In the wake of the Israeli assault on Gaza, the arrival of “Waltz With Bashir,” which has been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this year, seems more timely than ever. Part animated documentary, part memoir-cum-acid trip, “Waltz With Bashir” looks like nothing you’ve seen before. The film took four years to make and the results are incredible. The characters move like ghosts underwater, gliding and undulating, and the color palette shifts again and again, from a murky green to a claustrophobia-inducing yellow-brown. Sometimes the backgrounds are crystal-clear, as if director Ari Folman were working from a picture, and at other times they become distorted and hazy. This is very appropriate for a film that, at its core, deals with the loss of memory — specifically, Folman’s inability to recall his experiences in the 1982 Lebanon War.
His desire to reclaim his memories leads him to conversations with old friends, journalists, fellow soldiers and psychologists. Folman (as pictured) is an engaging personality, and he leads us through a hallucinatory web of close encounters that illuminates the toll the war is taking on these young men. To his credit, Folman does not shy away from showing the indiscriminate nature of the Israeli campaign. The soldiers are forever firing into seeming nothingness, with anonymous bombs and mortar rounds coming back at them. The images of the infamous massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp — where hundreds (if not thousands) of Palestinian civilians were killed by Christian Lebanese troops, with Israeli approval — are particularly harrowing, especially when they morph into live-action footage.
But there are some major problems with “Waltz With Bashir,” and they stem from Folman’s choices in his role as a documentary filmmaker. We get no sense of why Israel is in Lebanon, and his assertion that Israeli soldiers had no idea what kind of massacre was going on inside the camp they were surrounding seems dubious at best. More damningly, the Palestinian and Lebanese civilians who bore the brunt of the Israeli bombardment are virtually invisible until the final minutes of the film. Why didn’t Folman go to Lebanon, or Palestine, to ask people about their experiences? This lack of context jars with the skill and sensitivity of the film’s message. “Waltz With Bashir” is worth seeing, but it is frustratingly incomplete. Perhaps the person who makes a film about Gaza will give more space to the victims of his violence.