Waltz With Bashir

Director: Ari Folman
Starring: Ari Folman, Boaz Rein-Buskila
Runtime: 90 mins
Rating: *****

After ninety minutes of cartoon animation, Waltz with Bashir closes with real-life footage of the Beirut massacre’s aftermath: hysterical women run through blood-stained streets past bullet-riddled corpses of children, while howling screams pierce the deathly silence. The film’s harrowing message is delivered like a heavy blow to the head.

A long-laboured co-production between Israel, Germany and France, this animated documentary is a new breed of film. The docu-drama presents the fragmented recollections of Ari Folman, who attempts to unearth his long-suppressed memories of the First Lebanese war. As old acquaintances recall their horrifying stories (presented here in vivid and terrifying flashbacks) Folman pieces together his time in Lebanon.

In the wrong hands, a cartoon animation of such grave subject matter could result in a self-conscious gimmick. Instead, the animation is solemn, bleak and brutally intense. Rather than being stifling the horrors of combat, the illustration serves as an highly emotive medium. Striking images mesmerise and appall in equal measures. Astounding scenes show silhouetted figures stumbling out of the water into the night, as amber flares light up the war-torn cityscape. Gruesome panoramas show bullets and explosions fervently battering walls, ripping apart flesh and chewing up the stunning scenery. This is an infernal world of chaos and fear: struck with sheer panic, petrified soldiers blindly fire into the night, inevitably slaughtering civilians.

Foli shows that war and nightmare are similarly muddled and frightening experiences that hold a suffocating grip over their occupants. The distinctions between reality and dream are blurred to such an extent that it becomes hard to differentiate between nightmares and the hellish reality of battle. This is not merely a reflection on the futility of war, but a complex deliberation on the human psyche. Lebanon’s burdens have left their mark. In interviews, their animated eyes flicker with pain, regret and guilt, while their haggard voices quiver, perturbed by the uncomfortable line of questioning.

This is brutal, violent stuff. Audience members are tricked into a false sense of security before unnerving ambushes. Calm scenes, in which soldiers leisurely stroll through lush greenery, are pierced by whizzing RPGs and deafening explosions. Comrades gleefully chain-smoke atop tanks before bullets zip through their skulls, their figures instantly reduced to limp dolls.

The only downfall is the film’s slightly disjointed narrative. Like war, the film occasionally muddles. This minor complaint is eclipsed by the film’s ground-breaking achievements. A rare depiction of warfare that emphasizes psychological scars over physical, this animation is a revelation in providing a harrowing portrayal of modern combat, resulting in a relentless sense of unease for the audience.