Waltz With Bashir

Animation film by Ari Folman
Running Time: 87 mins
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (graphic war footage and strong animated sex scene)

In 1986, Art Spiegelman published the graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale, which told the story of his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz. Maus is a moving account of the impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families. Yet what makes the novel doubly remarkable is that not only is the story told as a cartoon strip, but all the characters are portrayed as animals (Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles pigs, and Americans dogs).

Just as astonishing is Waltz With Bashir, a feature length animation from Israel, which recounts with heart-rending power the terrible impact of the 1982 Lebanon War on both Israelis and Palestinians.

The film begins with a vicious yellow-eyed dog running through the streets of Tel Aviv beneath a lowering sky, causing cars to crash through pavement tables, and a woman to shield her child in her arms. This dog is joined by 26 rabid others, and together they converge on an apartment block, where they bay relentlessly at the shape of a man in a top window.

The man in question is Boaz Rein, who more than 20 years ago was in the front line when the Israeli army invaded Lebanon. Boaz has been having dreams about these dogs for two and a half years, and after being again woken by the nightmare, he calls his friend Ari (the filmmaker), and meets him in a bar.

There Boaz tells Ari that the 'dogs of war' are the 26 dogs he killed as Israeli troops crept under the cover of darkness towards a Lebanese village. 'Someone had to liquidate them,' Boaz says. 'I knew I couldn't shoot a person, so I did it, and I remember every one.'

What is at first so surprising in this explanation of the dream, is Boaz's anguish at having killed dogs. What about the many men, woman, and perhaps children he must have dispatched later? Why are they not in his dream? The answer lies perhaps in the very nature of dreams. We bury deep in our unconscious those things that we cannot bear to contemplate in the light of day, and in our dreams they come back to haunt us.

It is easier too, to project our pity onto 'others' such as dogs and other animals, than human beings like ourselves, in our sometimes instinctive rejection of our own anguish at having sinned or committed atrocities.

Waltz With Bashir is about the trauma of recovered memories. But it is also about the nature of war, and its impact upon us, especially when we have been raised to believe in the value of human life, yet are expected to suppress these values and beliefs when we are called upon by our country to go to war.

When Boaz confronts Ari with his nightmare, Ari is surprised to realise that he has no memories at all of what happened to him in the Lebanon War. He is disturbed by this, and then, as if his friend's nightmare has quietly unlocked his own, Ari experiences his first flashback about the war, which centres upon the conflict's greatest shame: the massacre over three days of 3000 Palestinian men, women and children at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, by Lebanese Christian Phalangists under the watching eyes of the Israelis.

Ari's pursuit of the meaning of this disturbing flashback, which seems to have no basis in reality, sends him on a personal odyssey, first to his best friend Ori Sivan, who is raising five children in the Negev desert, to Holland where his old friend Carmi Can'an speaks about having to harden oneself in war to do inhuman things, to a psychiatrist who explains to Ari the workings of 'false memory', and amongst others, to Shmuel Frenkel, who in one of the film's pivotal moments, 'waltzes' with a machine gun across a Lebanese street beneath giant banners bearing the film-star good looks of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayael, whose assassination a few days earlier had triggered the Sabra-Shatila massacre.

Waltz With Bashir dwells less on the culpability of the Israelis under the leadership of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, who failed to prevent the massacre, than the impact on young Israeli soldiers of a war that is widely seen as being the war in which Israel lost its innocence.

The image that haunts Ari is that of himself and other young Israeli soldiers, wading naked ashore onto a Lebanese beach, beneath a night sky lit by flares, then walking robot-like and bewildered through a street thronged with Palestinian women, their hands covering their heads. The last moments of the film reveal the terrible reality of this scene. But in many respects, the viewer has experienced a far more vivid reality created by the animators' line drawings alone.

Audiences have become inured to the violent explicitness of many animations which exploit the power of the pen in creating images on screen. The power of Waltz With Bashir also comes from the ability of cartoons to convey violence. However, the purpose of Ari the filmmaker and his animators is to shock us into not only moral consciousness, but empathy and grief for all those who are forced to live with the consequences of their actions.

Waltz With Bashir is based on interviews with real people whose mannerisms and speech are captured in drawings with great art and subtlety. But just as stunning is the film's ability to probe into what happens to us when we become robot-like and inhuman, either through inclination or because it is the only way to survive, emotionally and perhaps physically.

As a species, we have become adept at performing mental 'sleights of hand' when we individually or collectively act inhumanely, or allow atrocities to occur. Waltz With Bashir demonstrates that this comes at considerable cost.

Shamill Out now

Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.