Disturbing dreams of war in Lebanon

In the animated feature "Waltz With Bashir," filmmaker Ari Folman decodes a recurring dream of his role as an Israeli soldier in Lebanon.
In the animated feature "Waltz With Bashir," filmmaker Ari Folman decodes a recurring dream of his role as an Israeli soldier in Lebanon.
Posted: January 23, 2009

For the ancients, dreams were revelatory. So, too, are they for Ari Folman. His Waltz With Bashir, a wake-up call in the guise of an animated feature,decodes a recurring dream that rouses the Israeli filmmaker's long-dormant consciousness of his role as a soldier in Lebanon in 1982.

Folman's memory-prodding and conscience-pricked animation charts the course by which we repress and recover traumatic events. This psycho-thriller, a Golden Globe winner and presumptive favorite for the foreign-film Oscar, itself is revelatory.

With antecedents in The Manchurian Candidate - in which, a decade after Korea, a squad of American vets wake up in a sweat, perplexed by the identical nightmare - Waltz With Bashir is about Israeli veterans of Lebanon whose sleep is troubled by fever dreams of their wartime service.

A friend of Folman's confides that he is haunted by the specter of attack dogs on the rampage. His nightmare must be contagious, for soon Folman is fighting his own nocturnal phantoms: images of zombified Israeli soldiers, naked and carrying Uzis, emerging from the Mediterranean like sleepwalkers onto the Beirut strand.

Those afflicted with the nightmares have amnesia about what they did in Lebanon that September of the Phalangist massacre at the Sabra and Shatila camps where Palestinian refugees were held.

In the film, Folman consults an analyst friend for advice on what to do about his nightmares. The doctor suggests that to recover the truth - or truths - Folman should track down fellow servicemen, an odyssey that structures the narrative of this probing film.

Waltz With Bashir takes its title from a soldier's memory of dancing in the rubble-strewn streets of Beirut under a poster of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese Phalangist leader - and Israeli ally - assassinated two days before the massacre.

Another soldier, who like Folman remembers only that he can't remember, has a vision of being rescued from a bombed warship by a naked giantess who floats him to safety.

Bashir's shifting imagery - photorealistic backgrounds and stylized foregrounds morphing into surrealistic backgrounds and sketchy foregrounds - cannily evokes the fluidity of memory, by turns clear, elusive, sketchy.

While art director/animator David Polonsky relies on videotape footage for its style, the result is more expressionist than realist, especially in the yellow-for-caution wash that suffuses the battle sequences. The film is propelled both by its inventive retro-animation and by Max Richter's score, brooding and percussive.

As Bashir progresses and Folman pieces together his unreliable memories with those of his fellow soldiers, he demolishes the stone walls of amnesia, his own and his nation's.

And as Folman reconstructs the events, he considers how, by not intervening, he and other teenage soldiers were complicit in the Phalangist attacks on Sabra and Shatila.

In the film's early sequences, Boaz, Folman's friend with the nightmares about the attack dogs, suggests to the director (and scenarist of the Israeli TV show that inspired HBO's In Therapy) that a film can be therapeutic.

Bashir wasn't healing for me. On the contrary, it leaves much unresolved, but in the pacifist, passive horror recovered by its amnesiacs, I found it stunning - in both meanings of the word - and emotionally cathartic.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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