It’s rare in this day and age of instantaneous remakes and endless rip-offs to encounter something even remotely fresh in the film industry. At the very least (and there is quite a bit more to it), Ari Folman’s Academy Award-nominated Israeli film Waltz With Bashir introduces us to an untapped, perhaps wholly original genre: the animated documentary.
The “story” of the film begins as an old army buddy of Folman’s relates a recurrent nightmare that has been plaguing him since the two served a tour of duty during the first Lebanon War in the early-’80s. (In Israel, national military service is mandatory for all Jewish men and women over the age of 18.) What does this dream mean and how does it relate to what happened during the war? To his surprise, Folman can recall almost nothing about his time in the Israeli army. It was only 20 years ago, but the filmmaker has blocked it all out of his memory. In order to reconstruct what he did and saw during those pivotal years, Folman hunts down and interviews a string of friends, colleagues, psychiatrists and military men.
Oddly enough (or is it “appropriately enough”), few of them have solid memories of their life during wartime. Each manages to relate some fragmentary tale, a surreal mixture of Pink Floyd-style hallucination and grim reality. Folman isn’t sure what to make of all this, but the resultant collection of wartime tales reads like a trippy marriage between the black humor of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and the bleak madness of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Initially at least, Waltz With Bashir is not a political film. It is more a meditation on how memory both tricks us and tries to protect us. Folman is trying to analyze the workings of the human mind as much as he’s attempting to understand what happened during the Lebanon War. For him, at least, the two are forever intertwined.
As the tales of confusion, craziness and outright horror begin to snap together like puzzle pieces, providing a fragmentary picture of what Folman and his comrades witnessed (or didn’t witness) during an infamous refugee camp massacre outside Beirut, the film zeroes in on a message that is unavoidably political in nature. Whether the film is ultimately critical of Israeli policy in the Middle East or simply questions the madness of war in general is best left to individual judgment. Are certain things in this world outside our view, are they hidden from us by those in power or do we actively refuse to see them? (CoughRwandaCough.)
By not drawing a line (literally, in this case) between clinical, documentary-style narrative and that version of the world we see filtered through our fucked-up dreams, uncontrolled fantasies and jumbled memories, Folman creates a portrait of armed conflict that is stark, vivid, beautiful, ugly and somehow more real than the real thing. There’s not much point to figuring how much of Waltz With Bashir is strictly true, how much is recreated and how much is scripted. It is one of those works of art that simply doesn’t need to be pulled apart and examined. It just needs to be experienced.