Friday, January 30, 2009

A massacre forgotten and then relived

Judging by the Israeli film, "Waltz With Bashir," the 1982 massacre at the Shabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon provided many Israeli soldiers with Vietnam-like experiences – flashbacks, guilt, and, in some cases, the obliteration of memory. Working in an often-eerie animated style, director Ari Folman makes a bold new contribution to a growing body of superior animated films. (Remember last year's "Persepolis?" ) Folman's animation creates a woozy world in which the movie’s main character – Folman himself – searches to recover what he lost in Lebanon, memories of the massacre, which was conducted by Christian Phalangists while the Israelis turned a blind eye.

As the film develops, Folman visits men with whom he fought, hoping that they can help him remember what he witnessed. If the movie has metaphoric reach, it's to be found just here: Sometimes a country can forget something that it desperately needs to remember.

"Waltz With Bashir" brims with memorable images: soldiers lounging on a Lebanese beach or walking through a grove of trees in the half-light of morning. Folman's images have haunting, hallucinatory power, a surreal glow that keeps the story from feeling entirely literal. We're reminded that we’re seeing events that have been filtered through years of alienation and guilt. And the animation enhances the painful subjectivity of a movie that knows the gripping fear of combat, the way that such fear can lead a group of soldiers mercilessly to fire on a moving car, only to discover that the vehicle contained a Lebanese family that posed no threat to them.

Folman’s post-traumatic explosion of a movie earns a place among the great personal accounts of war and its aftermath. "Waltz With Bashir" makes clear that there are at least two parts to every war: the part that takes place on the battlefield and the part that takes place in the mind. Unlike the wars of the battlefield, the wars that haunt the mind admit to no ceasefires. Those battles may slip into dormancy, but always are ready to flare up anew.

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