“Waltz With Bashir” is not the best movie of the year, but it might be the most intriguing, which probably means it’s the one I’m most likely to remember five years from now.
It’s an animated documentary, which is an interesting idea in itself. Writer/director Ari Fulman fought in the Israel/Lebanon war in the 80’s, but can’t remember most of it – he has one distinct memory, of bathing in the ocean during the Sabra and Shatila massacre. He visits and interviews old army buddies to try and recover his own memories, only to discover that nobody remembers this one bathing scene that’s in his head.
Animation allows Fulman to recreate scenes as people recall them — including their dreams and nightmares. One of the great, unique things about “Waltz With Bashir” is that it chronicles, and values, the detritus of war; all those little things a soldier remembers for thirty years but have no place in a standard narrative. Fulman’s animation technique is striking and distinct — it looks like rotoscoping but I’ve read that it isn’t. It is vivid and artsy and yet somehow realistic. This is the best, most thoughtful use of the animation technique I’ve seen in a long time.
At the center of “Waltz With Bashir” is the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which a Lebanese Christian militia group was allowed by the Israeli military to enter a Palestinian refugee camp and murder the residents. It was an extremely messy situation. Who knew what was going on? Who allowed it to happen? What could have been done to prevent it? But “Bashir” is not a “Dateline” type documentary intent on answering these questions. Instead, it’s an examination of the men who were there, the way their memories have changed over the years, and how these questions can still keep them up at night, thirty years later. They may never be satisfactorily answered, but that doesn’t mean they go away.
After I watched “Waltz With Bashir,” I had a dream in which I was transported into my own past. As I watched my life play out in front of me, I could see the big things I wanted to change, but could not identify which little, moment by moment decisions to make to bring about that big change. This is the spirit of “Waltz With Bashir,” and shows how deeply it got to me. Not many movies do that.