Film review – Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Waltz with Bashir begins with the arresting image of a pack of savage dogs hurtling through the street, terrifying onlookers. It is an exhilarating and unsettling opening and like the rest of the film to follow, it is completely animated with bold brush strokes that give an almost hallucinogenic quality to what is appearing on screen. This sequence, which is grounded in reality but looks like something straight out of a dream, is a fitting introduction for a film that magnificently blends reality and fiction to become the first ever animated feature documentary.

The image of the murderous canines is a reoccurring nightmare that belongs to a friend of the film’s Israeli writer/director Ari Folman. In Waltz with Bashir Folman depicts the discussion he has with his friend where they conclude that the dream is somehow linked to the first Lebanon War in the mid 1980s, during which they both served. It is then that Folman realises that he has no memory of that period in his life despite the fact that he was close to one of the most infamous moments in that war’s bloody history – the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps massacre at the hands of the Phalangist’s Christian militia, in retaliation over the death of their popular senior commander Bashir Gemayel. Folman met with old friends and comrades from around the world in order to piece together his memory and the resulting film is not only a moving testament to the people murdered during the massacre but is also a damning critique of those who did nothing to stop it.

Folman’s interviews, which include ex-soldiers, a psychiatrist and a famous Israeli war correspondent, were later animated and, when necessary, re-dubbed. Additional animation brings to life the stories and dreams spoken about during the interviews. This completely innovative and highly subjective approach to documentary filmmaking has resulted in a vivid and often surreal blend of fragmented memories and fantasy.

Waltz with Bashir is a sincere and personal requiem for the innocent victims of war but its exploration of how people remember the past and how trauma affects memory sets it aside from many other antiwar films. It is an artistic triumph and challenges the audience to rethink their assumptions about how reality is represented on screen. Waltz with Bashir is a haunting film that will get under your skin and move you in the deepest way possible. Essential viewing.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 312, 2008

© Thomas Caldwell, 2008