'Waltz with Bashir'

Dir. Ari Folman
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½

I was confused. The trouble with confusion is that it makes it difficult to look at a film more deeply. I was not previously familiar with the First Lebanon War, which is depicted in the animated film Waltz with Bashir, and after seeing the film I wasn’t much more familiar. As with last year’s Alexandra, which details the Russian conflict in Chechnya, my frustration was with myself as much as with the film. Perhaps if I were better informed I wouldn’t need so much explained for me. However, a film about unfamiliar subjects should present them with clarity, no? It should be a complete entity; if it requires homework, then it’s missing something. After all, I wasn’t familiar with the Iranian Revolution either, but I had no trouble following Persepolis, which made my list of the best films of 2007.

I’ll cut the film some slack. The war itself was something of a muddle: according to the Wikipedia entry for the Lebanon Civil War (1975-1990), “During the course of the fighting, alliances shifted rapidly and unpredictably. By the end of the war, nearly every party had allied with and subsequently betrayed every other party at least once.” The Wikipedia page states that the article requires “cleanup” to meet their standards, but I’m not looking for in-depth detail, just a general understanding.

The Lebanon Civil War was spurred in part by inter-religious conflicts between Lebanese Christians and the Palestinian refugees who had entered the country over the course of several decades. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 upon the assassination attempt by a Palestinian terror group against Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. Without a doubt I am oversimplifying. It would take more than a paragraph to explain — indeed it takes at least four or five Wikipedia entries — but for the purposes of this film that’s all the background you need.

Waltz with Bashir, which is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, is not about the war on a large scale. It’s about the war as remembered by one man, writer/director Ari Folman, who served in the Israeli army and struggles to put the pieces together. A friend calls him in the middle of the night, disturbed by a dream related to the war. After this, Folman has his own upsetting vision; it is not a dream, and it does not seem to be a memory — Folman doesn’t know what it means, and when he thinks about the war he finds that he can hardly remember anything at all.

The vision surrounds the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, perpetrated by Lebanese soldiers against the Palestinians. The Israeli army was in charge of the camps; how much did they know about what was going on inside? The reoccurring vision is visualized as a golden-hued reverie: Folman and two of his fellow soldiers rise naked out of the sea and walk towards the shore, while flares sink from the sky like floating lanterns. No image from the film is more indelible than this; I cannot explain how the scene works on a rational level, but it feels mythic, mystifying, and profoundly emotional.

What was Folman’s involvement in the massacres? Was he involved at all? To find out, he interviews those who served with him and seeks counsel from psychologists who give him insight into how the human mind copes with the traumas of war. Along the way, he comes to understand his own experience and observes how the recollections of others are similarly fractured. Carmi Cna’an doesn’t remember much either, and one of the things he does remember — arriving to war on a commando boat — is intermixed with a dream about sexual awakening. Ronny Dayag narrowly escaped from an ambush, but even though there was nothing he could have done he remembers it as a betrayal of his fallen comrades — survivor’s guilt.

The style of the film is unique. On one level, it is a documentary, a straight-ahead historical film founded in fact. On another level it is expressionistic, interested in how the human mind processes experiences and not concerned with objective reality. Inspired by graphic novels, Folman renders his story with a combination of Flash animation, classic animation, and 3D technologies, and much of the imagery is remarkable.

Several shots stand out: blood being cleaned out of a tank with a push broom, a man with arms outstretched floating towards the shore, a curly haired girl buried to her chin in rubble. Most astonishing is one that comes near the end: the camera moves through a mass of screaming women in the refugee camp until it comes to a stop on Folman’s horror-stricken face, as if the atrocity of the Sabra and Shatila massacres has finally flooded back into his consciousness. The film ends with live-action footage of the aftermath of the massacres, which moves us out of our dream state into the gut-punch of reality. After sifting through memories, here is the tragedy before our eyes, stark and unvarnished.

So too has the confusion cleared from my eyes. It obstructed my view and clouded my judgment, but now I see the film more clearly. It is not quite a great film; broken into separate remembrances of mostly disconnected events, it is too fragmented to give us a consistent emotional through line and not clear enough about its history to be thoroughly instructive. But it is absorbing, sporadically astonishing, and features an evocative musical score by Max Richter that is among the year’s best. It’s unlike any film I’ve seen.