Whether “Waltz With Bashir” is a documentary in the purest sense is an open question: Ari Folman’s film about Israel’s 1982 war with Lebanon is a digitally animated battle memoir containing only a few minutes of unretouched footage at the end. But given Folman’s difficult premise — the painstaking recreation of memories lost in the fog of war — “Waltz With Bashir” accomplishes its goals and tells its story vividly and inventively.
Folman begins in a bar, where a former Army buddy tells him of a recurring dream in which he is chased by 26 wild dogs. The number is always the same. Folman is sure there is a connection between the nightmare and their service in Lebanon 25 years before, but soon realizes that he carries few personal memories of the war. He tracks down several former soldiers, piecing together their collective life during wartime, rediscovering the atrocity and otherworldly oddity of their time in uniform.
Given the need to illustrate these memories and visions, Folman literally illustrated them: “Waltz With Bashir” is rendered with Flash animation of current images and old battles. The look and feel is close to the rotoscoping used in Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” or the recent Charles Schwab ad campaign, but in terms of methodology, it’s closer to Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10,” in which the gaps between archival footage of Abbie Hoffman’s trial were filled with animated recreations.
It’s all done to compelling and psychedelic effect — fantasy seamlessly melds with reality as ‘80s hits by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Public Image Limited drone in the background. The film’s only serious flaw is the distance created by the animation: because these are computer-drawn images, much of the visceral quality of war gets lost in the pixels. But “Waltz With Bashir” is as much about memory and what time does to it as it is about the war being blocked from that memory.