Memory takes us where we need to go

As a young army conscript Ari Folman watched as heavily armed Christian Phalangists massacred Palestinians in two refugee camps, ‘Sabra’ and ‘Shatila’. It was 1982 and Israel had invaded Lebanon. The Phalangists, an Israeli ally, were supposed to weed out terrorists, but instead murdered up to 3,500 Palestinian men, women and children. Neither Folman nor any of his army friends took part in the blood bath, but they witnessed it, Or did they, and if so, what did they see? This is the premise for ‘Waltz With Bashir’, a documentary made by Folman more than 20 years after the incident, when he was an established filmmaker.

It is an investigation into memory as much as genocide, and wonders aloud at the ways our minds have of ducking and weaving from what we think we have done. Folman did not deny his stint in Lebanon; just buried his memory of it. He got on with his life until an army mate banged on his door with a recurring nightmare of the time. Something flickered and that night Folman had a dream in which he and other soldiers are wading ghost-like up the Beirut foreshore, naked and beneath the yellow light of flares descending on the city. He is not sure what it means, but now he can’t forget, and so begins an interrogation of himself and those who were with him, along with others supposed to know about the mind, such as psychologists.

It is all recorded on video, but not left as that. To underline the uncanny nature of what is remembered and forgotten, dreamt and real, Folman turns the film into an animated documentary. To see the movie is, as one reviewer remarked, like being embedded with him, “like traumatised reporters”. We glimpse evil and what the mind can do with it. Reporters, of course, not only report; they interpret. They have no choice. Like the rest of us, they are as embedded in language as Folman was in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). We talk of objectivity, but secretly know that everything in the present is filtered through the words we have heard and sights we have seen.

They are the gatekeepers and live in the past. What we call memory is not the same as what happened. It is just our version, stored in snatches of sentences and visual impressions recalled in words that only mimic reality. When a reporter writes about extreme events, he or she can never be sure as their sentences, nor can they know precisely where their past ends and what they have witnessed begins. Folman finds this out early on when a friend tells him, “memory fills holes with things that never happened.” This is not hallucination in the clinical sense, but how memory functions. The film gives the example of how adults, when shown what they are told are images of their childhood, recall fabricated experiences.

Where moments of separation are too traumatic, the past is, in effect, rewritten using the memories of other people. Rather than false memory syndrome this can be seen as borrowed mourning; something is made from how others have represented their own grief. It is a tool in symbolizing and thus processing loss. Words converge at the point that is most unbearable for us. But words also show us, not just loss but how something can be created from it. It’s not a matter of getting over loss and getting on with it but finding a way to make loss part of life. Folman is initially hesitant. “Maybe I will discover things I don’t want to know about myself,” he says, only to be told, “memory takes us where we need to go.” But to get there requires a type of work that many wish to avoid, as the filmmaker discovers when he talks to soldiers who were with him in 1982.

While all have been impacted, none have dug in to find a solid recollection. This is typical of trauma, the sort that some journalists encounter. Most of us only see it on TV, but all of us, if we can dig back far enough, have some level of displacement or disappointment from the past that feeds into the present. This is what is interesting about the story Folman unfolds. He is not a bad man but he is badly affected by horrific events. The massacre is not in dispute. An Israeli Government inquiry established its grisly details, along with Israel’s indirect responsibility. What is at issue is the state of mind of Folman, an everyman who looked on, and memory’s role in creating a personal truth. He has repressed the memory of something that was troubling, and after a long time finds it will not stay hidden. This is an occupational hazard for war correspondents, but it has universal application. We all have some memories we wish to erase.

The difficulty is that the mind is a kind of palimpsest; that is, a writing tablet that can be written over but never loses its original inscriptions. The past does not die, nor is it set in stone. It is subject to what we remember and memory—like eyewitness testimony—is by no means reliable. This presents a problem for journalists who are put in the position, and claim to be, authors of eyewitness history. How do they reflect upon what they think they have seen, and where is the boundary between their repertoire, or past, and the present? We live in what historian, Bain Attwood, calls the era of the witness. It is an era that puts experience on display and privileges emotion. The result, as Attwood argues, is that the person who experiences an event is regarded as the bearer of truth, not the historian. But truth is not that simple. Folman wants to unlock his memory, which means making the past something akin to history, an investigation into what has and has not been remembered.

This is re-thinking the past, of freeing up the past from its mere past-ness. Such an undertaking goes beyond journalism’s focus on events as instant history; which is why Folman makes an animated documentary. Transforming interviewees from video images to drawings avoids turning events into spectacle, seductive pathways of information. It abandons the sleight of hand by which feeling is favoured over thought, and validation is found in fast-moving events as we tip toward an ecstasy of recurring novelty. Folman’s answer comes in the final minutes, when the animation switches to real footage of mutilated corpses, howling Palestinian women, and the curls of a child protruding from rubble. This horror, which actually occurred, is a kind of relief; as a corroborated memory it redeems, and negates the need to hide.