"Waltz With Bashir" is one of Israel's first animated features, and it's going to be a hard act to follow. Provocative, hallucinatory, incendiary, this devastating animated documentary is unlike any Israeli film you've seen. More than that, in its seamless mixing of the real and the surreal, the personal and the political, animation and live action, it's unlike any film you've seen, period.
"Bashir" was written and directed by Ari Folman, one of Israel's top documentary filmmakers and one of the writers on the Israeli TV show that became HBO's "In Treatment." He's told interviewers he always envisioned this as an animated film, even though the process ended up taking five years, because "animation functions on the border between reality and the subconscious" and that's exactly where he wanted to be.
True to that dictum, the film starts with an intentionally disturbing "welcome to my nightmare" sequence. It's a pack of rabid dogs, 26 in all, their teeth bared, their eyes burning yellow with fury, rushing through the streets of Tel Aviv to get to the apartment of Folman's friend Boaz. "They've come," Boaz says simply, "to kill."
What we are seeing, what Boaz is describing to Folman, is a dream he's been having for 2 1/2 years, a dream that relates directly to Boaz's army service during Israel's controversial invasion of Lebanon in 1982, more than 20 years earlier.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 01, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
'Waltz With Bashir': The review of the movie "Waltz With Bashir" in the Dec. 25 Calendar referred to thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon being massacred by Christian Falangist militias in 1982. News accounts differ, but reports published in The Times in recent years put the number of dead at 700 to 800.
Even though he too took part in that invasion, Folman realizes that he has absolutely no memories of what he experienced.
That's especially troubling to him because the Israeli army's time in Lebanon included standing by while Christian Falangist militia went on a killing rampage at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, murdering thousands of Palestinian civilians to revenge the death of their assassinated leader, Bashir Gemayel.
The filmmaker wakes his friend Orin, a psychiatrist, who tells him "memory takes us where we need to go."
Folman decides that where he needs to go is on an investigation of his past, on a physical journey to talk to friends and army veterans about the invasion experience in the hopes that he will find out what he did.
Folman ended up taping nine people; seven of them agreed to be seen and heard on camera; the other two had their interviews read by actors. The director cut the resulting tapes as if he were making a conventional live-action documentary and handed the result to his team of animators, who used three kinds of drawn-from-scratch animation to bring everything to life.
Because the things these men remembered slide so easily into dreams and fantasy, there's no more effective way to convey what we hear and see than through animation. Told with dynamic energy, these stories unnerve you in ways more conventional footage simply would not. A Lebanese family in a car is slaughtered only because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. An Israeli officer obsessively watches German porn. A soldier and his machine gun waltz through a hail of bullets in front of a huge wall poster of Bashir.
If "Waltz With Bashir" has a recurring image, it comes out of Folman's unconscious, a sur- real memory of himself emerging naked from the sea with a weapon in his hands while the beach is lit up with orange night flares.
"It should be hallucinatory but also realistic," the director explained to Sight & Sound magazine. "We wanted to make a realistic scene in a very dreamy way, so that you would be confused until the very end about whether it really happened."
That quote underscores that "Waltz With Bashir's" emphasis is always on the personal, not on the geopolitical rights and wrongs of Israeli actions, but on what individual soldiers experienced and what those experiences did to them. This emphasis persists even at the film's disturbing closing sequence, when animation gives way to live-action newsreel footage of the horrors perpetrated at those refugee camps. What happened was not a dream, "Waltz With Bashir" insists, it was real, and that was the most nightmarish thing of all.
'Waltz With Bashir'
MPAA rating: R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content; in Hebrew with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, and Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino