Thanks for the memories

An unsettling and inspired exploration of how the trauma of war affects the mind

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Emily Dickinson wrote: "Remorse - is Memory - awake/Her Parties all astir/A Presence of Departed Acts/At window and at Door." Her words find their cinematic equivalent in Waltz With Bashir, a sophisticated blend of documentary, fantasy, war film and testimonial in which the film-maker Ari Folman charts the awakening of his own Memory, and the return of Departed Acts in all their woozy horror.

Folman was a humble grunt in the Israeli army in the early 1980s, and realised some years later that he couldn't recall anything from this military stint. His film reconstructs the journey this prompted him to undertake, as he interviewed friends who placed him confidently within scenarios of which he had no recollection. We're not talking about the sort of thing that can happen to anyone, like waking up in a strange bed to find that you've shaved your eyebrows and changed your name by deed poll to Maureen. Try instead an attack on the platoon by a child with a rocket launcher, which would fall into the category of "deeply memorable" for most of us, but rings no bells for Folman.

In an age in which images of war compete hourly for our attention, Waltz With Bashir uses animation to repackage the familiar, so that even a plainly shot interview in a rural setting is awash with strangely shimmering colours. The backgrounds, particularly on the streets of Beirut, aspire to a photorealistic bluntness, while the human figures, even at their most authentic, are divorced from their surroundings by inflexible expressions or the thick black outlines of the animator's pen.

Skew-whiff or surreal imagery has long been a popular means of expressing the insanity of war (Catch-22, Apocalypse Now, Three Kings), and Waltz With Bashir has its share of freaky spectacle. A former soldier, now living in the Netherlands, describes surviving the bombing of his platoon's vessel when a giant, naked, turquoise-skinned woman backstroked him to safety. To which the obvious response would be: what was he smoking, and is it necessary to go all the way to Amsterdam to get some?

Animals dominate some of the more unsettling episodes. The picture opens with a man hounded through the streets of his dreams by the dogs that he shot during a military ambush years earlier. Bloated rats feast on human bodies in a junkyard. Another soldier is able to cope with army life only by convincing himself that everything he sees is part of a photographic project, with his eye as the camera. This fantasy protects him until the sight of piles of dying horses overrules it, and he goes to pieces.

Although Waltz With Bashir focuses on specific details of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is concerned chiefly with how the human mind processes trauma. The soldier who imagines himself to be a camera is not alone in his self-deception. Onlookers are described watching a bombing from their balconies "as if it were a film", while Folman initially dismisses the suggestion that he should interrogate his past, protesting: "I'm just a film-maker." "Can't films be therapeutic?" replies his friend.

Waltz With Bashir is structured like a textbook course of therapy, building towards a cataclysmic breakthrough - in this case, Folman's awareness of his proximity to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, where up to 3,500 Palestinians were massacred by Christian Phalangists in the aftermath of the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, president-elect of Lebanon, in September 1982. "Thanks for bringing it to my attention," said Ariel Sharon, then Israel's minister of defence, as though he had just been informed that he had spinach in his teeth.

It is no fault of Folman's that the dynamic of narrative documentary demands a climax, or that guilty excitement builds in the audience as the film nears the point of full disclosure. But he turns our anticipation back on us with a last-minute switch to live-action footage that makes exquisite sense of the animation that has preceded it, while addressing forcefully the film's ongoing friction between reality and the various distancing devices and coping mechanisms required to endure it.

To invoke therapy-speak, Folman doesn't share any closure that he may have found. Instead, he leaves us stranded far from our comfort zone, wondering what happened to all the pretty colours.

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