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Friday, Nov. 27, 2009

'Waltz with Bashir'

An animated dance with death

Two middle-aged men sit in a bar one rainy night; both are veterans of the Israeli Defense Force's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, where a "limited incursion" to secure the border turned into a months-long siege of Beirut. One man, Boaz, confesses he's been haunted by a recurring dream where 26 savage dogs chase after him.

Waltz with Bashir Rating: (5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star

Director: Ari Folman
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Hebrew, German, English, Arabic
Opens Nov. 28, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

"Why 26? Why not 30?" asks his friend, filmmaker Ari Folman. Because, explains Boaz, 26 is exactly the number of dogs he had to shoot in Lebanon — their barking would alert villages harboring militants of the approaching Israelis — and he remembers each and every one.

Boaz is surprised to hear that Ari has no nightmares from the war. "Beirut, Sabra and Shatila. . . . You were only 100 yards away from the massacre," says Boaz, "No flashbacks or dreams?" "No," replies Ari. "The truth is, that's not stored in my system."

"Waltz with Bashir" is Folman's search for those memories, in which he tracks down his war buddies and other vets to hear their stories and fill in the gaps. It's an astounding film, both politically, for its attempt to wrestle with an unpopular war — Lebanon was Israel's Vietnam — and aesthetically, for its groundbreaking mix of documentary content with animation.

Folman, animation director Yoni Goodman and art director David Polonsky have created Israel's first feature-length animated film, a work that feels less like modern animation as we know it (Pixar, Disney and Dreamworks), and more like an especially moody graphic novel cut for the screen. At times resembling "Heavy Metal" magazine, at others the more hard-boiled side of Japanese anime, "Waltz With Bashir" uses its visual flair to tell a sequence of war stories reminiscent of Michael Herr's Vietnam classic "Dispatches" (the inspiration for "Apocalypse Now"), equal parts surreal, tragic and darkly ironic.

Folman actually shot and cut the entire story on video before turning it over to his animators. Unlike the shimmering rotoscoping in Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly," however, Folman's team didn't draw over the images, but created them anew, using a fresh blend of Flash animation, traditional hand-drawn animation and modern 3-D computer-generated material as well. They worked frame by frame from the video rough cut, with each frame requiring dozens to hundreds of separate parts to animate. The results speak for themselves: You have never seen a film that looks like this.

"Waltz With Bashir" follows Folman as he meets old friends, and they recount their tales of the invasion. Tense stories of ambushes in orchards by RPG-firing militants intermingle with the holidaylike feel of a unit encamped on the beach. Folman himself can remember every detail of his time on leave — of the pretty punk girls at the nightclubs, and how unaffected society was by the fact a war was going on — but can only dredge up one image of the front, a bunch of soldiers, bathed in the sickly orange glow of illumination flares at night, emerging from the sea naked to pick up their weapons and march into Beirut.

The use of such stylized animation is a perfect fit for Folman's topic: The film veers between his and his friends' dreams of the war, and their actual memories of it, and the use of drawn images, instead of more realistic depictions, highlights the distance, the fact that these incidents are now only memories. It also reflects the psychic cushion that men need to create to deal with wartime traumas, whether it's swimming for one's life down the Lebanese coast in pitch-black waters, or firing frantically out of fear and killing an entire family in their car.

As a psychiatrist in the film describes it, Folman's problem is a "dissociative event. . . . When a person is in a situation, but feels outside it." She explains this is a selfprotective reaction, but warns that "once pulled into events, (you can) no longer deny reality." That's what happens in the film where, just once, the animation breaks down into actual footage from the war, with devastating impact.

Central to the film is the Sabra and Shatila massacre, where Lebanese Christian militia — unimpeded, and some say assisted by their Israeli allies — went on a rampage in Palestinian refugee camps, wantonly killing and raping in revenge for the assassination of their leader, Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. Israeli soldiers ringed the camps, firing flares to illuminate them at night, but did not intervene. Thousands died.

Folman's amnesia as to where he was during the massacre reflects that of his nation, where military commander Ariel Sharon — forced to resign in disgrace over his complicity in the atrocity — would later become the nation's prime minister. We tend to forget what is too painful, too damning to remember. "Waltz With Bashir" makes the case that memory never really goes away, it just festers until opened up and purged, and that Israelis, of all people, must live by the words "never forget."

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