If the ingenious, unprecedented formal conceit of Waltz With Bashir—an animated documentary? Is that even possible?—wasn’t enough to draw you into the theater, the newest headline-making war in the Gaza Strip certainly should. Israel’s 1982 war with Lebanon, in which director Ari Folman fought, isn’t a direct precursor to the current conflict but a long, bloody thread runs between the two. And if the world has proven ready for graphic novels--and even graphic memoirs--about war, then it's high time to try a similar aesthetic on the big screen.
Director Ari Folman has dismissed the tradition of American war movies in interviews as fundamentally cartoonish depictions of very serious matters. Waltz is his attempt to reverse that disjunction and do Hollywood one better by making an actual cartoon about war that soberly sticks to the facts, with one particularly sly nod to the blockbuster war flick canon in a battlefield surf scene lifted straight from Apocalypse Now. The film opens with a dream Folman has of being chased by wild dogs, which culminates as he treads water in the ocean, watching what appears to be a distant battle on shore, under a sky lit bright as a sports stadium by flares. He realizes that this is the only memory he retains from his military service as a foot soldier in the 1982 war. Folman suspects the scene he witnessed from afar was the notorious massacre of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of West Beirut while the Israeli Defense Force stood by outside (or even indirectly abetted). Unnerved, he takes it upon himself to track down as many of his fellow soldiers as he can identify as possible witnesses to Sabra and Shatila, only to find that they too remember only fragments of the war.
Folman has taken pains to emphasize that Waltz With Bashir is not rotoscoped (filmed live and painted over in postproduction), despite the visual similarity of his animation to films like Waking Life and A Scanner, Darkly. But the three movies share more than their superficial similarity: Each explores the overlap between memory, dream, and lived experience. And Waltz's hazy, muted animation complements its subject beautifully, as the characters appear to float, dazed and somnambulant, through their surroundings, trying to awaken a memory from the void of post-traumatic amnesia.
The visual feel of the movie helps to compensate for the biggest barrier it presents to American audiences: For all its innovation, Waltz With Bashir is still a foreign language documentary about a subject largely unfamiliar to most viewers. As Folman’s focus is so narrow, the fact-laden narrative must necessarily glance quickly over a lot of the historical context of the war itself. It’s difficult to simultaneously appreciate the animation and follow the subtitles with much comprehension, especially without some basic familiarity with the conflict. Curious viewers not well-versed in the geopolitical subtleties of Israel’s war-torn history, particularly its volatile relationship with Lebanon, would be well advised to read a book on the 1982 war before seeing the film (or at least to drink a large cup of coffee and remain wired enough to take in every detail). The story Waltz With Bashir tells is necessarily incomplete because, as Folman’s psychologist friend tells him in one scene, our memories are constructed as much by the inner workings and perceptions of the mind as by what actually happens to us. Even as Folman pushes beyond individual memories into the historical record of the massacre, it remains nearly impossible to determine precisely what transpired behind the walls of the camps. And the opaque unknowability of what really happened on that luminous night only adds to its horror.
The final scene shifts jarringly into real-life archival footage of sobbing, heart-rent survivors of the massacre as they are shepherded out of the refugee camp. The images, framed like a newscast, appear to be the lost memories Folman has spent the entire film chasing down, and he’s absolutely right to avoid returning to animation after showing them. There is no way to go back to the dream of the war after witnessing the widows of Sabra and Shatila clutching their faces in raw anguish, and their appearance goes a long way toward illustrating why the human mind is driven to suppress such extreme images and memories. War is hell whether it’s remembered or not, but a person can only process so much of its shocking reality.