Waltz With Bashir draws on wartime memories

Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman's surreal remembrance of Israel's 1982 war with Lebanon, ends on the most wrenching note imaginable, yet leaving the theater offers no relief to the audience. The real world only amplifies the movie's disheartening themes.

Folman, a filmmaker and Lebanon War veteran, uses splashy animation for his fascinating nonfiction account of the damage war inflicts on innocent civilians and victorious soldiers alike. Viewers steep in the horrors of the Lebanon War and the psychological trauma of its aftermath. But after the closing credits, current events come rushing in and we recall the fresh wounds of Israel's recent conflict with Gaza. Waltz With Bashir (Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film) offers depressing confirmation of the adage that history repeats itself, and suggests that a similar film – Waltz With Gaza, maybe – will be made a generation from now.

In Waltz With Bashir, Folman presents himself not so much as being tormented by wartime memories as haunted by their absence. During the first scene, Folman talks to his old friend and fellow soldier Boaz, who recounts a dream of vicious dogs racing through an Israeli neighborhood. Boaz's dream derives from his recollections of shooting dogs during the war, and causes Folman to realize that, despite having served in Lebanon as a 19-year-old, he can recall almost nothing of the experience.

With one exception. He remembers swimming in the ocean at night and getting dressed while flares illuminate the Beirut cityscape in a sinister yellow glow. He's not sure what it means or if it actually even happened, but he associates it with the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, when Israeli forces allegedly looked the other way as members of a Lebanese Christian militia killed hundreds of Palestinians at two refugee camps. Troubled by the gaps in his memory, Folman consults a therapist friend and tracks down soldiers from his unit and other veterans to see if they can help reconnect him with his past.

Folman's therapist emphasizes the fallibility of memory and describes an experiment in which people, shown real snapshots of their childhoods alongside doctored photos, claimed to remember the fake as vividly as the real ones: "Memory fills the holes with things that never happened." Waltz With Bashir uses animation to emphasize that we shouldn't rely on what we see in our mind's eye. Visually, the film looks like Folman rotoscoped over actual interviews (along the lines of Richard Linklater's Waking Life), but was actually rendered in a mixture of Flash, cel and original 3-D drawings.

Animation also allows Folman to re-create the battle scenes and other wartime episodes described by his interviewees. The simplified details and vivid color scheme give Waltz With Bashir the quality of underground comics from the 1960s set to motion. Occasionally, a morbid sense of humor seeps through. At one point, Israeli forces try to stop a terrorist sniper car, but their gunners, tanks and planes hit everything but their target. In dreams and eyewitness accounts, water provides a recurring image of escape, serenity and even an outlandish moment of sensuality, yet also serves as a symbol of fear, according to the therapist. Waltz With Bashir uses brash, 1980s-style pop music in a similar way that Vietnam movies employ 1960s rock hits to capture the troops' youth and bravado.

Folman takes a tour through the haze of his former comrades-in-arms' own faulty recollections. One recounts a harrowing episode about being abandoned on a battlefield and narrowly escaping, only to suffer intense survivor's guilt. When Folman faces the magnitude of the massacre, the film unexpectedly dispenses with the animated approach, as if to hit home the idea that his past has finally caught up with him.

Had Folman directed a docudrama of Waltz With Bashir complete with scrupulously re-created battle scenes, it would've had a completely different impact. Powerful cinematic battle scenes, like the ones from Saving Private Ryan, do their best to approximate the nightmarishness of war for a mass audience. Waltz With Bashir's animation not only illuminates the psychological trauma of war, but hints at its long-term effects. If the veterans cannot or will not remember what happened, it seems all the more likely that raw recruits of later decades will end up in combat zones.