Nobody’s perfect. That might have made an apt tagline for Israeli director Ari Folman’s fourth feature. For years the world has questioned how people could stand by and do nothing as Nazis murdered Jews in the Holocaust. Now the filmmaker flips things with his haunting animated documentary about Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. In the course of that conflict, Jewish troops stood by and did nothing as Christian Phalangist militia murdered thousands of men, women and children over two days in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Is animation an inappropriate choice for a movie about the massacre of innocent civilians? Not in the hands of an artist as sensitive and gifted as Folman. I feel this way for several reasons. First, Waltz With Bashir is a documentary. A documentary about war in which individuals recount their personal nightmares from various perspectives. The moviegoing public has had its fill of talking heads ruminating on crises in the Middle East, as evidenced by the dismal box office performance this past year of pictures such as Standard Operating Procedure, Fighting for Life and Body of War. The director’s timing was perfect. Audiences have come to crave a different approach to this material, and Folman has provided it. His vision earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Unlike most documentaries on conflict in the Middle East, Folman’s isn’t about pointing the finger at a particular government, group or political figure. To the contrary, it’s an exercise in personal accountability, a quest for self-knowledge. Folman himself was a soldier in the Israeli army at the time of the massacre. Twenty-plus years later, he found himself deeply troubled by his inability to recall anything related to those events, even though he knew he’d been nearby when they took place.
Folman decided to visit old comrades who’d served with him, ask them questions about the event, and film them as they told their stories. When he was finished, he turned the edited tape over to animators who used a combination of techniques — computer-enhanced 3-D modeling, traditional hand drawing and Flash animation — to create the picture’s distinctive look. Some reviewers have likened it to Richard (Waking Life) Linklater’s experiments in rotoscoping over live footage, but I didn’t see the similarity. Folman’s palette is darker and richer. For the most part, the film’s dialogue and narration are culled directly from the director’s interviews.
The result is a hypnotic, often surreal journey of self-discovery, illustrating the vastly mysterious nature of memory. Early on the filmmaker visits a close friend who is a psychiatrist. “Maybe I’ll discover things I don’t want to know about myself,” he worries.
“We don’t go places we really don’t want to,” Folman’s friend replies. “A human mechanism prevents us from entering dark places. Memory takes us where we need to go.”
And, in the course of the next hour or so, the viewer accompanies Folman to some unforgettable places. Some are real. Others are dreams or hallucinations, but what each tells us about these permanently scarred men is no less profound or moving for having been imagined in the midst of war’s assault on the mind. One former soldier recounts the experience of being borne from his blown-up ship to safety by a beautiful nude giantess. Another relates the dream that has awakened him every night for years, in which 26 rabid, snarling dogs stampede through the streets of Tel Aviv, stopping in front of his apartment building — one dog for each one he was forced to shoot during the incursion.
An Israeli officer manically fast-forwarding German porn in a bombed-out palace. A Lebanese family’s car riddled with bullets simply because it turned down the wrong street at the wrong moment. Folman and fellow soldiers emerging naked from the sea carrying automatic weapons in the eerie glow of orange night flares. The list of indelible images is long, and the filmmaker’s decision to animate enables him to bring the memories of interviewees to vivid life in a way merely watching them talk would never allow. Good call.
Piece by piece the puzzle of Folman’s past comes together, until the most horrific image of all is finally revealed: A young soldier stands by on a Lebanon street and does nothing as gunshots and screams fill the air. The middle-aged man has tracked down the young man, and, with him, we look into those frozen eyes for a sign of fear or humanity — anything — and see only a human being in the process of shutting down. It’s a remarkable moment in a remarkable film. Ari Folman would not remember that moment for more than 20 years. Anyone who sees Waltz With Bashir is unlikely ever to forget it.