Every lawyer knows eyewitnesses are the most fallible authorities in reconstructing past events. Even if they filter self-serving interpretations and prejudices out of their testimony, memory itself is a net full of holes, especially when confronting emotional traumas and atrocities.
In his riveting documentary “Waltz With Bashir,” Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman faced those issues on two fronts. The film examines a 1980s tragedy most of the world has forgotten through the testimony of Israeli ex-soldiers who struggled to repress their own painful recollections, or found them clouded by post-traumatic stress.
Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir)
Ari Folman, Ori Sivan, Roni Dayg, Ron Ben-Yisahi, Dror Harazi, Zahava Solomon
(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 25 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 21 Nov 2008 (General release)
Folman, who was near the scene as a young soldier, “found that there were black holes in my recollections, and I needed to fill in those gaps.” He interviewed nine others about their memories of the Lebanon War. Retelling the surreal facts in the cold prose of a filmed documentary could not do the tale justice, so he opted for stark, sometimes dreamlike animation.
“There’s no other way to tell this kind of story,” Folman said during a December stop in Minneapolis. “Going from dreams to reality, back and forth, conscious to subconscious, animation is the perfect thing.” The iconoclastic approach earned his film an Oscar nomination last week as best foreign language film.
“Waltz With Bashir” belongs to a new mini-genre of historical animated films, along with “Chicago 10” and “Persepolis,” but revisits a much darker chapter. “Waltz” concerns the 1982 massacres by Lebanese Christian troops of hundreds of unarmed Palestinian detainees in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The killings were reprisals for the murders of popular Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel and 25 of his followers, killed in a bomb attack just days earlier.
Revisiting the Lebanon War of the mid-‘80s is “very emotional in Israel; it opens a lot of wounds for people,” Folman said, and the film dramatizes those conflicts with imaginative symbolism. The explosive opening follows a snapping, galloping pack of feral dogs through the streets of Tel Aviv. The dogs, their eyes and fangs a rabid yellow that reflects the ominous thunderclouds above, terrorize the city, scattering pedestrians and knocking over tables at sidewalk cafes. The animals surround the window of Folman’s friend Boaz, who explains that the violent vision came to him in a dream, a manifestation of his buried anxiety about his actions during the war.
Folman had to create Israel’s first feature animation studio to realize his vision. “There are advantages to not having a tradition. It gives you freedom. You get to create everything for yourself,” he said. The visuals are a composite of classical animation, 3-D and computer-based Flash animation. “In terms of budget, this film’s a joke, but still we managed to do pretty well. We needed a realistic look in order for the audience to get emotionally attached to the characters, and I think we did that.
“It’s strict and melancholy, less cartoonish than in some graphic novels. Then in dream sequences, we took more freedom in terms of design, proportion, colors, everything.” In one of the film’s most striking images, an Israeli soldier imagines floating peacefully out to sea on the belly of a giant female nude.
Folman interviewed more than 100 veterans and witnesses in researching the film, piecing together an account of the war and massacres from the testimony of nine interviewees to whom he was connected personally. Their observations range from the tedium of army life to absurd episodes of daredevil recklessness under fire to the daydreams that passed the time between shooting at unseen strangers and being shot at by them.
“Every 10 years a generation goes to war,” Folman said. “This is my generation’s war. Unfortunately, the only real moral that comes out of it is a strong antiwar statement, my personal view, other than that there’s no big news here.
“I hope that at least young people will see that unlike what they’re told in schools about brave soldiers who gave their lives, there’s no glory in war. Basically, it’s about a waste of lives, a very useless idea. The glorification of the dead is horrible.”