A phantasmagoric oral history of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon told from the perspective of the Israeli soldiers who participated, Waltz with Bashir is a singular experience — part animated documentary, part fever-dream war movie, part psychoanalytic meditation on repressed memory. Denied a Best Foreign Language Film win at the Academy Awards, Waltz with Bashir may still have been 2008's best film in any category. It would be terrible if the vagaries of the Oscar vote now deny it the audience it deserves.
Bashir opens with a pack of dogs on the prowl, moving in unison through the streets of modern Tel Aviv. These blue-black hounds with murderous orange eyes hunt down a lone individual hiding on an upper floor of an apartment complex. This individual turns out to be Boaz Rein Buskila, a former Israeli Army soldier, and the canine attack is a recurring nightmare connected to his memories of participating in the invasion of Lebanon a quarter century before.
Buskila calls his former war buddy Ari Folman, now a filmmaker, for a late-night chat. Folman claims not to remember much about the war, but after leaving Buskila, the memories — some reliable, some not — start to flood back. The rest of the film takes the form of Folman tracking down other men he served with and asking what they remember.
The episodic, quasi-stream-of-consciousness stories are all memories and/or dreams from actual onetime soldiers. The narration is mostly in real voices. The shifting, thick-lined animation, while not rotoscoped (the popular mechanism by which animators paint over live-action footage), is informed by videotaped interviews of all the former soldiers.
This animation serves multiple purposes: Its mutable, surreal quality allows the film to oscillate between dream and reality and convey the shifting nature of memory. It captures the hallucinatory aspects of war experiences. And it allows the horror of the situations described to be more digestible, avoiding the potential visceral overload of war stories presented more realistically.
"Memory is dynamic. It's alive. It fills in holes with details that never happened," a psychologist friend tells Folman early in the film, after he's complained about how unreliable his memories of the war are.
Over time, these repressed memories start to re-emerge, scrubbing away the dreams and imagined details to reveal a scattering of intensely real experiences. Buskila's recurring nightmare about the dogs — exactly 26 of them — hunting him down refers to his shooting 26 dogs in a sleeping Lebanese village to keep them from alarming the town's residents. He was ordered to do so because his commander considered him "too weak to kill people." Another man comes to remember firing at an approaching car out of fear, killing an entire innocent family inside. A survivor of a tank attack remembers hiding behind a rock for hours before floating out to sea and finding his way back — only to be treated like someone who has committed an unspeakable betrayal.
Of course, those who were on the other side of Israeli guns might be less sympathetic to these stories, where conscience-stricken former citizen-soldiers search their memories for the source of contemporary traumas. But there's a political dimension to Waltz with Bashir, a film that moves toward a terrible endpoint in the form of a massacre of Palestinian civilians by a Lebanese Christian militia abetted by the Israelis — and it's one aimed inward, an attempt to jog a country's own collective memory of this incident. In the end, Waltz with Bashir brings this history home in a thundering way — sudden, then silent.
Waltz with Bashir
Opens Friday, February 27th