War distorts. Most obviously, it distorts soldiers and civilians, fragmenting flesh and traumatizing psyches, leaving in its wake a nagging uncertainty of self, of one's once and future place in the world. Armed conflict generates, above all, a sense of confusion, chaos, and turmoil that – for all involved – often echoes long past the cease-fire, the treaty, the end of hostilities, the interring of the dead. It infects everything it touches, like a hateful virus, and leaves even the strongest scarred and fissured in ways they often are not even aware of until much later. This is the blast radius of PTSD, the ordnance of nightmares, the Ouroboros of aggression and concomitant guilt. Waltz With Bashir
is a dreamy, animated psycho-documentary about the attempt of director Folman (Saint Clara
) to recall, exactly, what role – if any – he played in the massacre of Palestinian civilians (most of whom were women and children) at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982. At the time, Folman was a raw young soldier; the Israeli army was invading the Lebanese capital, tasked with quashing a Palestinian uprising triggered by the assassination of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. Twenty years later, Folman realizes he has no memory of his participation in those bloody events and sets off to track down and interview his former comrades in hopes of reconstructing what really happened. But the unstable nature of memories formed under fire is itself a recurrent stumbling block, and it's here that Folman the director and Folman the long-ago soldier together create a sublime, at times devastatingly lyrical depiction of combat's essential surreality. A ghostly memory of his wartime self, walking naked out of the Mediterranean night toward an ominously quiet tower block queasily lit by the phosphorus glare of arcing military flares, is an image Waltz With Bashir
returns to again and again. It may be the key to Folman's urban wartime amnesia. None of his old regiment seem to agree on what happened: when, to whom, and why. (The actual massacre at the camps was committed by the Christian Phalangist militia, but Folman the therapeutic documentarian knows in his gut he witnessed something
and possibly failed to intervene.) Waltz With Bashir
uses the actual voices of the men who were there, which lends this quasi-documentary a visceral punch. The animation is stark and vividly detailed. It's not rotoscoped in the way A Scanner Darkly
was, but it shares much of the same fluid realism. Despite its grave subject matter, Folman and the animators of the Bridgit Folman Film Gang have created a beautiful film bulwarked by a terrible past. Be forewarned: Folman closes his film with a grisly, real-death denouement that may give you some nightmares of your own. As well it should.