“Waltz with Bashir”
At the Michigan

Courtesy of Sony

5 out of 5 stars

Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, as explored in Israeli writer-director Ari Folman’s phenomenal documentary “Waltz with Bashir,” was by many accounts a disaster. The goal of the Israeli Defense Forces was to wipe out the violent Islamic militant factions that thrived among the civilians of Beirut and other major Lebanese cities, but the operation spiraled out of control following an unpredictable series of events.

Lebanon’s beloved president-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated by a Syrian radical, and, as a response, furious Lebanese militiamen invaded the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps to murder hundreds of innocent Palestinian refugees. Israeli soldiers guarding the internment camps made no effort to stop the killings, prompting worldwide outrage.

“Waltz With Bashir” may be an animated film, but it tackles the subject with utmost sincerity. Using real interviews with former IDF soldiers as his narrative thread, Folman — himself one of the Israeli soldiers who stood guard over the refugee camps — recreates actual events from the war alongside surreal dream sequences in his attempts to piece together his own memories of what happened during the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

Perhaps Folman is only fabricating his memory loss to propel the story, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. With its combination of Flash animation and 3D technology, “Waltz” does for animated films what Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” did for graphic novels. It’s a bold declaration of the untapped cultural significance offered by a serious work done in the genre.

There is a stark originality in the way that “Waltz with Bashir” has essentially perfected a new genre of filmmaking: animated documentary. Previous stabs at the technique, like Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10,” were more technical experiments than fully realized films. The transcendent brilliance of “Waltz” is that the animation is a means to an end, not the end itself. The postmodern structure recreates Lebanon in the heat of battle, as filtered through the minds of college-aged men. Their dreams, aspirations and raging hormones mix freely into the saga of violence and destruction. These are men who have grown up in a land of constant conflict, told to fire weapons at innocent civilians because the enemies hide among them. They can no longer see reality as they once knew it, and neither can the audience.

One soldier pretended he was viewing everything through a camera, convincing himself that the dead bodies he saw were part of a movie instead of the results of his own actions (much like how the distance between the audience and the screen in a movie theater absolves viewers of any emotions projected by the film). In the movie’s closing minutes, Folman subverts the common desire to filter information by suddenly presenting viewers with harsh, brutal reality. Regardless of personal politics, any compassionate individual who sees this film will still be haunted by the final frames long after the credits roll, and will form an instant bond with the IDF soldiers who bore witness to the tragedy firsthand.

Today, many claim the IDF was nothing but a group of inhuman monsters to take no action against the Lebanese militants during the massacre. But the film doesn’t allow us to think one way or the other: In an early scene, a group of soldiers encounters a militant boy with an RPG launcher. The boy, a preteen, shoots their tank and kills those inside, provoking the soldiers to open fire and kill him. Anyone who says there is a logical approach to this series of events is a liar. Robotic detachment is the only response that allows the IDF to keep its grip on sanity. Though judging by the dreams the film’s interviewees are still haunted with today, it may be a very lax grip.

“Waltz” is more than just a war film. It coolly deconstructs the personal and the political until there is nothing left: no meaning, no motivation, no silver lining to the cloud of destruction. Folman breaks the Arab-Israeli conflict away from the media’s torrent of buzzwords and finds the emotional truth that can only be told through the surrealism of animation. The IDF turned a blind eye on the Sabra and Shatila massacre — an injustice that will forever haunt Folman and all the film’s interviewees. But recollection can be cathartic, and in sharing all their stories with the world, the makers of “Waltz” may have achieved a rare artistic miracle.

Their stories, their pain and their nightmares are now ours as well, and out of the darkness can shine a new hope for peace.

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