Cinema as therapy


Scene from Waltz with Bashir

Israeli director Ari Folman, a draftee during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, wanted to tell a story about his wartime experiences, but he realized that “no one would want to watch a middle-aged man telling stories that happened 25 years ago without any archival footage to support them.” So he took the unusual step of making an animated documentary.

The four years it took Folman to make the autobiographical Waltz With Bashir (Vals im Bashir) was a kind of therapy, as he sought to unlock repressed memories of that episode in his life through interviews with friends and former comrades. Each of the former soldiers coolly and almost matter-of-factly recalls the horrors and stresses of combat, both as it happened and as it affected them in the ensuing years.

The resulting arrangement of original interviews put to comic book style visuals is at once haunting, dreamlike and beautiful in its imagery, through a combination of Flash, classic animation and 3D. “It was shot in a sound studio and cut as a 90-minute length video film. It was made into a story board and then drawn with 2,300 illustrations that were turned into animation,” Folman explains. The visual style is simple but effective and while it doesn’t use rotoscope animation, where artists illustrate and paint over video images, it does have that naturalistic aspect to it.

Animation allows Folman to decompartmentalize the worlds of dream, memory and reality, showing how each is more closely connected than we normally acknowledge, something that normal video could not accomplish here. Each of the interviewees has powerful images that they carry within them. One has the recurring nightmare of being chased by a pack of snarling dogs. Another remembers the feeling of peace as he floated at sea after swimming away from an ambush that wiped out the rest of his squad. Folman, himself, frequently sees a recurring scene – possibly a memory – where he and two comrades emerge naked from the sea in a war-torn Beirut. They then dress and walk into a street of wailing Palestinian women running toward them.

Folman’s search for the blanks in his memory leads him to an understanding of Israel’s role in the massacre of an estimated 3,000 refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. The title of the film, incidentally, is taken from the then president-elect of Lebanon, Bachir Gemayel, whose assassination in 1982 led to Phalangist Christian militias exacting their horrendous revenge. Along the way, the film vividly conveys the tragedy and enduring psychological damage caused by war.

Waltz With Bashir is Israel’s foreign language submission for the Oscars and it was nominated for a Golden Globe in the same category in December. There are a number of Globe nominees among this month’s new movies.

In The Reader, Ralph Fiennes grapples with his conscience when, after the Second World War, he discovers that his first love, a blonde Kate Winslet, was a Nazi concentration camp guard.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s story, retells the adventures of a man (Brad Pitt) who is born old and ages backwards. The film, which also stars Cate Blanchett, has been nominated for five Golden Globes.

Among the flurry of romantic dramas out this month is the pairing of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson in Last Chance Harvey (January 23). Hoffman is an over-the-hill jingle-writer, who, while visiting London for his daughter’s wedding, strikes up an unexpected relationship with an unhappy, aspiring writer played by Thompson. Both actors were nominated for Globes for their performances. The Globes ceremony takes place January 11.


Robert Alstead maintains a blog at

Leave a comment