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There's a difference between remembering and knowing. That springs open a boatload of problems for Ari Folman, an autobiographical filmmaker determined to sift through his own past in the animated documentary, “Waltz with Bashir.”
Having outlasted a 20th century marked by atrocity, any artist cursed by interesting times has to overcome both the attendant psychological trauma and an inevitably postmodern relationship to the truth.
Truth still exists as a value, especially to an artist like Folman who is intent on examining atrocities like genocide, but access to that truth often becomes a focus of whatever story the artist wants to tell. Even to someone who lived through the events at hand — especially to someone who lived through those events — the facts of the matter can become obscured by history and perspective. Memory is a notoriously unreliable narrator, as liable to mangle or invent or simply efface personal histories as any ideology.
“Waltz with Bashir” takes this uncertain relationship to autobiography as its subject, a mysterious antagonist to the filmmaker's intriguing and difficult search for answers. Folman was a soldier in the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982. During that conflict, a group of Lebanese Christians loyal to the recently assassinated Bashir Gemayel carried out a massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. Stationed there at the time, Folman nevertheless has no recollection of the period. After visiting with a fellow veteran of the war, one troubled by a transparent but dreadful nightmare, Folman has his first vision of the war in 20 years. In the vision, he plays witness to women and children fleeing the camps. Though he believes this “vision” of the massacre to be a memory, he cannot seem to corroborate the events therein. He spends the rest of the film piecing together his time in Lebanon through informal consultations with his therapist, interviews with the soldiers who served in his division and fleeting personal recollections brought on by his inquiry.
Animated in bold strokes and vibrant colors, each separate episode given its own striking palate, the film recreates these visions, nightmares and recollections with stirring assuredness. All are soundtracked by those painful interviews, sometimes using the actual voices of Folman's fellow vets and sometimes reinterpreted by voice actors. Folman is haunted by his perceived inaction during the events, and he pursues the truth with neither exoneration nor indictment in mind. Whatever your notion of “documentary,” this film abides by its own rules, and the truth is never simple.
Musical montages, striped with black humor, enliven the proceedings. One notable sequence follows a red car filled with Palestinian gunmen as Israeli troops take aim and manage to destroy everything but their target. The Iraq war has lately familiarized us with the punchlines to these dark jokes, but that familiarity renders them no less effective or frightening. The score by the young composer Max Richter gives the conversational drama an electric propulsion, and the harkening of dreams and visions lends it all a hallucinogenic creepiness. Viewers will recognize any number of antecedents to this picture: the rotoscoped beauty of “Waking Life,” the wisened strength of “Persepolis,” the journalistic comic art of “Safe Area: Gorazde,” the disorienting historical hallways of W.G. Sebald, the analytical rigor of Paul Ricoeur. However, “Waltz with Bashir” carves out a space of its own, somewhere between the world we know and the world we can never know.