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Waltz With Bashir opens with a soldier’s recurring nightmare: 26 snarling dogs trying to tear him to shreds. The figure’s significant—26 is the number of dogs Boaz Rein-Buskila ended up killing, under orders, in Lebanon. Frazzled after years of this dream, he tells Israeli writer-director Ari Folman about it, wondering what it means. The apparently casual conversation becomes momentous, stirring an unsettling realization for Folman himself: He barely remembers anything from his time as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon war and discovers that the one image he can recall— himself and a couple of others hiding naked in the sea under a burnt-orange night sky— isn’t even real.
This is our gateway to a remarkable film, a genre unto itself, an animated documentary whose excellence has already been recognized in all three categories that define it—whether it’s being celebrated as Best Documentary, Best Animated Feature, or Best Foreign Language Film.
Waltz With Bashir comprises a series of interviews the director conducted to help him remember his wartime experiences. Though Folman claims that he always intended to animate these conversations, one of his fellow soldiers seconds the idea, agreeing to talk and be documented with the caveat that “It’s fine as long as you draw [me], but don’t film.” This friend, in fact—Carmi Cna’an, now living in the Netherlands—is one of only two people who refused to let even his voice be used in the film. Instead, the transcript of his interview is re-created by actor Yehezkel Lazarov, while Boaz, whose recurring nightmare spurs Folman’s desire to revisit this time period, is voiced by Mickey Leon.
The rest of the film documents Folman’s attempt to piece together that period of his life—or at least figure out why his mind has repressed so much—through interviews with the people who were closest to him. Folman animates these collected memories in all their stark brutality: Carmi, barely 19, in charge of a tank full of bloodied bodies; a secondhand recollection (by way of a psychiatrist explaining dissociative disorder) of a herd of wounded horses; a lineup of captives, including women and children, being executed. Slowly, some of Folman’s memories resurface, but really they’re inconsequential to the bigger story that emerges about the effects of the Lebanon conflict in particular and, of course, warfare in general.
With the exception of Carmi, Folman’s interview subjects were filmed first and then animated in a style that’s most reminiscent of the bright colors and broad, simple lines of a comic. But then a detail or entire scene will take your breath away: The softness of the fire pouring out of bombed buildings in Folman’s false memory, the execution framed by binocular lenses and drawn from above, as if you’re the one spying the tragedy. One of the most spectacular images is Folman’s illustration of the psychiatrist’s dissociative disorder explanation. She tells him of a soldier who viewed his battle experiences as if watching a movie, at least until his “camera” broke—and just as you might imagine it, Folman shows you a war-torn area accompanied by projector clicks, flipping reels, and blurring focus, the very picture of a psychotic breakdown.
For all its marvelous animation, however— or perhaps because of it—Waltz With Bashir’s most stunning moment isn’t drawn. At the very end of the film, Folman switches from animated scenes women wailing over piles of dead bodies to real footage of the carnage, then silence, then blackness. Like the nag of Folman’s memory void, this absence is just as disturbing as images clearly seen.