February 19, 2009

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Waltz with Bashir (R)
A filmmaker tries to remember what happened in Lebanon during his time in the Israeli military in the early 1980s in Waltz with Bashir, a very stark and surprising portrait of war and warriors.

And, I should mention, a very animated portrait. And in addition to being animated, the movie is also basically a documentary. Since the movie is essentially various people talking about their memories, the animation is an excellent medium. We go into people’s memories, seeing them as young men and seeing the images as they remember them. It turns what could have been a very after-the-fact report into a living narrative and it makes the events all that more real and horrible.

Specifically, what filmmaker Ari Folman is trying to remember is what he was doing in Lebanon in 1982 during massacres on Palestinian refugee camps by Lebanese militia. He has no memory of this period of his military service, or rather he has one memory that is perhaps not a memory at all but a collection of symbols that are filling the place of his memories. This quest to remember what happened is set off by another man who says he’s been having nightmares that he thinks are connected to events from the time. To try to uncover what happened during Ari’s own service, he goes to visit and talk to other men who served with him and to other people in the area at the time. By searching for his own history, he brings to the surface the horrors of the massacres.

I have to admit my knowledge of this part of history is fairly thin. As the movie tells it, the Israeli army stood by as the Lebanese militia went into the camps and massacred Palestinian civilians, massacred them in ways not unlike the massacres an older generation of Israelis experienced at the hands of the Nazis. This echo of history is part of what makes these horrible events an even deeper wound for the Israeli soldiers who were in Lebanon at the time. The movie ends with graphic descriptions of the aftermath of the massacres and the animated images dissolve into real footage from the time. It is as stark and ugly and heart-rending a portrait of modern war as I have seen in a long time in the movies. It is a rare and raw examination of a country’s own guilt at an event like this and the feelings that soldiers are left with when they realize that they have unintentionally had a hand in something so horrible.

Dealing with issues so delicate and with feelings that are so fraught, this movie could have easily become mired in melodrama or in a distancing jumble of psychological analysis. Instead, we get straight-forward stories from men who lived them. It’s as daring and honest an approach as I’ve ever seen and the animation, rather than pulling it out of reality, makes the reality of the past seem all that more present. A

Rated R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content. Written and directed by Ari Folman, Waltz with Bashir is an hour and 27 minutes long and is distributed by Sony Pictures.