rough. Take people who eat meat to the slaughterhouse in Ra'anana and they will get shell shock. You can only imagine what it did to us, kids of 19."

Ben Ari underwent a major change of orientation, which began during the fighting in Lebanon and ended six years ago when he signed the "combatants' letter" initiated by the "Courage to Refuse" association. "I went in right-wing and came out left-wing," he says. "I understood that anyone who has not seen a one-ton bomb dropped on a building and what it does to the whole street, does not understand what war is. My views changed in the wake of the war. I experienced destruction and ruin and fear of terrorist attacks. There was a feeling of purposelessness, which the massacre only heightened. I understood that anyone who perpetrates such acts with a willing heart has a problem.

"The war in Lebanon placed a big mirror in front of me, in which I saw us, an aggressive army doing things that have very serious implications. So I connected with the political statement the movie carries. It contains a certain ability to see the other, which I find encouraging. It is tremendously meaningful for me that we are not indifferent to the other's human suffering, even if he is our enemy. That shows a high level of spirituality."

It is important for him to point out that the massacre in Sabra and Chatila was stopped thanks to a corporal in the Armored Corps, who reported back on what was going on. "We as the people's army stopped it," Ben Ari emphasizes. "I know that war can induce soldiers to do anything, and I believe that the way to prevent that is by public support. The soldier is the public's emissary, and if the public espouses moral values it safeguards the soldier in war. Moral values are a brake that we have to preserve.

"In my opinion, shock at human suffering, as it is given expression in the film, strengthens us. A soldier who is borne on a militant public spirit in a war, when he is tired, frightened and operating amid a civilian population, can commit insane acts. There are situations in which an Israeli soldier can behave like the last of the Cossacks. Only morality gleaned from home can safeguard us. That is what connects me to this place, and I hope we are not losing that value."

Untold stories

Unlike Israeli war films such as "Two Fingers from Sidon" or "Beaufort," "Waltz with Bashir" depicts war that is devoid of romantic glory. The fragmented personal memories of the characters, most of them real-life individuals, give rise to a portrait of soldiers without luster, people who exist between anxiety and sorrow. "Heroic, larger-than-life stories were always told here, into which values such as heroism, fraternity and sacrifice were mixed," says the film's researcher, Meital Zvieli. "But we were far more interested in touching on the stories that were not told. It was clear to us that the story of fighters is far more complex, that there is a dark side to the heroic tale."

Zvieli collected many testimonies of soldiers who fought in the first Lebanon war for Folman before he began writing the script. "I discovered that even soldiers who executed the mission and returned still carry scars, even if they are not classified as suffering from combat stress reaction," she says. "I think this is something that has started to seep in only in the past few years. But even if it is not talked about, it is clear that the experience of war shapes our fathers, brothers, boyfriends and partners. I do not believe it can be repressed. There is no way to escape the horrors of war forever."

After two years in which she spoke with more than a hundred soldiers, Zvieli articulated a story about men who hide an open wound. "Through the stories I collected," she says, "I formed the feeling that I had bumped up against a generation that found itself in a war that was not clear to the participants - the generation of Ari Folman. Their stories reflected frustration, helplessness, guilt, a feeling of abandonment. Of the interviews I did, for example, the film uses the story of Ronny Dayag, from the Armored Corps, who after a clash fled to the sea and started to swim six kilometers in the dark, trying to get back home. I think that characters like that made it possible for a great many combatants, in the past and in service now, to feel that the film is speaking to them and about them."

Dr. Itamar Barnea, the chief psychologist of Natal - Israel's Trauma Center for the Victims of Terror and War, notes another element that makes "Waltz with Bashir" so effective. He believes that the animation allows viewers to gain distance and thereby creates legitimization to bring to the surface what has been submerged for so long. "The element of distance heightens the viewer's ability to connect," Barnea says. "In the therapeutic sense, the way the film is structured does not allow the viewer to get stuck; the film allows closeness, but not flooding. In other words, the viewer can reach difficult moments within himself while watching the film, but still, it is done in a way that allows him to draw closer to the story. People who saw the film tell me the same thing. There is something in 'Waltz with Bashir' that allows you to be with it; it does not push you into a place that you cannot contain or cope with. It allows the memory to be touched strongly, but does not close off or frighten the viewer."

As a result, the film has recently been added to the training program for Natal therapists who specialize in military trauma. "We have special projects to treat discharged soldiers," Barnea says. "Many people prefer to come to us rather than turn to the formal army options. About 6,000 people in Israel are classified as suffering from combat stress reaction, but the number who are coping with psychological difficulties in the wake of experiences they underwent in their military service is dozens of times higher. The film serves us as a tool to explain to our therapists the process by which people reconnect to their memories, with feelings of guilt, hurt and shame. I think the film touches on the phenomenon that war has a price that people carry, even if they are unaware of it."

"This response by viewers is very moving and unexpected," Ari Folman says. "The film was not made with the goal of arousing reactions of this kind and I certainly had no idea it would generate a phenomenon like this. Nowadays, every event I attend ends in some corner with someone telling me about his war horrors. I get a great many e-mails with revealing and emotional stories. The film made it possible for people to open what was closed within them. For them it's like scratching an old scar without knowing what will surface."

But it is not only men who respond, he says. "I received responses from women, too, who told me this was the first time they were able to understand what their husbands or sons went through. The film made them understand something new; they told me it gave rise to a dialogue that did not previously exist at home. The film also opened things for me. Thanks to the film, I spoke for the first time with my best friends, the directors and screenwriters Rani Blair and Ori Sivan, about my war experience."