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Dancing With the Wars

January 22, 2009 By:
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Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
"Waltz With Bashir" -- one step forward, two steps backward?

That may be the progress of peace in the Mideast but definitely not the direction of Ari Folman's much-honored, forward-thinking "documation" of his dance of death in the Lebanon War zone of the 1980s.

He has directed, produced and penned a screenplay of pent-up power, with his native Israel both as bastion and battleground -- a nation scorched by the sun, scorned by its neighbors and scarred by image problems.

And after waltzing away with "best film" honors in so many festivals -- including snaring best foreign feature at the Golden Globes less than two weeks ago -- is that ultimate golden goal, the Oscars, just a hora away as announcements of nods are made this Thursday morning?

Opening this Friday, certainly the film -- an outstandingly animated examination of the anomie hardening the arteries of those whose battles on behalf of Israel in the Lebanon War are forever fuzzy with half-forgotten forays -- takes on a more strident, stringent note of immediacy given the bombs bursting in air in Israel's black-and-blue-and-white current battle against Hamas.

First shot as a video, then animated, "Waltz With Bashir" stays a step ahead of memory, which, caked in the killer soot and sourness of sand-swept maneuvers, has a way of dissipating much as dunes do when walloped by winds in the desert.

But, after interviews with fellow fighters on the Lebanon front, whose killing fields resonate with the searing images of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, Folman -- whose own memory drew blanks, not bullets, when trying to reconstruct his regimentation during his days in the army -- has unmined explosive existential questions that formed his moribund memories, making for a sort of sabra "Night of the Living Dead."

The dogs of war are unleashed in his film -- quite literally -- as the movie begins with a marauding pack of canines seen as spewing canisters of destruction rampaging through streets in search of ...

"Psychological meaning?" The director harumphs. "Don't look for it."

Even though four years of bringing "Waltz" to the dance floor may have served as a tango of untangling his thoughts -- a terpsichorean form of therapy and treatment -- Folman doesn't treat the film as an exorcism of a former existence.

Doesn't believe in it, he says; indeed, his segments as writer for "Be' Tipul" -- the original Israeli series couched in psychotherapy upon which HBO's "In Treatment" is based -- bashed the process.

"Yes, I wrote for them, but remember the character I wrote in the series commits suicide. I am not a fan of psychiatry. And I told the producers if I am to do the series, I had to show that the treatment does not work."

But his screen treatment of a different set of head games certainly does: "Waltz With Bashir," through interviews and stunning graphics, is a near-hallucinogen of hell that haunts the war weary.

While the film dances on the precipice of pointing fingers, that dance doesn't damn Israel as perpetrators of the massacres, a fact borne out by history. What it does do is a fox trot in the foxholes, claiming that Israel looked the other way rather than take the lead in preventing Christian Phalangists from massacring those entombed at the refugee camps in revenge for the explosive death of their senior commander -- Lebanon president Bashir Gemayel.

It is undoubtedly an animated and angry element of Israeli history, but to depict it realistically -- or as Folman fulminates, putting war veterans stacked against static backgrounds and letting their talking heads explode with examples -- would be to mitigate the mortar-fired up reality they dealt with, replacing it with brain scans of the past buffeted by time.

"What I can't understand," says the not-understandably miffed director, "is why people question why it is animated. It could only be what it is."

It is what it is -- a pixilated picture of hell unbound by borders addressing surreal images spiraling out of control.

In a way, the film is friendly fire for many: "It opens wounds and scars for so many people," Folman says of the project.

But could he project the reactions of those who fought alongside him a long time ago?

"Many felt an urge to talk, and what they had to say was endless" in scope.

Taking It Personally

This is no whitewash of war, but then, Folman says of himself, he is a natural armed to do battle. Dancing with the wars: "It is a very personal film; there aren't many filmmakers who actually participated in war."

Ari Folman as Audie Murphy calling audibles with a Middle Eastern accent?

"Seven years ago, I had no clue I would do such a film. Someone asked me, in 2001, why I didn't make a movie about the Lebanon war, and I said I couldn't care less."

He has taken care to get it right -- with the rites of war never a kilometer away from the off-kilter killing fields of Lebanon. "There were a few incidents" that scarred him during the war, he recalls of "being relieved from the reserves; and I had to meet the shrink."

But he doesn't shrink from the need to preserve the past for the future; ante-war, he was a different man.

But did making the movie expunge the memories? Expiate the past? Cast aside the hurt through catharsis?

"Nothing has helped me get through what I went through," he says. "There is no fun in it."

But there is fealty: "I just have to be loyal to myself," Folman says of the vicissitudes that his visuals unwaveringly explore. After all, is it maybe bashert that this "Bashir" benefactor, so uncomfortably nimble with the past, won an Oscar for his first effort nearly 20 years ago, "Comfortably Numb"?

The novocaine has worn off a bit; the next war he wages, however -- combating the fullness of The Futurological Congress, limning Stanislaw Lem's sci-fi fave novel for the big screen -- won't be as costly.

"I will not have to mortgage my house," he says, taking a lease instead on fantasy rather than a loan out on memory.

The payout is the possibility of less pain for those he loves. "In many ways," he relates, "I did this film for my sons."

Father's daze cleared up?

"I don't know if this will change their lives, but I hope it will open their minds."

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