A subject that might, had it been made conventionally, have repped just another docu about a war atrocity, is transmuted via novel use of animation into something special, strange and peculiarly potent in “Waltz With Bashir.” Israeli helmer Ari Folman’s fourth feature spotlights a drawn version of Folman himself on a quest to remember what transpired during the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon where he served as a soldier. Although less immediately accessible than “Persepolis,” another mature-aud-skewed cartoon with which this is bound to be compared, “Bashir” could dance nimbly round arthouse niches offshore.
The look and feel of “Waltz With Bashir” is very different from Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” although both use animation to refract recent Middle-Eastern history through the lenses of each helmer’s own personal experience.
Satrapi sought to channel autobiography through an austere, black-and-white style that evoked illustrations in children’s literature. Folman, on the other hand, utilizes a more minutely detailed, realist graphic technique for “Bashir” that texturally looks more like the Rotoscoped animation seen in Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.”
Here, video-filmed interviews were used as visual references to create reportage focusing on one key historical event: Israel’s 1982 invasion of Beirut and, more specifically, the massacres of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila camps by the Christian Phalangist militia, which Folman and his fellow Israeli soldiers witnessed and failed to stop, that happened in the wake of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel’s assassination.
Folman is effectively an onscreen (but animated) narrator and reporter here, whose interviews with other soldiers (voiced by the real people themselves, apart from two individuals) form the film’s narrative spine. Each interviewee’s story is illustrated, with often startling results.
A striking credit sequence featuring a pack of hounds kicks the pic off in style. It turns out to be the recurring dream of Folman’s army friend Boaz (voiced by thesp Miki Leon because the real “Boaz” preferred anonymity), still haunted by the memories of the 26 dogs he had to shoot in order to silence them while on maneuvers.
Advised by his best friend Ori Silvan, who sagely warns Folman about the ungraspable nature of memory, Folman begins a quest to find out what really happened, to himself and others, by interviewing friends and acquaintances fighting in Lebanon when the massacres happened.
Carmi (voiced by Hezkel Lazarov, because “Carmi” like “Boaz” wished not to be recognized), an old schoolfriend of Folman’s, recalls the weirdly party-like atmosphere on the transport boat over, and a bizarre dream of his own in which a beautiful giantess carried him off into the sea. It’s these surreal touches, deployed with tactical restraint, that make the pic extraordinary and convey the febrile atmosphere of warfare, where by fear, horror — and later guilt — distort and distend perception and memory.
Another man, Shmuel Frenkel, recalls gunning down an adolescent boy after the kid fired a rocket-propelled grenade at them. A story told by journalist Ron Ben Yisahi about seeing Frenkel seemingly “waltzing” with his gun, shooting at everything in sight during an exchange of fire in Beirut’s streets where posters of Bashir Gemayel were visible everywhere, gives the pic its name.
As the interlocking tales spiral the narrative closer to the events at Sabra and Shatila, the visuals become more matter-of-fact and less hallucinatory, as if Folman were trying to strip everything back to some bare essential truth, encapsulated by the pic’s final shots, live-action archive footage.
Some auds may quibble that ultimately the atrocity isn’t tackled in a more head-on fashion and that Palestinian and Phalangist viewpoints aren’t aired, but Folman’s sidewinding approach feels justified by the pic’s personal, idiosyncratic approach.
Stabs of gallows humor up until this point slightly soothe the grimness depicted. Meanwhile, the interviewees’ digressions and off-the-cuff comments build up a picture of what it was like to be young, Israeli and conscripted in the early ‘80s, a time well evoked by a smartly chosen soundtrack featuring beat combos of the era, such as PiL and OMD.
The animation process used reps a combination of Flash animation, traditional hand-drawn technique, and computer-enhanced 3-D modeling that sometimes, perhaps intentionally, looks a little disjointed. Characters’ expressions are simplified, while outlines and shadows are pronounced and thick, evoking German Expressionist woodcuts, yet backgrounds are more finely detailed and fluently rendered. Palette is subtly color-coded to underscore time shifts between flashback and present.
Crisp and appropriately aggressive sound design by Aviv Aldema reps a standout in the pic’s pro tech package.