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The Tyranny of Memory: Waltz With Bashir

Writer/director Ari Folman stirringly animates multiple recollections of wartime in his breakout documentary.
Waltz with BashirAll the best writers and directors know that you have to start strong. Ari Folman's moving, animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, a lyrical investigation about Folman's blocked memory of fighting for the Israeli Army during the Lebanon War in the early eighties, packs a potent punch from the outset—26 rabid dogs tearing through city streets. They’re in hot pursuit of the director’s friend (and fellow former soldier) Boaz, and his fear is vividly rendered through arresting images, the animation punched up by complementary gray blues and intense yellows. And while the nightmare (and it is a nightmare) ends for the moviegoer, Boaz, as it turns out, never quite escapes. He’s haunted by this dream.


“I didn’t know what would open the movie until I wrote the script,” Folman says. “I put a lot of effort into film openings. I treat it like a chess game. It has to be really strong and capture the audience… you need the audience to join you for this ride.” The dog dream is only the first of several haunting visions. It’s arguably the most shocking. “I thought the best thing would be to stun them.”


Stun it does. The film recounts Folman’s conversations with friends and fellow soldiers. Many of them, like Boaz, have haunting stories to tell. All of their lives have been deeply affected by the First Lebanon War. Folman also talks to a psychiatrist about the nature of memory, and the film works as an introspective group therapy drama: it builds to their recollections of the assassination of the President of Lebanon (Bashir Geyamel), its aftershock, and the horrific revenge massacre of 3000 Palestinians living in refugee camps in West Beirut. Waltz With Bashir has already collected six Israeli Oscars (including Best Film). It recently received a Golden Globe nomination and serves as Israel’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film.


Folman, who had no personal footage from the war, didn’t want the film to just be a talking head documentary. He always knew that the movie would be animated. “In many ways,” Folman says, “the design dictated the animation and not the other way around.” Rotoscoping, a technique involving drawing over live action footage (prominently featured in Richard Linklater's Waking Life), wouldn’t work for Bashir. “I think rotoscope prevents you from feeling emotionally attached to the characters because the technique is thereWaltz with Bashir. You see someone, but you see someone else in the background drawing over his video image.”


While Folman tightly controlled the atmosphere in the film’s more realistic looking interview scenes—instructing the animators on light levels, mood and color—he relaxed the reins on his animators elsewhere. “Dream sequences? I gave them open end, I freed them. Go wild!”


Folman knew it would be hard on the former soldiers to see their stories amplified on the big screen. The former soldiers all saw the film for the first time on opening night. “They sat, all of interviews, in one row. I sat behind them with the crew in a huge theater in Tel Aviv,” Folman says. “I was most concerned that emotionally they will feel at peace with what they did. For some of them, it was a tough experience sharing it with so many people.”


You can’t expect a literal happy ending from Bashir’s mix of war and trauma. That said, Folman, who has a sly sense of humor, made sure that at least his interview subjects could walk away happy. How would they deal emotionally with seeing their stories and their faces illustrated on a huge screen?


Talking about his interview subjects, he says, “You’re shocked by the way you look. You’re obsessed with comparison. Do I look like that?” He wisely chose to flatter them: “My friend the psychiatrist was getting bald. He told me, ‘I want my hair really thick in the film.’” The director obliged. “We put really nice orange hair on him.”


Waltz with Bashir is now playing in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Sunshine Cinema.


Read A. O. Scott's rave in The New York Times: “Waltz With Bashir” is a memoir, a history lesson, a combat picture, a piece of investigative journalism and an altogether amazing film..."


The National Society of Film Critics named Bashir Best Picture this week.


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