“I lost my memory. I can’t remember anything about the Lebanon war. Just one image.”
An old friend shares a recurring nightmare, about being hounded by twenty six ferocious dogs, with filmmaker Ari Folman. It took him some time, but he finally traced it back to its origins in the Lebanon war twenty years before, when he was detailed to shoot the feral dogs around his unit’s camp. Twenty six dogs he shot. The discussion sends Folman’s mind reeling back to his war experience, which he has apparently blocked out of his mind. “It’s not stored in my system,” he explains, and over the next few years he meets up with friends and fellow soldiers from the war to help reconstruct those missing memories and find out what happened.
This is both art and autobiography for Ari Folman, a filmmaker with a background in documentary and a deep interest in psychoanalysis (he co-wrote much of the original Israeli series that was remade by HBO as In Treatment. The conversation really occurred. His memory gap was real. And he recorded his conversations as he made they odyssey back in time and memory. Those conversations (a couple of them reconstructed with actors, the rest with the real people) are the basis of this oral history of the war and this examination of the way guilt and fear and anger have affected those memories. You could call it an animated documentary, but that label doesn’t do justice to the experience or the ambition.
Animation is a beautiful way to explore the way he remembers, a mix of mind’s eye first-person observation and exaggeration, with moments of dream and fantasy mixed in. It’s not about what happened as much as what they experienced, and the animation is about the experience. Folman draws the characters with strong lines and simple sketches and uses the color palette the way a theater director uses light and hue. He animates in slow but fluid movements that creates a norm of stillness and simple gestures. Even the movements of tanks crushing cars through the streets of a town are measured, deliberate, slow and powerful. The violence of war breaks the trance with jolt, like jarring you from a dream.
Folman can’t remember the war except for a single image, coming out of the water and into a city in Lebanon. But, as he realizes, “I can remember perfectly every furlough.” It took less than an hour to get from the front and return home, where life continues as if there is no war blazing so near. It’s like entering into a state of denial and gives him a kind of mental whiplash.
What begins as an introspective odyssey examining the effects of war on the young Israeli soldiers turns into a provocative exposé on the Sabra and Shatila massacre, an event that sent shock waves through Israelis who were made inadvertent collaborators. But the final word is not their emotional trauma, but the stark reality of the event itself.
I wrote a review for the Seattle P-I, which you can read here.