Waltz With Bashir is an animated docu-drama about one Israeli's efforts to recall what he did in "The War." The War in this case was the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israel's Vietnam. And the event that filmmaker Ari Folman wants to remember, but can't, is the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, when Christian militias moved in, with Israeli permission, and slaughtered hundreds of civilians.
Folman, working with a team of animators and designers, interviews or reconstructs interviews with old friends and former comrades-in-arms (sometimes using an actor's voice instead of the friend). He talks with experts in post-traumatic stress and memory, trying to recall what his memory will not give back to him: his participation in that invasion.
An old friend tells Folman of a recurring nightmare: A pack of 26 demon dogs hunts him down each night. Why 26? That's how many dogs he killed when in the army. When Israeli troops would near a village, barking dogs would give them away. It was his job to shoot those dogs; he still remembers every one of them in their death throes.
That makes Folman wonder why he doesn't have nightmares and flashbacks. Maybe it's because he can't really recall those days, more than 20 years before. His mind won't let him, a psychotherapist friend tells him.
But as Folman tracks down fellow soldiers, the flashbacks visit him as well — luridly detailed but symbolic recollections of some awful event that he witnessed.
Others recall firefights in orchards, shooting boys who aimed rocket-propelled grenades at them, the house-by-house, high-rise-by-high-rise assault on Beirut itself, surviving bloody ambushes and watching German porn (graphically re-created) in an occupied villa in the city. Folman pieces together his memories from theirs.
The look of Waltz With Bashir is what is most arresting. It's a deep, multiplane style of animation that incorporates photo-real settings, realistic renderings of the people and under-animated movement, especially of faces.
Animated or not, Bashir — it takes its title from the Christian Phalangist president of Lebanon — is still a movie that relies heavily on "talking heads," probing but monotonously modulated conversations. Mix in the dream fugues and the subtitle, and you have a recipe for an unplanned nap. An espresso shot before the lights go down wouldn't be a bad idea.
Because what's here is innovative, illuminating and deeply rewarding.
The questioning, the history repressed that's slowly recalled, are important. And in light of the current shooting war in Gaza, it's also cautionary. In every war, military leaders (Ariel Sharon, a villainous presence here) are quick to euphemize the civilian dead as "collateral damage." It's a lot more difficult to just dismiss those faceless "numbers" when some of that collateral damage is to your own soldiers, their bodies, lives and psyches.