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One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by 26 vicious dogs. Every night, the same number of beasts. The two men conclude that there's a connection to their Israeli Army mission in the first Lebanon War of the early eighties. Ari is surprised that he can't remember a thing anymore about that period of his life. Intrigued by this riddle, he decides to meet and interview old friends and comrades around the world. He needs to discover the truth about that time and about himself. As Ari delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, his memory begins to creep up in surreal images. Written by
An extraordinary achievement that redefines the documentary genre
Let's get one thing straight from the beginning: Waltz With Bashir is an animated documentary. It may sound like a paradox, but hey, when the film played at the Cannes Film Festival (which it left with rave reviews but zero awards) it was inevitably compared to Persepolis, which is an animated autobiography. The comparison was also caused by both movies having open anti-war messages, but they couldn't be more different in concept and execution. They do have one important thing in common, though: they are animated not because it looked good, but because it was the best artistic choice the directors could make.
In the case of Ari Folman, the choice was dictated by the unique angle from which he chose to tell the story: subjectivity. Folman, like many young Israeli men in the '80s, joined the army to fight in Lebanon when he was merely 18 (this was in 1982), thinking he could serve his country in the best way possible. Once the war was over, Folman's new career began, and he is now a successful actor, director and writer (among other things, he worked on the TV show that inspired HBO's In Treatment). However, he still wasn't able to completely get over the war experience, and so he decided to make Waltz With Bashir in order to exorcise his demons, so to speak. In doing so, he delivered one of the strongest, boldest documents about the true nature of conflict.
Folman's introspective journey begins with the lack of memory: apparently, he and many of his fellow soldiers have trouble remembering the exact details of what happened in Lebanon. All they have left is dreams, like the haunting nightmare that opens the movie (26 murderous dogs surrounding the apartment of a former soldier, who believes it to be a subconscious punishment for his killing 26 dogs during a mission) or Folman's eerie flashback of himself and his friends emerging from the water after a massacre he can't (or perhaps doesn't want to) remember. Engaging in a pursuit of the truth, the director locates several people with first-hand recollections of those events, and all these people (minus two) supply their own voices for their animated counterparts.
The stream of personal anecdotes and, as said earlier, dreams, made it impossible for Folman to show real footage of what he was trying to say. After all, how do you show a live-action dream sequence in a documentary without making it look corny? Hence the winning choice of rendering the whole story through animation, with just one exception (the final scene, the one that justifies the film's existence, consists of real filmed material). This gives the picture a feel that is both evocative and down-to-earth, a bizarre but powerful combination that has earned Waltz With Bashir comparisons with the similarly merciless Apocalypse Now. Like few other films about war (Folman has openly stated he despises Hollywood's treatment of the Vietnam conflict, not counting Coppola's masterpiece), this strange, captivating opus depicts it without making it look cool: it's ugly, it's reprehensible, it's the stuff nightmares are made of - not for nothing does it still haunt Folman and his friends.
Journey of self-discovery, cinema as psychoanalysis, a document about the past, a warning for the future: Waltz With Bashir is all those things and much, much more. It's a unique piece of cinema, unmatched in its seamless mixture of raw power and peculiar visual beauty.
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