Hidden Memories

Animated documentary 'Waltz With Bashir' works well on every level

In one technical sense of the term "remember," if I remember some event, then that event actually occurred. Otherwise, I'm misremembering or imagining, and not truly remembering.

But memory is rarely that clean. Usually, we remember bits and pieces of the past mixed in with fantasy and imagination, and that's all edited to make things either more or less horrifying, or more or less flattering to ourselves, depending on our psychological makeup.

This process is similar to the way that documentary filmmaking works. Starting with facts, the presentation of those facts, and the choice about which to include and which to exclude, documentaries create an impression that's often shaped more by the filmmaker's aims than the events or information being represented.

Waltz With Bashir is about this process of coming to remember, and how we should present those memories. In the way it acknowledges its own myopia and self-concern, it's one of the most honest and innovative films of the millennium.

Director Ari Folman started on the project when he was contacted by an old Israeli army buddy who was haunted by a dream of wild dogs. He and the friend agree that the dream is somehow about the 1982 Lebanon war. During the course of their conversation, Ari realizes that, except for the brief furlough when he returned home to try to win back his ex-girlfriend, he can't remember any of the specifics of his time as a soldier.

That night, Ari has a dream that will begin to haunt him: He is floating naked in the waters outside Beirut when lights start flashing over the city. Still naked, he and some comrades begin marching through the city, guns in hand, as the war flares around them.

Unable to dispense with the dream, and unable to find the memories that triggered it, he sets out on a journey to interview members of his squad. Two stories then develop in parallel: Folman's trip across Israel and Europe looking for his army buddies, and his slowly reappearing recollections of his time in Lebanon.

It soon becomes clear to him why he would prefer not to remember: He's always known that he was somewhere in the vicinity during the slaughter of civilians in a Palestinian refugee camp. As his psychiatrist says, in this scenario, he fears that he is the Nazi.

The story itself is both compelling and, unfortunately, very timely. If you're not familiar with the First Lebanon War (as it's now called) or the Sabra and Shatila Massacre--which led, many years later, to an attempt to indict Ariel Sharon for war crimes--this film is a decent introduction. It's too personal to be a true documentary about that event, but it at least opens this piece of history up to scrutiny.

But the film doesn't really attempt historical completeness. Instead, it tries to get at the emotions, justifications and lasting impressions of the Israelis who fought that war. And, mostly, it tries to get at the way they allow themselves to remember it.

To this end, it uses a technique that would be a gimmick if it weren't so consonant with the theme: Waltz With Bashir is a rare animated documentary. (Two years ago, Chicago 10 attempted the same move, with decent, but nowhere near as effective, results.) The animation is gorgeous. I'm consistently amazed at animators who step up to the plate to create a cohesive and challenging aesthetic in their work, especially when so many simply opt for technical excellence in capturing movement and depth. The look of the film, attributable to animation director Yoni Goodman and art director David Polonsky, draws heavily from independent comic books in its rendering style, and captures the murkiness of memory in dark, earthy tones, and ochre skies.

The mixture of 2-D and 3-D animation also leads to one of the most effective endings I've ever seen on film. Strangely, the fact that the film is animated delivers a lot of the force of that ending. As such, there's no way to separate out this technique from the story; it's integral to what Folman is doing.

It's rare to see such a tightly coherent film, one where not only plot, dialogue and acting hang together, but wherein the means of presentation conveys--not through words or even through images, but through the very form in which the images are presented--so much of the force of the story.

With all this technical mastery behind it, Waltz With Bashir could have simply rested on being an art film. But the plot is utterly compelling, and even if you cease to notice the animation and aesthetic effects, the detective story of a man going in search of lost time--afraid of what he'll find--will keep you riveted.

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