Nobody saw it coming — the most unique film of 2008-09 was a head-shaking Israeli fugue between social documentary and digital animated epic. Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” is also a direct address of a modern atrocity Americans have all but forgotten, if they knew about it at all: the Sabra and Shatila refugee massacre of 1982, the politics of which were perhaps always a little too tangled to suit American news media. But, anyway, can a documentary be animated? The moment you create a film frame by frame, how close could it be to even a historical truth?
Folman’s movie, heralded around the globe but still underseen, is all about contradictions — its textural craziness corresponds eloquently with the knotted ethical dilemmas at the story’s core. The movie comes at you like a lysergic drug that targets your optic nerves: from the opening, as we zoom along at ground level with a pack of ravenous, fanged dogs running through the Tel Aviv streets under a stormy yellow sky, drawn and animated with high-contrast, nightmarish surreality, it’s clear that “Bashir” looks and feels unlike any other film. It’s difficult to pin down exactly how the film was manufactured — cartoonish, digitally fluid, painterly and journalistic, all at once — and the disarming visual tide of it is enough to brand it upon your brain. As a subjective portrait of the hallucinogenic experience of war, it’s poetic and expressive in a brand new way.
The dogs are part of a dream — the dream of an Israeli soldier who, years earlier amid the invasion of Lebanon, couldn’t shoot people and so was given the thankless task of shooting watchdogs instead, all 26 of which hunt him in his sleep. The soldier is just one compatriot sought out by Folman, who, 25 years after serving in the army and being present for the ’82 massacre, cannot remember a thing about it. So he interviewed friends from that time, and friends of friends, to find out what happened and, by extension, why he’s suppressed the memories. The interviews, transformed after the fact, became the baseline of the film, as animated versions of very real people speak with an animated Folman about the invasion and the heady, Menachem Begin-led days of Israeli empowerment.
Most of Folman’s film is comprised of those reminiscences, vividly captured in a dazzling, almost exhausting cataract of visual invention. The tableaux — entire landscapes scorched by bombings, a downed pilot’s sea-lost hallucination of a giant naked woman, an international airport wrecked and abandoned after an aerial attack, a lingering stream of blood running from the back door of an armored vehicle — could hardly have been rendered so energetically, or indeed rendered at all, in a modestly budgeted live-action film. Points of view are always shifting, time frames meld, what the soldiers think they saw supplants the reality.
Memory cannot be photographed, after all. But it can be drawn, or puppeteered. Folman’s own recurrent dream image is of fiery lights falling softly from the night sky; they’re remembered by various characters as rocket fire and a meteor shower, but only later do we (and Folman’s avatar) understand what they actually were: flares the Israeli soldiers shot to illuminate the sky above the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, passively allowing the Christian Lebanese Phalangists to carry out their bloody work. (The history behind the incident scans like a typical escalation catastrophe: after Israel had invaded in 1982 in order to assault PLO strongholds, the Christian militia leader (and Israel schmoozer) Bashir Gemayel was narrowly elected prime minister of Lebanon, then quickly assassinated by Syrian operatives. Two days later, Gemayel’s Phalangist militias, with the cooperation of the occupying Israelis, slaughtered 2,000 Palestinian refugees, an act that dwarfed the PLO’s car bombings in every way and drew international scorn. There’s the waltz: the Israeli army (all young, naïve conscriptees) hovered close but did not touch, leading but otherwise merely following the proscribed dance steps.)
After seeing too many recent Israeli films (including quite a few good ones) that waffle about the Israeli-Palestinian question, and that too often adopt a “Crash”-like, can’t-we-just-get-along centrism, “Bashir”‘s attempt to mediate a howling sense of cultural guilt came as a surprise to me. Folman won’t let us, and his Israeli audiences, miss the point: the climactic chunk of the film reverts to stock footage of the dead refugees (including children’s body parts jutting out of rubble, exactly as discussed by the animated characters earlier), and it’s a thundering exclamation point to an already searing experience.