War is brutal, bewildering and full of mind-numbing atrocities. This much we know. The challenge for artists is not in pointing out that war is hell, but in finding new and provocative ways to convey that truth. And there are few ways more unique “ and uniquely chilling “ than those depicted in “Waltz with Bashir,” an astounding animated documentary by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman.
The Oscar-nominated film chips away at events surrounding Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, but it eschews geopolitics and policy making for a more personal tone. Folman was 19 when he served in that conflict, and here, his interest is in probing how war’s ugliness influences and impedes memory.
It is no small irony that a movie about lost memory should be so unforgettable. In “Waltz”‘s opening moments, we are jolted by the image of rabid dogs, their eyes blazing yellow, running through the streets of Tel-Aviv in search of a man who watches from an apartment window. The man, Boaz, is a friend of Folman’s, and the scene is a recurring nightmare that has haunted Boaz for several years. He knows it stems from his service during the Lebanon War, where he had the grim task of shooting dogs that might alert Palestinian soldiers to nighttime ambushes.
Folman finds the dream particularly disturbing because he recalls little from his own war experience. Specifically, he remembers virtually nothing about the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. In September of 1982, Christian Phalangists slaughtered hundreds “ and possibly thousands “ of Palestinian civilians in retribution for the assassination of Lebanon’s president-elect, Bashir Gemayel.
All Folman knows is that he was near the camps during the killings. His most vivid memory, however, involves him and two other soldiers emerging naked from the dark Mediterranean and coming ashore as the high-rises of West Beirut are illuminated by nighttime flares. The vision looms in Folman’s memory, but he cannot place it in context.
RECONSTRUCTING THE PAST
So he sets out to reconstruct that past by questioning fellow ex-soldiers who also served in the Israeli Defense Forces during the 1980s. The director shot about 90 minutes of interviews before handing the material over to animators, with the actual voices retained for most of the interviewees (professional actors dubbed in voices for two people to protect their privacy). The resulting look is similar to rotoscoping (