Film Review: Waltz with Bashir

This provocative, poetic, searing exploration by the Israeli director Ari Folman into his forgotten past as a member of the Israeli mission in the first Lebanon War is only stronger for being drawn. As a friend tells him, “Memory is dynamic; it&#821

Ari Folman’s brilliant and harrowing Waltz with Bashir captures the surreal reality of war in an oddly apt medium: animation. In an interview following a press screening at the New York Film Festival, Folman, who also wrote and produced the autobiographical film, said he never considered telling his story through “real-life video.” The moving drawings quite literally illustrate the inexpressible anguish of loss, not only of human life, but of memory, identity and, for want of a better term, humanness.

The film is also a gripping detective story. Folman sets out to retrieve his lost memories as a soldier in the first Lebanon War of 1982 by interviewing comrades, a journalist and, briefly, an expert in post-traumatic stress. Not surprisingly, his discoveries are grim, and the veterans he interviews remember war as a terrifying chaos with no victors, only victims.

Waltz with Bashir opens with a pack of ferocious gray dogs charging down a city street, the cloudy night sky the same ominous yellow that glints in the creatures’ eyes and teeth. We soon learn that this is the recurrent nightmare of Folman’s friend, Boaz, but that unlike in most dreams, the dogs are not symbolic, but represent the 26 dogs the young soldier was forced to shoot during the war in Lebanon. Boaz recounts this experience at a bar with Folman, and asks his friend what haunts him about that time. When Folman realizes he has no answer, he is shocked into seeking the very details his psyche has so successfully blocked.

Folman eventually remembers a scene, though he cannot determine if it is a dream or memory, in which he and several Israeli soldiers float corpse-like at night in the ocean. Together they open their eyes and rise up naked, walking toward the shore of a high-rise city. (This enigmatic vision will recur throughout the film.) One of these soldiers, Carmi, now lives in Holland, so Folman travels to ask him about it. Cold and austere as the snow-covered fields he owns, Carmi cannot corroborate the event, but recalls a fantasy he had aboard his navy ship heading to war, in which he is rescued by a beautiful, naked giantess, and floated out to sea. Here, as in the rest of the film, the detailed animation allows a fluid transition between reality and fantasy, the frightened young soldier hugging the voluptuous goddess as she backstrokes him to safety.

Returning to Israel, Folman interviews other participants, including the famous Israeli war correspondent Ron Ben Yisahi, who had covered the street fighting in Beirut. In September 1982, the Israeli Army entered West Beirut to support the Christian Phalangists upon the assassination of their leader, the charismatic Bashir Gemayel, who had recently been elected President of Lebanon. Israeli troops surrounded the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, and at night provided illumination rounds, as Phalangist forces entered the camps, presumably to find Palestinian combat fighters. In fact, a truce had allowed these men safe passage to Tunisia two weeks earlier. After two days of fighting, it became clear that avenging Phalangists had massacred an estimated 3,000 refugees.

The climactic waltz with Bashir occurs late in the film when an Israeli soldier, Shmuel Frenkel, exposing himself to a barrage of sniper fire, leaps into a West Beirut intersection plastered with posters of the young commander Bashir Gemayel and starts shooting like a madman. He’s like a crazed superhero, even more so because he’s animated, but the nuanced style, with its noir-ish contrasts and subtle colors, places him firmly on the ground. Folman’s choice to keep the animation realistic never lets us forget that these are real people, whose traumas linger more than 20 years later. And at the film’s close, when Folman remembers where he had been in September 1982, the director switches to actual documentary footage of screaming women fleeing the refugee camps toward the Israeli troops outside.

While sharing the visual flavor of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Folman did not employ rotoscope animation, in which illustrators trace over film or video footage. He did, however, start with a live-action video, which served as the basis for a storyboard and subsequent illustrations. In feeling it’s more like the animated memoir Persepolis, which tells a deeply personal story that is inseparable from the political.