Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir Is a Winner!

waltz with bashir 01 Ari Folmans Waltz With Bashir Is a Winner! Waltz with Bashir
Running time: 90 minutes
Written and directed by Ari Folman

Waltz With Bashir, written, directed and produced by Ari Folman, with animation by Bridgit Folman Film Gang, with David Polonsky as art director and illustrator, and Yoni Goodman as animation director, plays out as one of the most profoundly explosive animated documentaries I have ever seen, and is clearly one of the best pictures of the year. Indeed, its antiwar message is better served by its animation than would have been possible with a live-action cinematographic equivalent with real-life actors. Since I have always been content to specialize in live-action narrative cinema at the expense of nonfictional and animated realms of the cinema, my critical embrace of Bashir is a big switch on my part.

Ari Folman, the writer-director-producer, professes that he is telling his own story as one of the characters in Waltz With Bashir who served in the Israeli Army during the first Lebanon War of the early ’80s. Ever since then, he has been having the same recurring nightmare of 26 vicious dogs chasing him. Every night the same 26 dogs. Animation makes the dogs more threateningly dangerous than any live-action staging ever could without running afoul of the humane authorities. Ari’s friend to whom he has described his dream suggests that it might be connected to Ari’s service in the Israeli Army during the invasion of Lebanon. Ari then remembers that when the soldiers approached a strange village, their first order was to shoot all stray dogs inasmuch as these creatures might bark a warning to the villagers.

Ari is surprised that he has blotted out most of his memories of that period in his life. Anxious to find out what he has curiously forgotten, he sets out to look up old friends and comrades from that period all around the world.

In this manner, the film begins spreading its canvas to cover many different stories with many different points of view. The title of the film is derived from the subject of one of these stories, of an Israeli daredevil dodging and dancing his way through a barrage of sniper bullets with reckless bravado in a village called Bashir, or is that the name of the Israeli? I forget.

As it happens, it is easier to believe in such tall war stories with animation than with live action. What ultimately distinguishes this film from live-action works in the genre is the interaction of several separate stories into a composite tapestry of war itself as an experience with many different contexts. These all lead in this instance to the massacre of unarmed men, women and children in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon after the pro-Israel president-elect is assassinated by an pro-Damascus faction in Lebanon. Though the Israeli soldiers had no part in the massacre itself, they stood idly by while their Lebanese allies performed the atrocity for them.

Near the end of the film, the animation switches to a brief live-action sequence of a Palestinian refugee mother sobbing and screaming over the slaying of her loved ones. Opinions may differ on the artistic lapse or leap to reality to press home the point of this almost forgotten episode in the cauldron of seemingly eternal hostilities in the Middle East.

Fortunately, the film itself emerges as an eloquent condemnation of all wars, however noble or ignoble their causes may seem afterward. Each of the episodes suggests that the combatants who survive the carnage are never immune from bad dreams and memory losses afterward. But what to do in an in ever increasingly violent world? This question Waltz With Bashir wisely declines to answer.

asarris@observer.com