The oddly titled film combines state-of-the-art animation, an anti-war documentary theme and a psychoanalytic approach to recover the memory of a traumatized Israeli soldier.
The mixture may sound odd, but it comes together as an integrated and haunting autobiographical movie, which will be screened for the first time locally on Nov. 1 at the American Film Institute Fest 2008.
Ari Folman, the film's writer, director and producer, is also its central character as a 20-year-old infantryman, whose unit spearheaded the Israeli advance into Lebanon in June 1982 with the announced goal of stopping incursions and rocket attacks on northern Galilee towns by the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Going beyond the original Israeli plan to establish a 25-mile buffer zone in southern Lebanon, Folman's Golani Brigade is ordered to the outskirts of Beirut, awaiting orders to take the city.
In confusing night actions and bitter street fighting, the young soldiers encounter fear and death. Their sometime allies are the Christian Phalangist militia, led by the young, charismatic Bashir Gemayel. (The film takes its title from a scene in which an Israeli soldier, dodging bullets while crossing a Beirut street, goes through strange, waltz-like motions, while huge posters of Gemayel look down.)
When Gemayel is killed in an explosion, the revered leader's militia takes over the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut, while Israeli soldiers, including Folman, are positioned around the camps' perimeters.
After three nights of killings, shell-shocked civilians stumble out of the camps, leaving behind murdered corpses, whose estimated numbers range from 700 to 3,000.
The years pass, and one day Folman meets a former army buddy who talks about a strange, recurring dream, rooted in his battlefield experiences, and Folman realizes that he remembers nothing of his own actions in the war.
He decides to seek out six veterans from his old unit, a TV journalist who covered the war, and an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, to help him restore old memories.
To create his script, Folman said in an interview that he recorded the witnesses' stories on video and cut the recollections down to 90 minutes. Next, his team created a storyboard and 2,300 illustrations, which were turned into animation through a combination of Flash, classical animation and 3D.
Speaking by phone from his Haifa home, Folman said that his production costs were $2 million, mostly underwritten by Israeli, French and German film funds. When he exhausted the grants, he mortgaged his home and took out a large loan.
During the four years that went into the making of "Waltz," the psychological and financial strains were unrelenting, Folman recalled, not made easier by the birth of his three children during that period.
Folman said that there was never any question in his mind that the film would be animated, noting, "If you look at all the elements, the dreams, the hallucinations, the surrealism of war itself, that's the only way I could make it work."
Only in the last 50 seconds of the 87-minute film does Folman switch to newsreel footage to show the bloody toll of the Phalangists' massacre.
"I didn't want the people in the audience to come out feeling that they had seen a film with some really cool animation and great music," Folman explained.
The film is infused with Folman's conviction that war is senseless and his visceral dislike of Israel's leadership during the Lebanon War, particularly of Ariel Sharon, then minister of defense.
So intense is Folman's feeling that he sees his film as a kind of legacy for his young sons, so when the time comes, "They will make the right decision, meaning not to take part in any war, whatsoever."
On questioning, he qualified the statement by saying that it referred to Israel's two Lebanon wars and America's invasion of Iraq, but not to such "defensive" battles as the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.
"Waltz With Bashir" won high praise at the Cannes, Toronto and New York film festivals, and, perhaps more surprisingly, in its home country.
The Israeli government's film fund subsidized the movie, there was no criticism from the political right, and only some on the left objected that the film's anti-war message wasn't strong enough.
"Israelis are very tolerant toward their artists," Folman said.
AFI will screen "Waltz With Bashir" on Nov. 1 at 3:45 p.m. and again Nov. 7 at 7 p.m., both at the Arclight Theatre in Hollywood. The film will be released in general theaters on Dec. 25.
Other titles at the AFI Fest (Oct. 30 - Nov. 9) on Jewish themes or by Jewish filmmakers include "Acne," "Adam Resurrected," "Defiance" and "Of All the Things."
For ticket and other information, visit http://www.afi.com/afifest or phone (886) AFI-FEST.