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Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Written, Produced & Directed by
Ari Folman
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Hebrew with English subtitles
Israel/Germany/France/USA. 87 min. Rated

When a band of brothers fights the good war, movies seem full of footage reinforcing their heroism and the glory of their cause. But when a war turns so shocking the veterans can’t even talk to each other about what happened, nightmares block their memories and hallucinatory images take over, like the 26 terrifying dogs rampaging under a sulfurous sky in the opening of Waltz with Bashir.

Through his vividly animated film, director Ari Folman searches for answers about his Lebanon service with the Israeli Defense Forces in 1982. After a friend recounts the opening dream to him, Folman realizes he can’t completely remember his participation in what Israelis now refer to as the first war with Lebanon. He then visits the close friends he’d served with, one as far away as wintry Holland, to hear their memories, and for the first time, they come to grips with their experiences.

All remember entering Beirut with the army as allies of Bashir Gemayel’s Christian militia just after Gemayel’s assassination. (The ubiquitous posters of the pop star-like leader festooned the city walls.) Step by step, order by order, Folman and his fellow soldiers piece together their grunts’ eye-view of implementing policies made way above their pay grade. One by one, from their different perspectives of where they were during the war, Folman asks his comrades to fill in for him his movements during the notorious three-day massacre of 3,000 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

The film’s title has several layers of meaning. It is taken literally from a riveting scene where an Israeli machine gunner fires away at snipers, rotating round and round like in a dance (reinforced by the period rock ‘n’ roll on the soundtrack). More generally, it reflects the Israeli army’s physical proximity to Bashir’s forces. With a lot of soul and memory searching, Folman and his friends realize how they assisted with the Christian militia’s bloody vengeance.

As the son of Holocaust survivors, Folman doesn’t have to emphasize the implications of a soldier just following orders. He directly asks one of his buddies: “So when did you realize a genocide was happening?” One of the interviewees saw what was occurring and made calls up the command chain, but to no avail.

Throughout the film, the narrators are mostly the actual voices of Folman and his fellow veterans, as well as his therapist and an expert in post-traumatic stress. Their camaraderie and frankness were helped by not having to face a camera (two permitted only their words, not their voices, to be used). While some actual news footage is inserted when memories come into sharp focus as reality, the animation styles segue from Folman’s conversations with the now middle-aged family men to their flashbacks as scared, cocky young men and to their very personal nightmares.

In contrast to the long credit scrolls in Hollywood animated films, Folman’s team consisted of all the animators in Israel with any experience in hand drawing films—all eight of them. Folman powerfully proves that animation can be an original vehicle for adult catharsis when reality merges with lingering nightmares.  Nora Lee Mandel
December 23, 2008



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