There have been so many massacres since the one at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside of Beirut, where Christian Phalangist militiamen spent three days murdering Palestinian men, women and children, that you can be excused for feeling like you need your memory freshened. And that's just what writer-director Ari Folman does with Waltz With Bashir, his acid flashback to the 1982 Lebanon War, where he served as an infantryman in the Israeli Defense Force. But Waltz With Bashir, which is that rare hybrid, an animated documentary, doesn't just freshen our memories. It interrogates the role that memory plays in our psychic survival. Why do we remember the things we do and forget the rest? And are the things we've forgotten gone forever or just buried? How do we dredge them back up?
Folman does it by tracking down the other soldiers in his unit and asking them what they remember, also by talking to therapists. He himself remembers almost nothing, he says, but the others' memories start to trigger his own. And we see them all, in a cartoon style that often resembles a shoot-'em-up videogame but sometimes drifts off into surrealism. The movie can feel a little inert when it's just Folman and one of his old army buddies sitting across the table from each other. Otherwise, animation is an inspired choice, rendering all those repressed memories as a dream that Folman isn't able to wake up from.
Then we're snapped awake by the use of real-live images from the massacre's aftermath. "Can a film be therapeutic," someone asks early on. Maybe, maybe not, but you can't start the healing process until you know you're sick.