When former Israeli soldier turned filmmaker Ari Folman (Israel's "In Therapy," remade by HBO as "In Treatment") got together with old Army buddy Boaz in a bar, he listened to Boaz relate a recurring nightmare about being chased by twenty-six dogs. They concluded that this dream must have something to do with their experience in the first Lebanon War of the early eighties, memories of which were fleeting for both. Ari decided to talk to eight more friends about their experiences and in the process discovered the truth that led to all of their "Waltz with Bashir."
Folman videotaped his film using seven of his actual friends (Boaz and Carmi of the Netherlands sequence did not want to appear and were represented by actors) and then transformed his and their stories into animation not by using rotoscope, but with a combination of Flash, classic drawn and 3D techniques which lend his film, up to its horrific real life footage ending, the dreamlike quality the men's memories had taken. The dreadful irony of Israelis standing by as a massacre is committed in their midst combined with the horrors of war have clearly taken a toll on these men, a toll, it should be noted, that the Palestinians likely have little sympathy for, and Folman's film is akin to a poetic version of primal scream therapy crossed with penance (in interviews, Folman says the Israeli soldiers had nothing to do with the massacre, and yet...).
A brief history - in 1982 Israeli Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon decided to invade Lebanon in order to staunch the Palestinian air bombardment from the North and to seat Christian ally Bashir Gemayel as Lebanon's president. When the popular president elect was assassinated, his Christian Phalangist militiamen poured into the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps to avenge his death, but instead of killing soldiers, massacred over 3,000 women, children and elderly. The Israeli Army provided illumination flares while this occurred and when reports began to trickle up the chain of command that Palestinian citizens were being shot, they received no command to do anything but what they were doing.
Folman remembers none of this until he begins speaking to other soldiers. After Boaz, he speaks with Ori Sivan, a family man and psychiatrist who explains the experience of false memory. Ari travels to the Netherlands where the brilliant Carmi Cna'an dropped out and opened a falafel stand. Memories both psychedelic - of a childhood fairground, a giant love goddess rafting away from a military 'Love Boat,' - and surreal - horses being slaughtered at the Hippodrome, an officer watching porno in an occupied house - are rendered in tangerine dreams and marmalade skies. War stories include those of Ronny Dayag, who watched tanks roll over cars and saw his commander shot in the neck before hiding and literally swimming away, parallel to the beach. Iron man competitor Shmuel Frenkel, known for his patchouli oil, is the one who literally 'waltzes' with Bashir, spraying machine gun fire in 360 degree patterns on a boulevard where Bashir's face looms on a banner. Visions of men surfing recall "Apocalypse Now" and the calm of the pristine, deserted airport of Beirut gives way to its prior pummeling evidenced by the twisted metal on its airfield.
Folman and his animators and director of production use lots of orange and red to paint their nightmares while song choices such as Public Image Limited's "This Is Not a Love Song" yank one into the time period. As the director used his friend Ori to provide psychological perspective on events, he goes to famous war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai to connect to repressed memories. Ben-Yishai recalls the horror of witnessing the dead, most memorably the head of a small girl the same age as his own. When Folman cuts to the reporter's actual footage, we're left to witness the same with our own eyes and the effect is devastating.
"Waltz with Bashir" is an unusual accomplishment, technically well done and beautifully structured, and yet there is a distancing effect inherent in its telling, only counterpointed by that last minute punch. Despite the soul-baring going on here, last year's "Persepolis" was a more intimate retelling of political scars, its nostalgic 'before' folksiness setting off its jarring 'after' with more force than "Bashir's" awakening from a dream. The release of Folman's film being concurrent with a severe escalation in Israeli/Palestinian warfare is a sad reminder of how man continues to forget the uselessness of war.
Robin gives "Waltz with Bashir" a B+.
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