Israeli director Ari Folman invites us to join his own psychological journey into his repressed memory—and the horrors of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—in this very personal documentary, which is made all the more surrealistically powerful by being presented in dreamlike, impressionistic animation. “Waltz with Bashir” is a hypnotic dance with death that delivers an emotional wallop and a potent anti-war message.
The title refers to Bashir Gemayel, the Christian Phalangist leader who was President-elect of Lebanon and an ally of Israel when he was assassinated in September, 1982. The murder led to a full-scale Israeli invasion and, within days, the notorious massacre of Palestinian refugees by Phalangist forces at Sabra and Shatila in Beirut while Israeli soldiers stood guard at the perimeters of the camps. Folman, who was among the Israeli forces, had suppressed his recollections of the campaign, but was beginning to recall snatches of the past in dreams and flashes. “Waltz,” a word that refers to one hallucinatory episode that emerges over the course of the picture, in which a soldier seemed literally to dance in the street while firing an automatic weapon against a sniper in a nearby building, follows his efforts to recover knowledge of what he experienced through conversations with fellow soldiers and a friend who’s also a psychiatrist.
The film’s distinctive style derives from the decision to tell the story through animation rather than straight live-action. But this isn’t plain, black-and-white drawing of the sort that Marjane Satrapi used to tell her story in “Persepolis.” It’s watery, blotchy colored animation that resembles the rotoscoping technique that Richard Linklater has used in a couple of films (although, in fact, the images here are all hand-drawn rather than simply colored over). The result has an austere but mesmerizing beauty that gives a heightened impact to the visuals, while also lending them the hushed feel of a trip into the unconscious. And when as the film reaches its climax—the realization of what’s going on in the camps—Folman abruptly switches to live-action footage of the massacre’s aftermath, the effect is overwhelming.
“Waltz with Bashir” is about a significant episode in modern Israeli-Palestinian relations, one that has poisoned them ever since, and the political implications are touched upon here through brief references to Ariel Sharon, who was defense minister at the time (and later condemned by an Israeli commission for not stepping in an stopping the killing) and recollections by a television reporter who was on the scene. But the focus remains deeply personal, and the film remains the search for truth on the part of a single man (and his comrades) rather than becoming a political tract.
The result is hardly the usual animated movie, but rather one that shows the power of which animation is capable if applied with maturity and imagination to a subject of real significance.