'Waltz With Bashir': A Delicate Dance With Memory

Soldiers wade ashore i i

Ari Folman's animated Waltz With Bashir reconstructs the director's suppressed memories of a 1982 battle — and a massacre. Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics
Soldiers wade ashore

Ari Folman's animated Waltz With Bashir reconstructs the director's suppressed memories of a 1982 battle — and a massacre.

Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics

Waltz with Bashir

  • Director: Ari Folman
  • Genre: War, Memoir, Animation
  • Running Time: 90 minutes

Rated R: War violence, atrocity aftermath, sexuality

(Recommended)

Ari Folman and Boaz Rein Buskila (animated) i i

Folman (left) had huge gaps in his memory of the time — until fellow soldier Boaz Rein Buskila told a story that sparked a quest. Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics
Ari Folman and Boaz Rein Buskila (animated)

Folman (left) had huge gaps in his memory of the time — until fellow soldier Boaz Rein Buskila told a story that sparked a quest.

Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics

The first thing to appear in Waltz With Bashir is an animated dog, but it looks nothing like Bolt. This 'toon is part of an angry pack of yelping, yellow-eyed predators — a nightmare vision.

In fact, Israeli writer-director Ari Folman's powerful, innovative film is composed largely of nightmares, all but the final one rendered in graphic-novel style. A series of flashbacks from Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Waltz With Bashir has been called an "animated documentary." Yet it's not about what happened, but what's remembered.

"Memory is dynamic. It's alive," says one character. That's why the movie was drawn rather than filmed: to capture that mutability, the play between fact and fantasy, guilt and denial, in 25-year-old recollections.

The dogs are part of one man's Lebanon experience, remembered in a bar conversation with a cartoon version of the director himself. After learning what triggered the wolf-pack vision, Folman begins to wonder what he did or saw in Lebanon.

Was he near the Sabra and Shatila camps where Christian Phalangist militias murdered Palestinian refugees after the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel? (Gemayel is the movie's title character.) Folman can't seem to remember, so he begins to collect other veterans' stories.

The project takes Folman around Israel and overseas to Holland. As he travels, his quest flows into the anecdotes he hears: Abandoned on a Lebanese beach, a soldier swims south to safety. As a battle rages, a man imagines being rescued by a beautiful nude giantess. Troops enter a hippodrome and are shocked to find it full of dead horses.

These are real stories, told in voiceover by the participants. (Usually: In two cases, an actor recited the text because a narrator didn't want his voice in the film.) The anecdotes may not all be literally true, but they certainly haven't been sanitized, and some of them are supported by multiple accounts.

The episodes are mostly accompanied by stark, neoclassical music, occasionally punctuated by the cold sounds of '80s British art-pop. Public Image Limited's "This is Not a Love Song" underscores a soldier's tale of alienation while on furlough in a war-ignoring Israel; Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "Enola Gay" plays as bombs fall.

Folman's own long-suppressed recollections of the Lebanon war were triggered by sessions with an army psychiatrist, which are required of soldiers leaving the Israeli reserves. So it's understandable that Waltz With Bashir plays as a psychological exercise as much as a political one. The movie doesn't pretend to answer all the war's lingering questions. It's only about the Israeli veterans, what they did and saw and how they lived with the memories.

If Folman doesn't consider Lebanese or Palestinian viewpoints on the war, he does progress from individual anguishes to general horror. The movie ends, boldly and disturbingly, with the Sabra and Shatila massacres, finally switching from animation to documentary footage. Ultimately, Waltz With Bashir's nightmares are everyone's. (Recommended)

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