Waltz with Bashir (2009)

In Waltz with Bashir, filmmaker Ari Folman uses animation to vivid effect. Folman is an Israeli documentarian, and Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary that is at once political, and topical, and intensely personal. Animation is the perfect medium for this film, which is built around the recollections, the distorted and suppressed memories, the dreams, and the hallucinations of middle aged Israeli men, recalling the traumatic 1982 Lebanon War, and in particular, the massacre of thousands of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Folman, like the men he interviews in the film, was a young soldier during the war, and he has a selective amnesia about the experience which has left him feeling detached and impassive. When a friend mentions a recurring nightmare about the war, it sparks in Folman a strange and haunting dream, which becomes the impetus for the film.

Waltz with Bashir does not pretend to be an historical document, nor a definitive account of the war. It is not a muckraking piece -- the Israeli government long ago admitted the complicity of Israeli forces in the Sabra and Shatila atrocities. What haunts Folman is the matter of his own complicity -- what part did he play in the massacres? What did he see then, as a teenager, that his adult self can no longer access? Is he, the adult, protecting his younger self from the trauma and horror of war, or is it the other way around? If any muck is raked, it is psychological -- Waltz with Bashir sifts through the buried memories of Folman and his friends (all but two of whom provide their own voices to the film), reenacting the war, reliving it through the filter of memory. It's a filter that arbitrarily obscures some details while bringing others into sharp focus, with unpredictable results. What is striking, though, is how the subjective experiences of the various soldiers lends the story both authenticity and objectivity.

Art director David Polonsky and animation director Yoni Goodman create vivid, hallucinatory images for
Waltz with Bashir. The animation has the chunky, bold, graphic look of comic book art -- it is beautifully ugly in a way that is utterly appropriate to the subject matter. The characters, which include the animated version of Folman, move in a jerky, trancelike fashion -- like the living dead. Waltz with Bashir fascinatingly explores the blurry boundaries between memory and truth, reality and perception, art and artifice. These are issues that any documentary must confront, and they are brought into beautiful, astonishingly sharp focus by the method and artistry of Waltz with Bashir, making this not only a fascinating, interesting, and complex film about an historical event, but also a thoughtful and layered reflection on the act of making a work of art, and the act of constructing reality, whether it is one's own subjective reality, or something closer to objective reality. The structure of the story allows Folman to creep towards the hard truth, circling it slowly, warily, but moving ever closer to the center, where urgent moral questions about personal responsibility will have to be confronted.

Folman wonders and worries if the symbolic act of unburying the dead -- the dead memories, the dead victims of the massacre -- can be therapeutic. What Folman confronts, in the end, is a reality that explodes through the carefully constructed boundaries of both his memory and his meticulously crafted film. Words at last fail him. It is as if the protective goggles fall off, to reveal a raw, unspeakable actuality that is beyond art, and beyond the disputations and obfuscations of the fragile psyche. It is a reality that is hard to remember, but impossible to forget.