Ari Folman‘s cinematic journey deep into the recesses of his memory is a visually beautiful investigation of his life, his motivations, and human psychology. In the process, he perhaps points a way forward for film and art in general, away from its current staleness and towards a genuine coming to terms with the nature of existence.
As a young conscript to the Israeli Defense Forces, Folman took part in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The war killed an estimated 18,000 people, but particularly troubling for Folman was his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, where Lebanese Christian Phalangist militias were – with the approval and support of the Israeli state – allowed into Palestinian refugee camps, where they slaughtered thousands of civilians. This would be distressing enough for anyone to have on their mind, except for the fact that Folman literally couldn’t remember anything about the event until the last few years. “That’s not stored in my system,” he said. Actually it was, but retrieving it was another matter.
Folman’s attempt to grasp the reality of his time in Lebanon is the foundation of this film. He conducted a series of interviews with his fellow conscripts, drawing on the fragments of their memories to piece together his own story. This subtitled Hebrew dialogue was then animated, with the hallucinatory cartoons giving an air of unreality to the all-too-real events described.
The overall effect of this is intensely humanitarian. Folman is haunted by the small but significant part he played in Palestinian deaths, and for many years he has buried his memories deep, the better to get on with his life. More recent events – perhaps the Iraq war or the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon – have caused him to seek explanations, to put things into context. By coming to terms with Israel’s complicity with the Phalangists, he can begin to forgive himself for not intervening to save the lives of the refugees.
Perhaps even more importantly than that, this kind of reckoning holds lessons for anyone who cares to take notice. “This makes you wonder”, Folman speculated in an interview, “maybe I am doing all this for my sons. When they grow up and watch the film, it might help them make the right decisions, meaning not to take part in any war, whatsoever.”
Memories, by definition, can never be exact replicas of the original events. They are coloured and shaped by the experiences that follow. However, this is a strength, not a weakness, allowing for personal and collective growth. As the global crisis intensifies, more buried memories will no doubt be unearthed by people examining the beliefs and ideas which once guided their lives. What else is stored in our systems?