Waltz with Bashir: an animated film about the 1982 Lebanon war

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He had served in the army, either as a full-time soldier or as a reservist, for 22 years when he finally decided he wanted out. In 2003, Ari Folman, who had just turned 40, asked his commanders in the Israel Defence Forces to release him from the obligation to do a month's military service every year. They agreed - "so long as you go to the army therapist and talk about everything you went through".

Folman, already an acclaimed film-maker and screenwriter whose service consisted of writing army information films - "How to defend yourself from atomic attack, stuff like that" - began to talk to the counsellor about the most dramatic episode in his military career and one of the most divisive chapters in modern Israeli history: the Lebanon war of 1982. Folman had been just 19.

He realised that he had never spoken about the experience before. "It's not that I had total amnesia about it," he says now, "but I had worked very hard to repress those memories. I had the basic storyline, but there were large holes."

Around the same time, Folman got a call from a friend, Boaz Rein Buskila, a fellow conscript in 1982. In a bar, the rain hammering outside, Boaz told Folman of a recurring nightmare: a pack of 26 vicious, slavering dogs stampede through a smart Tel Aviv street, upturning chairs, knocking over tables. The dream was connected to Lebanon, Boaz was certain. During the 1982 invasion, when an IDF unit tried to enter a village, their presence was often given away by the howling of dogs: Boaz, deemed too sensitive to kill a man, had been given the task of shooting any dogs on sight - to silence them in advance. He had killed 26, and remembered every one of them.

The image had haunted Boaz. Surely Folman had similar memories, similar flashbacks from Beirut? No, Folman realised. Nothing at all. There were vast gaps in his memory - and he became determined to fill them.

The result is one of the most extraordinary films of this or any year; it is already bagging prizes across the world and building an Oscar buzz. Waltz With Bashir is a documentary, yet it is animated. It tells a series of true stories, yet unspools like a hallucination. It is gripping, painful, and lingers in the mind long after the credits roll. It will surely take its place alongside The Battle Of Algiers and Apocalypse Now as among the very best films about conflict. For it wrestles with two of the great themes - memory and war - and dwells on the collision of the two.

The form is startlingly original. The opening sequence - those hunting dogs - establishes a visual grammar, more graphic novel than kids' cartoon, that is sustained throughout. The figures do not move as they do in the Pixar movies that have raised a generation of children. Instead, they are still, "cut-outs" in which one limb might move while the rest remains static. The effect should be flat, but the low-tech style somehow conveys an emotional depth that catches you by surprise. The characters appear in two dimensions, yet are intensely human.

Not least because their voices are real - not those of actors, but fellow veterans of the war interviewed by Folman. Indeed, it is Folman's voice we hear most often, and we see him in both his 19-year-old and 45-year-old incarnations. In the movie, he speaks to a half-dozen former comrades in arms, along with a therapist friend, a distinguished TV reporter who covered the 1982 war and an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder. It is one of the former soldiers who gives the movie its title: a man, apparently crazed after a long shootout at a Beirut junction, who grabs a weapon from a fellow conscript and begins to fire wildly, as if dancing to some internal music - the entire scene played out before a giant street painting of the Lebanese president-elect, Bashir Gemayel.

The climax of the movie, and the heart of Folman's missing memories, is the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Enraged by Bashir's assassination, Christian Phalangist gunmen went on the rampage, murdering hundreds if not thousands of Palestinian men, women and children. (Estimates of the death toll range from 700 to more than 3,000.) Folman finally remembers that he was among the IDF men ordered to launch flares into the night sky over the camps. According to Israel's own Kahan commission of inquiry, the "illumination" was requested by the Phalangists to help them in their grisly work - though Folman is emphatic that at the time he and the soldiers beside him "had no clue what was going on: we didn't know there was a massacre".

Those events prompted a bout of introspection in Israel that has rarely been equalled. An estimated crowd of 400,000 gathered in the centre of Tel Aviv to protest. Since that represented one tenth of the entire Israeli population, proportionally at least it can claim to be the largest political demonstration in any country at any time. Kahan found the then defence minister Ariel Sharon bore "personal responsibility" for the Palestinian deaths and concluded that he was unfit to serve in the defence ministry (though it did not stop him becoming prime minister 19 years later).

All of this would have made compelling material in a conventional documentary, even a drama-documentary involving actors' reconstructions, but Folman never doubted that this film would have to be animated: "There was no other way to do it, to show memories, hallucinations, dreams. War is like a really bad acid trip, and this was the only way to show that."..

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