If defying classification is one of the tangential goals of great filmmaking, Ari Folman has that much more to be proud of in his Oscar-nominated Waltz With Bashir. Is it a personal documentary, produced to resuscitate Folman's suppressed wartime memories? A beautiful, innovative animated film, reputedly a genre first for nonfiction features? Is it a war movie? An anti-war movie?
The film begins with a dream, though we don't know it's a dream: A pack of 26 wild dogs congregates at the base of a building, staring and snarling upward at a single face in a single window. This dream, it turns out, is being related to Folman over drinks with an old friend and fellow veteran of Israel's military effort in the 1982 Lebanon War. After his companion follows it up with a haunting but explanatory war story ("re-enacted," as are all the film's stories, in a gritty, heightened variation on the frame story's Rotoscope-esque visual style) Folman admits that he has no personal memories whatsoever of the conflict. Then, on the drive home, Ari Folman has his first flashback in 20 years.
The flashback, he gathers, has to do with the still-controversial Sabra and Shatila Massacre in Beirut, when a small group of Lebanese Christian Phalangist soldiers were allowed by the Israelis to enter two Palestinian refugee camps and then killed hundreds (possibly thousands) of innocent civilians. Just as Israel struggled then and now to reconcile its complicity in the killings, Folman is distraught by the memory, and begins to search out the way to a more complete recollection.
The rest of the film consists primarily of conversations with fellow soldiers regarding their experiences with the war. Though the shadow of the massacre hangs over the film, most of the remembrances are meditations on life during wartime, both specific and universal. One soldier tells of hiding until nightfall after his tank is besieged and eventually swimming south in the ocean until he encounters his regiment on a beach, only to find a differing opinion of who had abandoned who. Another describes landing at the Beirut International Airport, marveling at its magnificence, before processing its utter emptiness and the shambles of the city surrounding it. A third recalls acting as a human remote control ("fast forward!") while a superior officer watches pornography.
There are anecdotes removed from military operations, too, such as a scene of alienation as a soldier returns home from the horrors and sees his community going about their normal lives, or a psychologist's discussion of how the human psyche can allow someone like Folman to block such pivotal events away. As a whole the film ties together, piece by piece, as an intensely mature, humanistic war film in the grandest tradition.
Yet Waltz With Bashir is unlike the films that inform it. That it is an "animated documentary" is key to its identity, and the notion is as inspired as it is hard to quantify. Folman's process apparently involved interviewing his subjects, paring down the results into focused scripts, then re-interviewing them using the scripts as a guideline. The result is a tight, unfailingly engaging 85 minutes.
But it's the animation itself that remains Bashir's most striking characteristic. David Polonsky and Yoni Goodman's animation clearly recalls Rotoscopic animation techniques (the video tracing used most notably in Richard Linklater's Waking Life and most indifferently in those awful Charles Schwab commercials) but they are notoriously wary of this confusion; in reality the film was animated from scratch with an inspired mixture of Flash and traditional animation. That the result is so reminiscent of Rotoscope puts us between the cartoon and real worlds, subliminally reinforcing the human element of the work. But there is also a good deal of mastery in Goodman's technique that achieves effects Rotoscope animators could only dream of.
It's less important how it's made, though, than how it's used. Folman and his animators' work draws from a little bit of everything, from anime and gritty indie comics to the poetic combat films of Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick, weaving the experience of a soldier in and out of dreams, memories, and oral histories in a way that no other film ever has. As our world remains at war, it's good to know that there are still new and useful ways to look at it.