As a 19-year-old conscript, Ari Folman was a soldier in the Israeli army when it invaded Lebanon in June 1982. Israel had taken its battle with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation into neighbouring Lebanon, where Palestinian fighters were sheltering. By September, despite a ceasefire, Israeli forces remained in Lebanon. Some of them were there to witness a massacre that took place that month in Sabra and the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.

The massacre was carried out by members of a Lebanese Christian Right-wing party to avenge the assassination of the country’s president, Bachir Gemayel. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians died on the watch of an Israeli unit.

Folman had repressed memories of his deployment in Lebanon as well as the horrors of Sabra and Shatila. Waltz with Bashir is the Israeli filmmaker’s attempt to face his past. In the process, he reminds his country of its involvement with one of the worst attacks on civilians in recent history.

What makes Waltz with Bashir singular is its form. The film is an animated documentary that includes interviews with other soldiers in Folman’s unit, recreated sequences of the Lebanon War, and dream sequences. Animation proves to be a perfect choice to depict the surrealist nature of Folman’s experiences, his guilt over what he witnessed and the nerve-shredding nature of conflict.

The film, which is available on MUBI, begins with a nightmare in which Folman is being pursued by dogs. Folman has other dreams too, including one in which bathing soldiers witness flares over Beirut.

Conversations with other soldiers who served in Lebanon as well as Folman’s therapist lift the covers off the “terrible silence of death”. Folman confronts his real nightmare: being present at Sabra and Shatila but being unable to stop the killings.

Max Richter’s background score accompanies brilliantly sketched frames dunked in shades of nuclear yellow, military green and deadly black. The visual palette has a haunting, other-worldly quality, with distorted perspectives and unreal colours.

One of the most nightmarish sequences intersperses an interview with an eminent Israeli journalist, who reported on the deaths at Sabra-Shatila, with a recreation of him at the scene. The actions of one of the soldiers who has been pushed to the edge inspires the terrible dance of death invoked by the title. When the animation is replaced with actual news footage, the effect is even more hard-hitting.

Waltz with Bashir’s inventive use of animation to narrate a personal documentary that involves painful memories influenced Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee (which is available on ZEE5). Folman’s courageous decision to acknowledge his participation in a questionable war and a clear case of human rights abuse isn’t just pointed at himself. By forcing himself to remember, Folman cautions his fellow citizens against the perils of forgetting too.

Waltz With Bashir (2008).