A potent and profound document of war and its aftermath done as a cartoon — what’s that all about? Watch and learn, cynics, even if you think animation is strictly for kung-fu pandas and you know squat about assassinated Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. For what’s on view in Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, submitted for Oscar consideration by Israel as both foreign-language film and animated feature, is hallucinatory brilliance in the service of understanding the psychic damage of war.
Folman, a former Israeli soldier who served during the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese war, has repressed his memories of the invasion of Beirut — more specifically, the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Though the killings were committed by the Christian Phalangist militia as payback for the murder of their leader, Bashir, the Israeli army stood by and reportedly sent up flares to aid the slaughter of men, women and children. In the years since, Folman cut off ties to the men he served with. The movie is his attempt to make some kind of sense of what happened by interviewing those involved. Folman took a graphic-novel approach because, in his words, “animation functions on the border between reality and the subconscious.”
From the first haunting scene — a combat survivor’s recurring nightmare of 26 barking dogs he was forced to shoot to keep an element of surprise — the movie grips you and won’t let go. Folman cuts deep with images of his young self, of naked boys emerging from the sea to pull on uniforms, of a crazed soldier dancing with his rifle as he fires randomly at unseen snipers, and a final glimpse of devastating reality. Get ready to be knocked for a loop.