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‘Waltz With Bashir’ is one of ’08's best films

Unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, “Waltz With Bashir” will change your ideas about the possibility of film.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, “Waltz With Bashir” will change your ideas about the possibility of film.

It’s an animated documentary, which probably sounds like a contradiction in terms, but even describing it that way threatens to place it in the kinds of tidy, well-defined boxes that “Waltz With Bashir” consistently defies.

Maybe it’s best just to describe what director Ari Folman has done.

The former Israeli army soldier finds himself unable to recall his involvement in a massacre that occurred during the Lebanon war in 1982. A longtime friend, who’s still haunted by what he saw back then, reminds Folman of it at a bar one night, but Folman can’t even reach the slightest sliver of a memory in his mind.

And so he takes a camera and visits his fellow former troops, both close pals and people he hasn’t talked to in ages, in hopes of piecing together the bloody events that took place at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. He even talks to veteran war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai for his insights. Each of them speaks with Folman quietly, intimately, which makes us feel as if we, too, are in on the conversations — as if we’re somehow helping him unravel the mysteries of his past.

Once he finished his research, Folman then gathered the video footage of all those discussions and, through a hand-drawn process that took four years of painstaking work, had it illustrated by a team led by animation director Yoni Goodman and artistic director David Polonsky.

The result is breathtaking: With bold strokes and delicate details, it looks like a graphic novel come vibrantly to life. Dark shadows suggest impending danger, and bright splashes of color provide unexpected jolts of energy. That the figures on screen resemble real people, without appearing entirely realistic, adds to the fascination.

Through Folman’s innovative eyes, the scene that provides the film with its title is both tense and dreamlike. One of his comrades, Shmuel Frenkel, grabs a machine gun in the middle of a firefight and jumps into a West Beirut square, simultaneously dodging bullets and firing off countless rounds of his own. The combination of the two acts looks to Folman like a dance, one that happens to take place in front of murals of Israel’s Lebanese ally, Christian militia leader Bashir Gemayel.

Similarly, as the massacre in question builds to its crescendo, the journalist Ben-Yishai is depicted as an invincible warrior himself, striding unscathed through the gunfire with his shoulders back and his head held high. But “Waltz” mercifully also has its lighter moments — Folman remembers an old girlfriend at a dance club, for example, and early ‘80s music helps set the period mood.

One of the year’s best pictures, “Waltz With Bashir” will stick with you long afterward, both for its startling content and striking imagery.