Waltz With Bashir opens with a pack of yellow-eyed, feral dogs running savagely through the streets, leaving broken furniture and cowering people in their wake. Clearly, this is not a movie for the faint of heart. The dogs are powerful, terrifying, and on their way to remind a killer of his guilt. The film is an unusual animated documentary: dark, disturbing, and perhaps therapeutic for its creator, Ari Folman.
Folman, both in the film and in life, was a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War and a witness to the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The massacre was a revenge attack by Lebanese Christian Phalangists on Palestinian refugees, displaced to Beirut after the assassination of the Phalangists’ charismatic leader Bashir Gemayel. The Israel Defense Forces claim to have known nothing of the attacks (and thus could have done nothing to prevent them), but some evidence shows that their inaction was at the root of much of the tragedy. In the film, Folman realizes that he cannot remember his role in the massacre after hearing the disturbing reoccurring dream his friend has about the war. All he has is one memory of bathing outside in Beirut, watching flares lighting the night sky. In order to unearth his buried memory and relieve his unfathomable guilt, he interviews friends and fellow soldiers who might have been with him while the massacre was taking place.
The film’s animation style replicates the self-consciousness of live-action, but also helps represent the surreality of war and memory. The story isn’t linear but instead presents a series of true battle stories told amid scenes of reckless, wasteful warfare. There’s the frightened infantryman who won’t kill a man; he is commanded to shoot 26 dogs guarding a small Lebanese town. Next, a silver-haired intellectual living in Amsterdam recalls when his unit, scared to the point of mania, used all their ammunition shooting at a car carrying a Lebanese man, his wife, and their children. And of course, another recalls rescuing a fellow soldier while under enemy fire. Instead of running zigzag to avoid bullets, he dances a demented waltz through buildings covered with posters of Bashir Gemayel, shooting all the while.
The scenery, the interviews, and the animation blend so beautifully into the final scene that the audience feels personally reprehensible for the Sabra and Shatila Massacre. War is so often portrayed through a distancing and protective lens—we have nothing to do with it, and we do not have to feel bad after we’re done watching. This is not the case with Waltz with Bashir—the animation reveals the horror to us differently than a live-action film would. Because the images are melded cartoons, surrealism, and hyperrealism, the events play on the screen the way we might remember them if we had experienced the events ourselves.
See this movie, but be prepared for its consequences. The film probes the realities of death, destruction, guilt, the hysteria of war, and the unjustifiable action of no action at all.