Waltz with Bashir

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 01/09/09 03:47:01

"Maybe not the first of its kind, but maybe the best."
5 stars (Awesome)

"Waltz with Bashir," an ambitious animated documentary explores writer-director Ari Folman’s experiences as an Israeli soldier during the 1982 Lebanon War, specifically his involvement and the involvement of the Israeli military in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of several thousand Palestinian refugees by Christian Phalangists, presumably in retaliation for the assassination of Lebanese political leader Bashir Gemayel. Through a series of probing interviews with former soldiers, friends, acquaintances, and even psychologists, Folman hoped to revive long dormant memories of his experiences during the Lebanese War. Avoiding the pitfalls of well-meaning, but often dull, “talking heads” documentaries, Folman decided to animate the interviews, "Waking Life"-style and recreate his interviewees words in sound and images. It’s a decision that allows a unity of artistic vision that both honors his interviewees’ words and finds profundity in them as well.

Waltz with Bashir opens with a series of arresting images as feral dogs run wild through the streets, knocking down garbage cans, scaring pedestrians, and ultimately settling outside the window of a man. It’s all a dream, the dream of one of Folman’s subjects who, still traumatized by his experiences in Lebanon more than twenty-five years ago, shot 26 dogs at the order of his commander. The barking dogs alerted the villagers, including Palestinian men wanted by the Israeli military, of there whereabouts. Folman confesses that he doesn’t remember his experiences during the Lebanon War, but his friend’s story spurs the first of many recollections or dream-memories: Folman, along with two other soldiers, emerging naked (but armed) from a river in Beirut as flares light up the night sky. It’s an image Folman returns to repeatedly, each time with added context until, eventually, he reveals the full backstory behind the image.

Folman’s travels also take to visit an old friend and psychologist, who suggest Folman contact other members of his unit to help recover his seemingly lost memories. Folman tracks down another Israeli soldier and friend, now living comfortably in Holland on a 10-acre plot of land. Married and with a young son, his friend does less to spur Folman’s memories than to suggest through his words and actions the trauma experienced by combat veterans. Folman, however, presses on. Some visits are more welcome than others. Each veteran reveals wittingly or unwittingly how they’ve coped with their involvement in the Lebanon War. Most seem well adjusted even as they recount harrowing tales of survival and loss. Folman isn’t as interested in therapy or catharsis (although there is both), but in exposing his own involvement in the Lebanon War and the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

To learn more and add context, Folman interviews Ron Ben-Yishai, a fearless Israeli journalist who, upon learning of the unfolding Sabra and Shatila massacre, attempted to stop it by informing, among others, then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon proved to be less an ally than an obstacle to Ben-Yishai’s efforts. That’s all background, however, for Folman’s personal search, one that leads him to culpability for what Israelis didn’t do to stop the massacres. Folman was either dimly aware of the massacre or willfully ignorant, but in either case, the culpability still holds, even if only tangentially for his actions (involving the flares of his dream-memories) and his non-actions. It’s rare, whatever the format, for a filmmaker to reveal not just his own flaws or failings as Folman does, but also his moral and ethical errors.

As much as "Waltz with Bashir" interrogates Israeli responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre (and Folman’s personal responsibility), it’s the combination of filmed interviews and dramatic, animated recreations of the interviewees’ experiences and dreams that really makes "Waltz with Bashir" stand out as an exemplary example of the documentary form. The animation allows Folman to create a unified, unifying aesthetic vision not unlike what Richard Linklater did with "Waking Life," an animated philosophical essay. Even then Folman recognizes the limits of an animated documentary: "Waltz with Bashir" is no more devastating than when Folman relinquishes animation for raw video footage of the massacre. There, more than anywhere else in "Waltz with Bashir" we see the profound lapse in moral judgment and the terrible cost of war, one that Folman wants us to see clearly, one that he hopes will stir us as both moviegoers and political actors, to prevent.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.