LITTLE ROCK Waltz With Bashir could be described as an animated autobiographical documentary (with re-enactments), a subjective excavation and investigation into an intensely personal mystery. It was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film, which feels right, but it might have easily been nominated for its achievement in animation or as a documentary. In any case, it is an intense film that teases out troubling truths about the human capacity for cruelty and self-deception.
The film is animated in a crude yet precise way, using a technique invented by animation director Yoni Goodman. While the style recalls the rotoscoping techniques used by Richard Linklater in Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) - which involves drawing over live-action scenes - Goodman's techniques combine old-style animation with computer-based Flash animation, giving the movie a dreamy, slightly jerky quality. This produces an uncanny, discomfiting atmosphere - a familiar strangeness that suggests we're spying on the director/narrator's internal monologue.
The structure of the film is simple. Folman, who as a 19-yearold Israeli soldier witnessed the aftermath of the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near the end of the 1982 warwith Lebanon, is visited by an old friend and fellow veteran, who tells him of a recurring nightmare he's having about a specific incident in the war.
After listening to his friend, Folman realizes his memories of the war are vague. Later that night he has a striking vision of the night of the massacre. He's uncertain whether the vision is a recovered memory or a fantastic confabulation. Working from the few clues the vision provides him, he starts to reconstruct his past by interviewing witnesses.
Folman's journey turns up anecdotes to testify to the frailty and resourcefulness of men stressed by combat. It is by turns beautiful, horrific, sobering and in the end painfully cathartic. The title comes from an incident in which an infantry leader, overtaken by madness or selfless courage, seems to dance around the raining bullets of Palestiniansnipers while firing a light machine gun in a square surrounded by huge posters of recently assassinated Lebanese presidentelect Bashir Gemayel.
But the title also refers to the dance that the Israeli Defense Forces conducted with the Christian Phalangist militia in Lebanon that carried out the murder of more than 3,000 Palestinians in the refugee camps in retaliation for the Gemayel assassination. Israeli commanders allowed the Phalangist troops into the camps, even though they knew - or, as an Israeli investigation later concluded, should have known - that under the circumstances a massacre was likely.
With its trippy visuals and smart use of 1980s-era pop (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark appears on the soundtrack), classical music and minimalist electronic pieces, it could be mistaken for a druggy cult movie - at times, Waltz With Bashir is reminiscent of the 1976 "musical documentary" All This and World War II, a misbegottenattempt to trace the history of the war through newsreel footage culled from Fox Movietone News archives complemented by a score of Beatles covers done by artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Helen Reddy and Richard Cocciante.
While the film is never didactic, Folman won't let us forget that his memories are of an actual war, and that the corpses in the streets are not horrorshow props but the wreckage of dreams. While I'm not sure he needed to be so blunt in the end, he doesn't let you leave the theater thinking it was all a fantastic voyage. Waltz With Bashir is a shattering personal story about how we absorb and submerge atrocity.
MovieStyle, Pages 40 on 02/27/2009