If you expect documentaries to be dry doctoral dissertations with talking heads and archival film footage, prepare to be electrified. The Israeli animated war documentary "Waltz With Bashir" is a phantasmagorical record of Mideast chaos, a cartoon that echoes the hallucinatory power of "Apocalypse Now."

Ari Folman, who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated film, focuses on the 1982 slaughter of hundreds of Palestinians in West Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The three-day killing spree by Israel's Lebanese allies was a reprisal for the assassination of popular Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. The attacks against unarmed civilians, conducted under the nose of the Israeli military, shocked the conscience of the nation and led to a government shakeup in Tel Aviv.

Folman employs electroshock graphics and mind-blowing imagery to illustrate the psychological upheaval the massacre triggered among soldiers on the scene, and the aftershocks it inflicted on Israeli society. Viewing it is like experiencing a Technicolor anxiety attack.

The opening alone could blow you out the back of the theater. In a feverish dream sequence, Boaz, a friend who saw combat in Lebanon alongside Folman, imagines a pack of rabid dogs howling at his window. Boaz's account of these snarling dogs of war, a nightmare fueled by deeply repressed combat memories, inspires Folman to probe his own recollections.

He finds his memory blank, just as his society has drawn a curtain of willful amnesia over the first Lebanon war. Folman investigates, traveling as far as the Netherlands to question friends and authorities who witnessed the insanity of battle firsthand. The interviewees, represented as stark, expressive caricatures, offer competing perspectives on events, jigsaw flashbacks forming a tableau of absurd cruelty and pointless bloodshed.

Folman was 19 in 1982 when he was swept up into Israel's first invasion of a foreign country. His grunt's-eye view of the Lebanese conflict is fragmented, wrenchingly sad and morally conflicted. Recollections clash with fantasy and imagination as he discusses his military service with others who shared the battlefield. They rode tanks to nondescript destinations, fired shots at invisible strangers and dodged the bullets and bombs that flew in return. The war was dusty stretches of boredom punctuated by spasms of panic and anguish.

Some soldiers were pawns, daydreaming of a getaway -- one fantasized drifting across the Mediterranean on the belly of a giant sea maiden. Folman's commander took his escapism in harsher form, watching porn videos while ordering his men to spend the night in harm's way, awaiting an expected car bomb. In Folman's war, no one dies a hero's death on the field of honor.

Folman uses hand-drawn, 3D and Flash animation to express his pessimistic vision in images that startle, outrage and frighten.

A battle-crazed gunner dances through a hailstorm of sniper fire, in a vision that recalls Goya. Macabre, expressionistic shadows shroud the Beirut shore where Folman's platoon takes a nighttime swim to wash away the grime of battle. When their leisure is interrupted by the glare of parachute flares, they walk toward land, their shoulders warily slumped, faces grim. Something is amiss, but they have no way of knowing that those airborne lights were dropped by the Israeli air force to enable the Lebanese militia to continue slaughtering the men, women and children of Sabra and Shatila throughout the night.

Folman holds out no hope that remembering history will end the Arab-Israeli cycle of revenge, but he refuses to let us take refuge in ignorance.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186