EmptyIn this self-styled "animated documentary" written, directed and produced by Ari Folman, the Israeli television director has added his voice to the maelstrom that has swarmed through Middle Eastern politics for decades with heartfelt intentions and mixed results. Festival programmers and television buyers should definitely have a look, but a theatrical release in other territories is a long shot.
Disturbed by an old army buddy's recounting of a persistent nightmare in which he's being chased by 26 dogs, Folman determines that the nightmares are related to their service in the first Lebanon war in the early 1980s. Since the director seems to have repressed his own memories of that conflict, he sets out to interview old friends, psychotherapists and other veterans to help him regain what has been lost.
Nine in number, his sources speak of their own wartime experiences or attempt to interpret Folman's. The entire film is rendered in animation, a clever gesture that allows the director to restage horrifically violent encounters that otherwise would have cost millions to reproduce realistically.
For unknown reasons, however, and though he videotaped all the interviews, Folman decided to forgo the rotoscoping method used in Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," in which live-action footage is turned directly into strikingly lifelike animation.
Instead, Folman decided to have his team of illustrators redraw the scenes of the interviews, frame by frame, and to call upon their imaginations to render the wartime memories that are dredged up. The results are mixed.
Scenes of violence (or more frequently, scenes of scared Israeli soldiers in an alien, hostile land) often have a visceral, poetic power that could only come from a draftsman's imagination. The largely monochromatic palette Folman insists upon, however, works unfortunately in the opposite direction.
In addition, the method visually abstracts the scenes that haunt Folman and his former comrades, making them less emotionally immediate. Furthermore, during the interviews, the chosen style of animation leads to a distracting choppiness that renders the movements, gestures and facial expressions of the interviewees unconvincing. The other problem is that, memory naturally being something that returns in fits and starts, the film is rarely able to sustain any consistent narrative thrust.
Although the film is being promoted as an examination of the Christian Phalangist massacres of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, these are not mentioned until one hour into the film. Nor does it break any ground politically, since the culprit who is rather mildly rebuked, Ariel Sharon, was condemned by an official government committee decades ago for his part in allowing the massacres to happen.
After a dramatic shift to actual newsreel footage of wailing Palestinian women and heaps of Palestinian bodies — which presumably represents the return of Folman's repressed memories — the film suddenly ends, with no further exploration of his psychological state.