Following up Fernando Meirelles’ dystopic “Blindness” with the animated Israeli documentary “Waltz with Bashir” made for an exceedingly dour day here at Cannes. “Bashir,” the better film, orbits a black hole in director Ari Folman’s memory that’s consumed his time in the army in the early ’80s, the point of singularity being the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which Israeli soldiers allowed Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen to go into two Palestinian refugee camps, where they then slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children. Folman was there, but all he remembers is looking at the flare-illuminated ruined city while floating in the shallows off the beach, something the friend he’s sure was also there insists never happened.
The reliability of memory is one of the dominant themes of Folman’s doc, which, unlike the obvious comparison, “Chicago Ten,” is almost entirely animated both its recreations and sit-down interviews. This doesn’t serve the present so well, as Folman talks to friends and others who served during the massacre, trying to fill in the gaps people and gestures are off, and seem to lack substance; animating a talking head interview doesn’t bring any added dimensions to it, no matter how carefully it’s done. But the past comes in hectic blasts of heightened and sometimes surreal segments, the personal mixing with the historic and the invented thoughts of an newly ex-girlfriend corporealize in the form of a ghost on a nighttime stakeout, a wander through the Beirut airport allows a fantasy of lively shops and flights aimed at all the capitals of the world to give way to a bombed-out reality. The sporadic weakness of the animation is easily overcome by its cinematic adventurousness, with the camera making wild tracking shots and impossible zooms through its sketched-in world. More than the monstrous events that are witnessed and that close the film in all-too-real detail, the moments of levity and jolting, out-of-place beauty are spookily resonant of the way things are perma-seared into your recollection, bright and vivid as the passing present. It’s a quiveringly good depiction of sense memory, and both a lovely and disquieting film as a whole, one that takes few of the directions you’d expect in that overcrowded field of atrocity docs.
[Photo: “Waltz with Bashir,” Bridgit Folman Film Gang, 2008]