‘Waltz With Bashir’ is worth the wait

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The front-runner for Best Foreign Language film at Sunday night’s Academy Awards is an Israeli documentary in a unique format: animation.

Documentary and animation are not often linked but live-action based animated films such as 300 and Waking Life, along with realistic video games, has opened the door to this new partnership. Beyond the unexpected format, writer-director Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz With Bashir is a winner on all fronts, both for its ground-breaking techniques as well as its powerful, poignant story of war.

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Prompted by a friend’s recurring nightmare, Folman sets out to recover his own lost memories as an Israeli soldier in the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War.

As Folman and his friend discuss the nightmare, they decide it is linked to their shared war experiences. Folman is surprised to find he can no longer recall the details of that time.

He decides to revisit those memories by traveling around talking to friends, fellow soldiers and others present at the battles. As each person recalls his war experiences, images appear ranging from absurd to terrifying, sometimes even both.

As Folman fits together bits of the puzzle, his own disconnected memories come back. He is particularly drawn to his lack of memory about one battle, as he seeks to unravel the truth of what happened that day.

The title refers to Bashir Gemayel, Lebanese president-elect and leader of the Maronite Christian Phalanges faction. At one point an Israeli sharpshooter opens fire on hundreds of posters depicting the newly-assasinated Gemayel. The soldier is essentially “waltzing,” as he sprays bullets at the posters; hence the film’s title.

The meeting of the poetic and the horrific gives Waltz With Bashir a sense of battlefield realism, something that suffuses the film whenever the narrative takes us to the past.

Folman uses a combination of animation techniques based in live-action to keep us grounded in the real.

The film’s images are haunting yet beautiful, heartbreaking and terrifying — together, they work to transport audiences and provide a deeply emotional connection to the unfolding narrative. And while the technical innovations and striking visuals in Waltz With Bashir are rich and powerful, it is the film’s insights into the atrocities of the Israeli-Lebanese war and the scars it left that make it a triumph.

At times, the film is very specific to this conflict but at other times, it captures the universal face of war, with heartbreaking images of very young men going from playful joking to the horror of killing and dying within a heartbeat.

The pyrotechnics of warfare light up a sky over a beach — the very same beach where young soldiers swam earlier that day. A tank crew snaps a picture of themselves sitting on their vehicle, smiling. Moments later, the tank is hit by mortar fire.

Waltz with Bashir beautifully captures the fog and brutality of war, and the soldiers moving through its surreal world.