05/19/2008 03:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cannes 2008: "Waltz With Bashir": A Cartoon Journey into War

So far it is the only film at Cannes to have a "buzz": the animated Israeli film "Waltz with Balzar" about the horrors of the l982 occupation of Lebanon . The first scene stuns: in eerie blue monochrome, a man urgently tells a friend about a repetitive nightmare where he is chased by 26 snarling dogs, black curs we see leap to the screen in a hallucinatory flashback. The listening friend is director Ari Folman himself, who nods with a befuddled gaze. Perhaps he too, he reflects, has strange inner demons creeping in his unconscious from his past: a past he and his friend shared as soldiers stationed in Lebanon during the Sabra and Shantila massacres.

This haunting animated documentary film not only begins with a dream, but seems to be a nightmare itself, as the director's cartoon stand-in journeys into memories and testimonies of friends about the Israeli military experience The movie draws the viewer in with the steady ominous rhythm of shots of Ari walking in the woods, nodding, listening, exploring, as his feet crunch ponderously in an over-white snow. The innocence of the natural landscapes--the woods, a sparkling lake, a desert--is challenged by the words of soldiers telling how they "breakfasted, worked out, then searched for terrorists. " Accompanying the oddly beautiful scenes, drawn by art director David Polonsky, is the lure of original music: "different music," the director explains, "for every party involved, for the Christians, for the Israelis."

The climax: massacre. We see men, women and children slaughtered against a wall, their bodies dumped in the streets. The "Phalangists" Christian militia, a group supported by then Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon, murdered an estimated 3000 people within the span of three days, this in response to the murder of their leader, Israeli-appointed president of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel. The slaughter took place with Sharon 's accord while Israeli soldiers watched.

The film begs the comparison between the Holocaust and Israeli policies, a comparison director Ari Folman knee-jerk denied at a discussion on the terrace of the Majestic Hotel, but then said, why not, yes, there is a comparison. As a boy, son of European Israelis, he grew up obsessed with the question: "how could the final solution go on for such a long time?" He wanted to make a film that captures this sense of not knowing what is going on, until the final images make it "crystal clear". "Thousands of people were killed in three days."

He added: "The second Lebanese war took place just a few years ago. The same villages we were in 23 years ago. The same thing. We don't learn anything. The basic message of my film is a cliche. War is silly and worthless. No glamour. Children are being sent by cynical leaders to fight."

It may be a cliche message but the film makes it freshly horrible-- precisely because of its original aesthetic form.

"I always conceived of this as an animated film," Folman explained. "If you look at the fragments of memory, you have war, lost love, nightmares. How do you do this in a plain documentary unless you do something extreme? I wanted to build a script in which there is no way to predict the next scene. Make it a journey like Alice in Wonderland. I wanted to take a trip. I wanted it to be very realistic, so the audience is attracted to the characters. I also wanted a free non-realistic style to create the hallucinations."

The result is a shell-shocked effect. Ari's surreal-real journey makes a viewer re-experience the numb meaninglessness of war. The soldiers, in the flashback memories, report to their posts with perfunctory obedience, drifting through time, it seems, with no reflection. It is a shock when the animated images give way to hard-core real footage, the murky memory bleeding into real photos of the massacre, the last image a real child's head buried in bodies.

Would the film be controversial in Israel?

"People have a strange idea of Israel. You know, it is a free country. You can shout as loudly as you want. This film was paid for with government funds. They flew us here."

The film is clearly the director's method of dealing with the trauma of his own participation in the occupation. The idea of therapy is highlighted by the dramatic beginning. The friend with the dream comes to Ari for his help in solving this nightmare for him, and Ari says, how can I help, I am a film director? The friend believes that film would be more helpful than therapy.

As does the director. "Therapy is shit," he said. "It is a religious cult you have to believe in. I don't. I was in deep depression and treatment for years. Art and film are more effective. Why? Because art is dynamic. You have to work."

This film, he added, also helped him because it gave him the opportunity to identify with himself as a youngster. "I know this guy but he is not really connected to me anymore."

Folman has a rather distant air, a drifting look in his blue eyes, a bit standoffish despite the casual allure of his attire: the silver hoop earring, the blue jeans, the crisp white dress shirt open at his chest, grey hairs visible. He does not speak directly about his own experience of the war; the dreamy movie does it for him. Yet at a party the night before on the beach, I found him standing alone, his pretty vivacious young wife nearby, and asked, "Is this film as personal as it seems? So full of sadness." He nodded: "Intensely personal. And intensely sad."

"It gives a horrific vision of humanity."

He nodded. And nodded.

At the same party, leaving, I ran into another director, Fatih Akin, this year head of the Certain Regard jury, animatedly gesturing with a colleague about his new project restoring films for Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation. I asked him what happened to the idea he spoke about last year, to make a film in which he confronts "evil."

"I had to drop it," Fatih said with a wild gesture of his hands. "It scared me. To deal with evil. Too much. The force of evil."

"You believe evil is a force?"

"I have to go eat," he said.