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Movie Review: Waltz With Bashir

A dance of death, at Israel's hand
Waltz With Bashir
Running Time: 90 min
Release Date: 2008-12-25
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

Is there any image more loaded with meaning for a Jew than the Holocaust?

Is there any insult more shocking to a Jew than to compare him to the Germans who let mass murder by the Nazis take place without comment or intervention?

That's what makes the Oscar-nominated “Waltz With Bashir” so daring. Forget that it animates a story of war, turning a dreamlike half-memory of slaughter into a nightmare that can't be shaken off. Forget that it's a documentary drawn to look like a comic book come to life.

Remember instead the dramatic way in which writer-director Ari Folman calls his countrymen – and, reluctantly, himself – to account for their part in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in 1982.

The Bashir in question is Bashir Gemayel, the Christian president-elect of Lebanon, who reportedly met with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin about establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and Lebanon as soon as he assumed office.

He was assassinated two weeks later. Christians in the Lebanese armed forces held Palestinian Muslims responsible and randomly slew refugees in camps at Sabra and Shatila. Israeli soldiers, who'd occupied Lebanon months earlier after attacks from Syrian-backed forces, apparently looked on indifferently as refugees went under the guns.

So it goes in “Bashir,” which begins with a friend telling Folman how canines chase him through dreams: They represent guard dogs he shot dead as Israelis occupied Beirut neighborhoods. Folman's memory of that war is vague, or so he says, and he consults veterans, a psychologist and a TV reporter to find out what “really” happened.

His investigation leads to sequences that vary from hallucinations – notably a series of naked soldiers rising like zombies from the golden waters of the Mediterranean Sea – to literal depictions of battle. Even those often have a mad, “Apocalypse Now”-like quality; the title refers to a soldier's twitchy dance of death in the streets of Beirut, as he shoots without aiming at every movement or noise.

The story doesn't follow a straight narrative line; it goes from interview to interview, filling in background for us as Folman fills them in for himself. He finally calls highly placed officials to account for letting killings proceed without intervening.

Some naysayers describe the animation as primitive, because it doesn't have the sophistication of color and line we expect from Pixar. I don't know if that indicates a lack of money or an artistic choice, but it makes the film seem “homemade,” more like the vision of one man who struggled to put onscreen the pictures inside his head.

Its homeland, at least, is proud of the movie. “Bashir” won six awards (including picture, director and screenplay) from the Israeli Film Academy, and Israel put it up for the best foreign film Oscar.

It's encouraging to see a nation so aware of its public image and defensive about its military decisions examine a dark day in its history.

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02/27/2009 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

'Waltz with Bashir' points a finger at top brass who wouldn't stop the slaughter of Palestinian refugees.

(Full review)
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