'Waltz With Bashir' Brings a Dark Memory Into Light

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 23, 2009

As a filmgoing culture, our relationship to the animated movie is like our relationship to recess and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Blame Uncle Walt, but regardless of how grim a cartoon, it's somehow still umbilically connected to the brighter side of childhood. Our hard-wired inference is innocence. Which is why the animated Israeli documentary "Waltz With Bashir," a movie about memory, is as devious and subversive as it is brilliant and nightmarish. It's a psychopathic teddy bear. It's a shiny red lunchbox filled with plastic explosives.

Directed by Ari Folman, the film tells the story of the September 1982 massacres at the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. There, Christian Phalangists, avenging the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel, committed the wholesale executions of Palestinian men, women and children (estimates of the death toll range from a few hundred to several thousand). Ariel Sharon, then Israel's defense minister, was forced to resign; the Israeli Defense Forces, which controlled the area and allowed the Phalangists in, knew what was going on and, for two days, did nothing to stop it.

It's 20 years later, and Folman remembers nothing about the massacres. Only when his friend Boaz tells him about a recurring dream, in which he's pursued by 26 ravening dogs -- the same number he shot as a soldier in Lebanon, to prevent them from giving away the Israeli presence -- does Folman start to ask himself questions. Was he at Sabra and Shatila? Why can't he remember? What is meant by the memories he does have? And are they his?

Craftily, and with deliberate, unnerving speed, the details of Sabra and Shatila unfold, via the interviews Folman does with his old army buddies -- who are rendered, like Folman, animated, via the process known as rotoscoping -- which transforms photographic footage into cartoon (see the Richard Linklater films "Waking Life" and "A Scanner Darkly"). It's not slick: Folman chooses rather roughened imagery, his characters seemingly floating in space, unmoored and eerie, the sense of dread and impending doom made almost unbearable by Max Richter's haunting score.

"Bashir" is a thinking person's horror movie, about real horror and horrifying echoes. Parallels between the Holocaust and the massacres are pronounced, either explicitly, as in comments made by the characters, or implicitly. The arrival and departure of a train carrying Israeli soldiers at one point creates a bridge between the 1980s and the 1930s: Their parents and grandparents might have ridden other trains. In contrast to the death and suffering of those at Sabra and Shatila, of course, the troubled consciences of Folman and his friends would be banal -- if they weren't a mirror for an entire nation's guilt complex.

Nightmares don't need special effects -- anyone who's woken up in a sweat knows it's not the theatrical element of a dream that wakes us. It's doubt and fear and occasionally unwanted knowledge. Folman the animated character is on a journey to something he doesn't want to know -- nor do we. And therein lies the awful truth of "Waltz With Bashir," which isn't animated because it makes things easier. Quite the contrary. It reduces us not to the status of children but to something basic and primal -- and afraid of the dark. The dark that coils around Sabra and Shatila. And around the hearts of men.

Waltz With Bashir (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content.

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