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'Waltz with Bashir': astonishing and heartbreaking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 19, 2009 - The stunning Israeli animated film "Waltz with Bashir" begins with a nightmare, a nightmare it never really escapes.

An Israeli man who had been a soldier during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon dreams, time and time again, that he is being pursued and attacked by a pack of crazed dogs. He asks one of his former comrades, Ari Folman, what he thinks the dream could possibly mean. It seems to be associated with the war. Folman, as he begins to examine his memories, realizes with horror that he remembers almost nothing about the war, even though he had participated in the invasion of Beirut. It is as if most of that portion of his memory had been excised, lobotomized.

Folman, a filmmaker, begins a search for the truth of what he saw and what he did on the embattled beaches and streets of Beirut more than two decades ago. Early in his search, he is shown a picture of a haggard young soldier and does not recognize the man with the dazed look on his bearded face.

It is you, he is told. Folman is shocked. How could he not remember himself?

Folman embarks on a search for his own past. Slowly, step by step, with the help of other witnesses, including one man he visits in Holland, and a well-respected journalist who covered the war, he reconstructs a period of his life that was somehow too horrible to remain in his conscious memory.

Folman decided to make a film about his search for the truth, and, with art director David Polonsky and animation director Yoni Goodman, he made a very rare sort of film - an animated documentary.

"Waltz with Bashir" is an astonishing and heartbreaking film.

Folman could have made a straight-forward documentary, with talking heads and historical footage, but how would he then depict the nightmares and the dim, distorted memories that are a key to his search for truth? Animation, although it may not offer the hard realism of live interviews and newsreel footage, gave the director a way to blend the factual with the fantastical, to couple narrative based on fact with the surrealistic images glimpsed through the fog and emotional hysteria of battle, and warped by memories and dreams. The movie can begin, as it does, with the images of vicious, slavering dogs racing across an urban wasteland, in search of prey, and then move smoothly to the worried face of the dreamer as he describes his dream, with wonder and with horror.

The animation, mostly computer generated, can be stark and realistic, but its most powerful scenes involve war as seen and heard by its participants. The film begins in disorienting surrealism and slowly moves toward realism, although Folman will time and time again bring the audience up short by shifting from narrative into the language of nightmare.

Slowly, we come to realize that the key to the blocked memories of Folman and other soldiers is a horrible act of revenge taken by Christian Phalangist fighters, inflamed by the assassination of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. Thousands of men, women and children in two Palestinian refugee camps were massacred by the Phalangists while the Israelis did nothing. Israeli commanders have said they were unaware of what was going on. Folman leaves the question open. He does make it clear that he and the others in his unit were unaware of the massacre until they had seen its horrible results.

The massacres at Sabra and Shatila are sometimes referred to as "Israeli massacres," and Folman makes it clear that they were not that. Still, he cannot help feeling horror and guilt.

Finally, after examining his feelings, feelings so strong they almost totally blocked his memories of battle, Folman decides that he had subconsciously associated the events in Lebanon in 1982 with the Holocaust, which his parents survived in Auschwitz. He is haunted by the feeling that the Israeli soldiers who did nothing while thousands were massacred were in some way like the Europeans who stood by while millions of Jews were murdered. It is a feeling he cannot escape. In a recent interview, he explained, "In Israel, the Holocaust is in our DNA. We see mass murder, and what on earth could it remind of but our past?"

The film won six Israeli Academy Awards, including best picture. Chosen best picture of 2008 by the National Society of Film Critics, and named best foreign film at the Golden Globe awards, it was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film.

Opens Feb. 20.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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