Movies · Reviews

Foreign Objects: Waltz With Bashir (Israel)

Waltz With Bashir opens on an animated, rain-soaked street to the sounds of growling. What follows is a real-life documentary and quest for answers.
By  · Published on January 28th, 2009

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…


Waltz With Bashir opens on an animated, rain-soaked street to the sounds of growling. A dog appears, running, snarling, and is soon joined by several more until a full pack is tearing through the streets terrorizing everyone nearby. The accompanying music builds in rhythm and intensity until the dogs and the viewer come to a stop beneath an apartment building. The dogs stare upward with violent intent on their faces and in their snarls, while in a window high above, a man looks down in fear. A friend is telling the film’s director, Ari Folman, about a recurring dream in which he’s chased by 26 vicious dogs. Always 26, always intent on tearing him to shreds. The friend knows why he’s being chased and it can be traced back to his experiences as a soldier during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but the dream stirs a realization in Ari. He was in the war as well, but he remembers nothing.

What follows is Ari’s real-life documentary and quest for answers told via interviews with past friends. The conversations were recorded and filmed, but then animated for the movie. As they speak their memories, dreams, and hallucinations come to life on-screen, both as their own tales and as pieces of Ari’s mental puzzle. Each revelation brings his own memories closer to the event that his mind refuses to recall. The event in question is the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, mostly women, children, and the elderly, committed by members of the radical Christian Phalangist militia under the not-so watchful eyes of the Israeli Defense Force.

The beauty of Waltz With Bashir is two-fold. Visually speaking, the animation and imagery on display are alternately haunting, invigorating, and humorous. (One sad but funny montage shows a red Mercedes used in drive-by shootings of Israeli soldiers, and the ridiculous succession of attempts to stop it.) Israeli soldiers slowly climbing out of the sea against the backdrop of a bombed-out city; one soldier’s dream about a nude, twenty-foot tall woman who seduces him off of his ship and onto her belly only to watch the cruiser explode minutes later; Lebanese child soldiers gunned down before they can fire their RPG rockets; a club back in Israel where Ari’s ex-girlfriend and others dance to a brain-numbing beat without guilt, regret, or awareness of the war next door.

Also of note is the the film’s ability to walk a fine line between autobiography and history. The actual massacres are still a hotly debated topic with fingers pointed in every direction. The Christian militia actually committed the atrocity, but Israeli commanders (most notably Ariel Arik Sharon) most likely had some knowledge that it was happening yet did nothing to stop the slaughter. Some may expect an Israeli filmmaker like Ari to lessen the responsibility carried by his people in some way, but his film never shies away from what he and his witnesses see as the truth. One of Ari’s friends in the film, a therapist of sorts, tells him his actions prove that he should be free of guilt. But as Ari’s memories are restored the film takes the viewers along to the event he tried so hard to forget. For the first time in the film, animation gives way to actual newsreel footage and we realize that memory and guilt are intertwined and equally subjective.

I recently posted a list of the Ten Best Foreign Films of 2008, and Waltz With Bashir was not on it. That was an error of ignorance on my part, as had I seen the film sooner it would most definitely have held a spot near the top. It’s also received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for best foreign film, and while Israeli films have been nominated seven previous times they’ve yet to win. I think this year may be different.

Waltz With Bashir is currently playing in limited release. Check out the trailer below.

The Bottom Line: Waltz With Bashir is a powerful and personal tale of one man’s wartime experience that manages a fair job of dispersing blame and guilt liberally on all sides while remaining focused on Ari’s own story. The movie explores the slippery and subjective nature of memory and guilt with an animated and visually arresting style, using music, interviews, and sound effects to immerse the viewer in an original experience. Waltz With Bashir is visually and intellectually entertaining, and as a bonus, the viewer also gets to enjoy a brief animated porno… could you really ask for more from a documentary?

This week’s notable foreign releases: Taken (wide – review), The Class (limited)

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.