Waltz with Bashir

Israeli animated documentary brings home the horrors of war

Waltz with Bashir, which had a limited run in Belfast cinemas late last year and is due for a DVD release in March, has been almost universally praised for its provocative take on the first Lebanese war and the 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians in the West Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

The international co-production between Israel, Germany and France won Best Foreign Language Film at last week’s Golden Globes, and swept the board at the 2008 Israeli Film Academy Awards. It also featured highly in many British and American critics’ year-end top 10 lists.

Directed by Ari Folman (Saint Clara, Made in Israel), it is based on the filmmaker’s own experiences of the Lebanese conflict. The ‘animated documentary’ follows Folman’s struggle to come to terms with the gaps in his memory surrounding the part he played, as he wrestles with guilt, regret and, in one surreal sequence, the body of a giant naked woman adrift in the sea.

Folman, who was a teenage infantry soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, meets with friends, a psychologist and the Israeli war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai to document nine stories, seven of them from real people and based on actual interviews. Folman made the film by first shooting the 90-page script with live actors, and then animating the stories with a combination of frame-by-frame animation and computer-generated imagery.

From the opening scene of a pack of mad dogs running down a street – a recurring nightmare of one of Folman’s friends – to the closing, actual news footage of the Palestinian dead, Waltz with Bashir manages to balance a cohesive narrative with the hypnotic visuals of art director David Polonsky and chief animator Yoni Goodman. The film is supported by an eclectic soundtrack by minimalist musician Max Richter, also taking in classical music and 1980s new wave.

The horrors human beings inflict on one another have long made for good cinema, and so it is with Waltz with Bashir. War films have been with us since the birth of the moving picture – the first, ironically, being a comedy, Charles Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms, set during World War I and released in 1918 – but in recent years they have became increasingly sophisticated and, often, cynical.

With war currently raging in the Gaza Strip (and in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Somalia, and Sri Lanka…) it’s probably unrealistic to suggest that Waltz with Bashir might make a dent in man’s capacity to kill. But as a beautiful and disturbing record of one man’s anguish, Folman’s film is a stunning artistic achievement.

Oh, and the unusual title comes from a scene in which the commander of Folman’s infantry unit ‘dances an insane waltz’ amid heavy enemy fire, beside posters of Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese politician and militia commander who was assassinated in September 1982.

Waltz with Bashir is released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 30, 2009. Ari Folman and David Polonsky’s graphic novel of the film is released on March 1.

Andrew Johnston