The horrors of war and the atrocities of which humans are capable of have, of course, been documented extensively in film since the birth of the medium. From the recent slew of documentaries on the Iraq war to Atom Egoyan's controversial 2002 Cannes debut Ararat (about the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman empire); from Schindler's List to The Killing Fields; from The Battle of Algiers to Apocalypse Now; from Ousmane Sembene's last film, Moolaadé (inspired by the genital mutilation of young girls in Burkina Faso) to The Devil Came on Horseback (a documentary chronicling the genocide in Darfur), recent cinematic history is filled with tales of human suffering, inflicted not by natural disasters, but by human beings upon one another.
Waltz with Bashir documents the struggle of the filmmaker, Ari Folman, to come to terms with the gaps in his memory surrounding the part he played in the first Lebanese war and the 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians in the West Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Where Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (to which this film will be inevitably, if somewhat inaccurately, compared) used stark black-and-white animation based on Satrapi's graphic novels to tell the history of one girl growing up during the Iranian revolution, Waltz with Bashir uses vivid, hand-drawn animation to bring to life interviews Folman conducted with friends who were involved in the Lebanese war in the early 1980s to bring to life harrowing memories of death, guilt and regret.
The film opens with a pack of mad dogs running down a street, finally stopping beneath a building to growl menacingly at a man looking down from a window. The dogs, as it turns out, come from a recurring nightmare of one of Folman's friends. There are exactly 26 dogs -- 26, because that's the number of dogs his friend shot and killed to silence their barking before they could warn villages about to be invaded of the approach of the troops moving in. From there, Folman documents nine stories, seven of them from real people and based on actual interviews recorded in a sound studio.
The animation is somewhat reminiscent of the best of the sequences in Richard Robbins's Oscar-nominated film, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which used a similar technique to illustrate the stories of soldiers in the Iraq war, and it makes for a far more interesting film than just showing a series of interviews. Folman made the film by first filming the 90-page script with live actors, and then having animators recreate the stories with remarkably vivid hand-drawn animations that capture both the memories and events being discussed in a way that simultaneously illustrates the horrors of a war, while making its stories more accessible.
Folman's lengthy experience as a documentary filmmaker in Israel shows here in the excellent drawing of a cohesive narrative storyline out of various stories within the documentary format, using excellent documentary craft while also fashioning something artistically unique and expressive. The imagery we see is at once beautifully drawn, vivid and intensely disturbing; watching the film, I kept swinging emotionally back and forth between the compelling visual sense of the film and the horrors of the tales being told.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I wouldn't be surprised to see Waltz with Bashir show up on the slate at Telluride in September, and even less so to see it wind up with an Oscar nod come January. Folman has made a beautiful, disturbing and deeply compelling film that documents the horrors to which he and his friends were witnesses, while offering hope that he and others might, some day, heal from the ravages of war. While it's too much to hope that this or any film might have an impact in the real world that could put an end to mankind's seemingly endless capacity to hurt one another, films like Waltz with Bashir offer us the opportunity to learn about and from history. If those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, perhaps those who do might, eventually, build a world where such atrocities no longer exist.