An animated documentary is the unlikely category assigned by producer/director/writer Ari Folman to this distinguished film.  In broad strokes the film is a memory-recovery narrative, the director’s pursuit to fill in the "black holes" in his recollection of the days, during the 1982 Lebanon War, surrounding the massacres at the Palestinian Refugee Camps of Sabra and Shatila by Christian supporters of the assassinated Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayal.  While the film finds its climax in the Palestinian genocide, along the way it examines the experience of ordinary Israeli soldiers in richly provocative storytelling –as these accounts are textured by a twenty-year time lapse, which offers perspective, insight, telling gaps, and small revelations, as, for example, when we learn that one character abandoned his ambitions to be a scientist after the war, left Israel to grow wealthy selling falafel in The Netherlands.

Folman recounts the soldiers’ narratives of disorientation, terror and loss by representing not only their experiences, but their dreams, hallucinations, distorted memories –all of which are rendered with exquisite power, mostly in vividly nightmarish cut-out animation. Added to these narratives are interviews with a psychologist, a trauma expert, a reporter who was on the scene at the refugee camps and others –adding texture and commentary to an already multi-layered story.

This films provides a fresh engagement with issues of memory and trauma, and explores the dynamics between the trauma of a nation –not only a war but the deep unexamined scar of “indirect responsibility” for a genocide— and the trauma of an individual soldier.  Representing the soldier’s war as a lonely, companionless and even passive experience, the film works to undermine a host of cinematic conventions. The viewer becomes alert to the paradox that the animation has the estranging effect of making what it recounts more “real” through its access to characters’ interior states.


This film offers compelling approaches to the topic of story or narrative.  What is required to present an adequate account of oneself or one’s experience? What do we do if the different versions of a story don’t “add up”?  What is the status of “fact” in this context?   What stories are “reliable” and what makes them so?  How many different kinds of “knowing” are represented in the film?  How does one gain access to an un-remembered past?  What is the value of exploring painful events from the past?  To whom can one speak of such things, and how do different characters speak differently?   How does the medium or method of expression (animation) alter or enhance what is said –and can be said?  To whom does a story belong?  To whom does the larger story (of the genocide) belong?  How does the film lead us to consider the meaning of witnessing? 

Furthermore, the film urges us to consider how we understand the perimeters of our own responsibility, not only in the context of war, but in any morally complex situation.  


An Israeli film, subtitles in English

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