When Israeli writer-director Ari Folman was 19, he enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces as part of a regiment that invaded southern Lebanon. Like all soldiers, he saw and did unspeakable things – the kind of things that would mark any man for life.
But then he forgot.
That’s where Waltz With Bashir opens: the forgetting. On a stormy night in Israel, two old friends, Ari and Boaz, get together for a drink to discuss Boaz’s recurring nightmares. Twenty-six dogs chase him through the streets on a nightly basis. It stems from a scarring incident during the war and when they begin to talk about it, Ari realizes he’s never dealt with any of his war demons in his films because he simply doesn’t remember them.
The lone memory that remains from the incursion into Lebanon is a stark image of Ari and two fellow soldiers bathing in the ocean as illumination flares gracefully drift to the earth, shedding light on bombed-out apartment buildings and all below them.
But it never happened. Not like that, anyway. And so, 24 years later, he sends himself off on a new mission: one to remember. What he discovers are different versions of the same horror story about the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila by the Christian Phalangists as revenge for Bashir Gemayel’s assassination.
Naturally, it’s impossible to disentangle politics and history from a film like this, no matter what conflict is at its heart, but that’s where we get lost as noncombatant viewers. To get heated about the real incident and whatever came before or followed is to miss an opportunity to heal the wounds.
It’s true that most modern war films are imbued with the lofty goal of showing us the folly of war – that even in the best of circumstances, war is an unbelievably useless endeavor. No film has yet succeeded, nor can they, but that’s no reason to give up on them.
Waltz invites you to make your own decision about the military brass, but shows a deep compassion for the rank and file, Palestinian and Israeli alike, proving at last that there is no such thing as a best circumstance in war. At first bloodshed, all sides are wrong.
The real unavoidable argument, for our purposes, regards the animation.
Because of that device, a certain poetic license is allowed. As much as the film is about war, it’s also about the mutability and self-distortion of memory, and that makes animation the ideal medium to paint battle as the surreal experience it is. Waltz never pulls punches on the hard stuff, either. The trembling hands and beads of sweat before the kill remain, an effect as beautiful as it is terrifying.
The titular (and literal) waltz itself is breathtaking in a way that someone aiming a camera could not have captured. But it’s unlikely that’s how it happened in real time. To put a filter of 20 years over a millisecond of a memory is to forge its authenticity. The animated rendering doesn’t quite say, “This is a dream,” but it nudges the idea that war may be remembered in soaring poetry and dime-novel prose alike.