CINEMA: Dancing In The Dark

waltz_with_bashir1_1.jpgWALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008, directed by Ari Folman, 90 minutes, Israel)


Like last years’ Persepolis, the true-life mystery Waltz With Bashir delivers the West some much-needed Middle Eastern history in an easy-to-digest cartoon format. Make that “easier-to-digest” format, because even when told with this expressionist mix of flash and hand-drawn animation this difficult-to-shake tale of the toll of war lures us to stare at some truly grueling memories that would be unbearable on film.

With interviews collected as documentary then sculpted and rendered in animation, filmmaker Ari Folman presents the stories of his comrades from the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon War. Folman fought in Lebanon when he was only 19 and he believes he may have taken part in a massacre against Palestinians yet his memory seems partially erased. The film follows Folman’s travels as he collects pieces of memory from his still traumatized fellow soldiers in order to get a glimpse of his role in this tragic play.

The animation, at times crude but beautiful, presents itself as the perfect vehicle to tell this story; it can show the scope of the Lebanon’s destruction without needing a budget of millions and the sometimes garish and colorful imagery is particularly well-suited to capture the surreal quality of front line warfare. Bashir is most exciting when it veers into the dreams and fantasies of it soldiers, like the virginal soldier who, shipboard and headed to battle, imagines floating away on a giant nude woman or the twenty-seven hellhounds who haunt the dreams of a man who was once forced to shoot down a neighborhood’s pets during a mission.

It is Folman’s psychoanalyst who comes through with one of the most provocative comments on Israeli militarism ever I’ve heard in film. As Folman discusses his role in the half-remembered massacre, the psychologist discusses the Israeli population as one psychologically driven to repeat the traumas of the Holocaust, this time with themselves in the dominant role. It’s a bold charge, especially with the horror stories now escaping occupied Gaza, and perhaps it could only be delivered from the mouth of a cartoon character.

But the Oscar-nominated Waltz With Bashir‘s message is larger than any single conflict, it shows more vividly than any recent film in memory how war emotionally robs men of things they can’t express even decades later. A country may believe they’ve laid their enemy to rest and yet the battles are fought forever in the minds and souls that claimed the victory.


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