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By Scott Mendelson | January 13, 2009

Even in this day and age, the art of animation is still considered something primarily for the amusement of families and children. Even the more artistically challenging cartoons, be they Pixar films like “Wall-E”, or Hayao Miyazaki epics like “Spirited Away”, are inherently appropriate for children. As a result of this self-imposed (American?) segregation, there is still something uniquely shocking about seeing realistic or graphic violence in animated form. Be it the heavy-metal carnage of Japanese anime, or the occasional lethal violence in 1990s cartoons like “Batman: The Animated Series” or “Gargoyles”, the act of killing and scenes of bloodshed are that much more pungent when displayed in a medium that is still primarily known for entertaining the youngest of audiences.

As a result of this mindset, the tragic, violent true-life tale that concerns “Waltz with Bashir” is rendered even more powerful in animated form than it would likely have in life-action. Ari Folman’s film is technically described as an ‘animated documentary’, and the term fits well enough. The animated recreations of historical events are no less in keeping with the genre than something like “The Thin Blue Line”. If this was a live-action documentary, it would feel like any other war story, albeit with a more intriguing narrative that propels said historical docudrama. But in the realm of animation, the brutal, bloody violence feels like even more of a violation when depicted as, to put it bluntly, a cartoon.

A token amount of plot – In 2006, Ari Folman meets with a friend from the army service period, who tells him of the nightmares connected to the 1982 Lebanon War. Ari is stunned to realize that he remembers next to nothing about that period in his life. After a disturbing dream/flashback that seems to be linked to his time during the war, he decides to track down fellow soldiers in order to deduce what happened during that period, why he can’t remember it, and what it has to do with the infamous two-day Sabra and Shatila massacre that occurred in Beirut.

The film takes shape in documentary form, alternating between first-person testimonials and flashbacks (animated recreations) of the events of Israel’s campaign against Lebanon, which was in response to an assassination attempt on Israel’s UK ambassador. For those who do not know the history, I will not divulge the secrets that Folman uncovers, but it is a morally complicated situation involving morality in wartime, the responsibilities of occupiers, and the notion of evil occurring via good sitting silent.

Whatever influence the current Israel Gaza offensive has on the reception of this picture, the film itself is strikingly apolitical. Although it is worth noting that a film of this nature could only have been made by an Israeli. With the hyper-sensitive nature of the one-sided Israel/Palestine debate in America (more so than in Israel itself), a film like this, which dares to paint Israeli soldiers as, well, human, would likely face accusations of anti-semitism were its maker of any other nationality. But the picture’s stark moral judgment is one that condemns evil regardless of nationality and creed, be it evil via action or inaction.

Instead the film makes an effort to create a surreal template of what it feels like to be inside a war, inside a battle zone, and thus inside the mind of a soldier. Ironically, the animated medium lends this footage a bizarre emotional realism that would not be as effective in live-action. The film is ultimately about the madness of war, and the madness that occurs in a combat zone. Not a new idea to be sure, but the stark drawings and vivid images make this timeworn cliché into something new and stunning.

While animation often has the ability to show us things we’ve never seen before, it also has the ability to take old images and older stories and render them strikingly raw and blindly fresh. “Waltz with Bashir” acknowledges that war is hell, and then proceeds to give us a first-person view of that very unique form of purgatory, as well as the guilt and self-recrimination that comes from surviving it.

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