Vicious dogs lunge toward the viewer in the opening moments of Waltz With Bashir. They’re a pack of animated canines — but no less ? disturbing for being 2-D. Quite the contrary: Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s extraordinary and painfully timely autobiographical documentary of remembered life during wartime — high up on my 2008 top 10 list and now receiving wider release — uses animation as a way to face memories that might otherwise be unbearable, or even unretrievable. In its own distinct way, the movie makes serious, political use of the freeing possibilities of animation ? the way the striking Persepolis did last year. ? To tell Folman’s story ”straight” would be to miss the waking-nightmare sensations of war.
Folman was a soldier in the Israeli army during his country’s soul-scarring 1982 Lebanon war, on duty during the infamous massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia at the refugee camps called Sabra and Shatila. And the mad dogs are elements of a posttraumatic dream recounted to an animated version of ”Ari” by an old army buddy. This Ari claims not to remember very much at all about his war experience, to have no feelings about the carnage wrought (while ? Israel officially turned a blind eye) to avenge the assassination of recently elected Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. So to probe his own detachment, the filmmaker visits others who were there with him, or who might have the professional expertise to explain, shrink-like, the effect of horror on the psyche.
His present-day encounters with the past are real — all but two of the participants supply their own voices. But the urgent, sketchlike drawing style, devised in collaboration with art director David Polonsky and director of ? animation Yoni Goodman, allows Folman to creep up around the truth slowly, circuitously, exactly the way the mind has to when ? confronted in waking life with something so…unreal. (Richard Linklater’s own fluid animated Waking Life also exerts its stylistic influence.) Just as a shell-shocked person confronts trauma with retreats to fantasy, so Folman’s fellow ? soldiers, now solidly in middle age, digress in order to lose themselves; one imagines himself saved by a giant, floating woman, half sexy ? Venus and half gentle mother, on whose belly he rests, while his ship is in flames in the water.
The memories Folman once blotted out do come back to him, until they can’t be stopped — until, in fact, they come into horrifying view, the actual images exactly as upsetting as they’re meant to be. By then, though, Waltz With Bashir has transcended the definitions ? of ”cartoon” or ”war documentary” to be ? classified as its own brilliant invention. A