This deeply personal animated documentary by Ari Folman will leave viewers weeping
In 2008, in New York, I went to see a film that has stayed in my mind ever since. Israeli director Ari Folman’s sublime, deeply personal animated documentary Waltz with Bashir had competed at the Cannes film festival previously that year, been given rave reviews, and had just been released in North America that fall. As the film came to an end, I have never since experienced the same kind of hushed contemplation from a stunned and awestruck audience.
Although Waltz with Bashir took four long years in the making, due to its very specific kind of animation technique (no, it is not rotoscoping by the way, where animators draw over live footage), its actual inception, though Folman did not realise it at the time, was all the way back in 1982, when he was a 19-year-old soldier in the Israeli Army during the time of the Lebanon War.
When Folman’s friend and fellow soldier approaches him more than two decades later claiming that he has been having a recurring nightmare about 26 ferocious dogs chasing through the streets in search of him, Folman asks him how he can help, after all, he’s just a filmmaker.
When his friend says he knows why it is exactly 26 dogs, not more, not less, because that was the same number of dogs he shot in a Lebanese village so that they wouldn’t alert the insurgents back in 1982.
Folman realises that he himself remembers almost nothing of his own experiences in the war, even though he was only few hundred metres away from the most infamous incident of that conflict: the Sabra and Shatila massacre, where Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia slaughtered unto 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese Shia Muslims in their camps in retaliation to the assassination of the newly elected Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. The Christians had wrongly assumed that the Palestinian militants had killed him. The massacre took place under the noses of the Israeli army who were guarding the camps.
As Folman embarks on a journey to try and remember where he was and how he felt during that time, we experience his surreal and painful journey, in a film that has found just the right medium with which to treat such a quest. Only with animation, could Folman recreate his friend’s terrifying dream of the 26 dogs, as well as his own deeply haunting repeating dream as he gets closer to the truth, of rising naked out of the sea, surrounded by his fellow soldiers, holding nothing but their machine guns, and walking onto the beach of war torn Beirut with flares falling out of the skies, lighting up the carnage going on not so far away.
Folman speaks to many people, all of whom were involved in the war, all of whom struggle with their memories, and many of whom have certain specific nightmares, dreams and hallucinations. In this film, the horrific and longstanding impact of war on the fragile human mind comes alive in the most innovative addition to cinema that I have seen in a long time.
As the animation weaves seamlessly from long conversations between Folman and his friends, to their memories and dreams, we actually get an inkling of what it must be like to be in the midst of a war, what happens after, and the mind’s struggle to eliminate things that just cannot be dealt with.
Cinema has rarely been so riveting and so visceral. Waltz with Bashir is an important film, for everyone, but especially cathartic in a nation like ours where we are still trying to deal with our very own aftermath. Watch it and weep.
Waltz with Bashir, an animated documentary film directed by Ari Folman