Sony Pictures Classics, 2008, 87 minutes
Writer and director: Ari Folman
Animator: Bridgit Folman
Art director and illustrator: David Polonsky
Producers: Ari Folman, Yael Nahlieli, Bridgit Folman, Serge Lalou, Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
Even before it switches, at the very end, to actual live footage recorded in the aftermath of a 1982 Beirut massacre, Waltz with Bashir, an animated film by Israeli director Ari Folman, manages to create a world that is intensely real.
But let’s be clear on the terminology first. I’m sure you could argue all day whether it’s justified to classify Waltz with Bashir as a documentary. In the strictest sense of the word, it’s obviously not “documenting reality,” by virtue of being an animated film—but then again, the same goes for any footage: Arguably, the perspective of whoever does the filming and decides what to show suffices to discard any notions of an objective “documentation of reality.” That’s why scholars generally agree that the term “documentary,” as far as film is concerned, does not mean a simple reproduction of reality; rather, it refers to a “creative treatment of actuality,” as 1930s filmmaker John Grierson first put it. And that’s a definition which is certainly broad enough to include Waltz with Bashir.
Why bring that particular discussion up here? Well, Mr. Folman may insist that he’s not interested in categorizing films, but at the same time, he concedes that he did choose to label Waltz with Bashir a documentary in order to sell it—he could also have called it a fiction film, he says, and then nobody would have raised an eyebrow about the fact that it’s also an animated film. More to the point, though, the film itself is clearly aware of those questions. It actively invites them, in fact, and it plays with them quite a bit. It’s fair to say they’re one of the story’s central concerns, so a discussion of Waltz with Bashir can’t really be complete without addressing them.
The film’s narrative gets underway when Mr. Folman’s own persona in the story meets an old friend who is haunted by nightmares resulting from his experiences back in the 1982 Lebanon War. Prompted by the conversation, the animated Ari Folman realizes he has lost any memory of the war, despite serving as an Israeli soldier in Beirut when the Sabra and Shatila massacre occurred. In said massacre, between 328 and 3,500 Palestinian refugees (the number is contentious), nominally under the protection of Israeli troops at the time, were murdered by Lebanese Phalangists. All the film’s version of Mr. Folman remembers about the event is a surreal, dreamlike sequence that’s repeated several times in the film.
And so he begins to investigate his own past: by seeking out friends who also served in the war, by talking to psychologists, and by interviewing fellow soldiers who were also in Beirut at the time. Step by step, the story’s Folman retraces the events that led to him being in Beirut during and after the massacre. At one point, he compares filmmaking to psychotherapy—certainly an old chestnut when it comes to any creative endeavor, but the real Mr. Folman gets away with the line. After all, his animated counterpart is literally trying to unlock his memories and come to terms with his own role in the massacre, so the psychotherapy parallel is actually very fitting, in this case.
As indicated earlier, in addition to being a “creative treatment” of the “actuality” of the 1982 Lebanon War, Waltz with Bashir also challenges the notion of a documentary. Its quest for remembrance raises a number of questions that cut right to the core of the genre: If our brains “fill in the blanks,” how reliable is memory, anyway? Where does objectivity end, does subjectivity begin? And how objective can a documentary—any documentary—really be, when the form inherently has to leave so many blanks to be filled in by the audience? These questions are not new by any means. The fact that the film is not just aware of them but actively engages them while telling its story, however, makes it all the more worth your time.
It’s been said, now, that the film’s story itself is not nearly as impressive as its method of delivery. I agree with that, to an extent. Aside from the fact that they’re animated, many individual scenes—and the points they drive home—ring familiar, and don’t seem that much different from previous war films in terms of what’s shown, or in the way it’s staged. And while the film’s character development is very effective, it doesn’t go far enough to give me a sense of what the war really means to any of these people in the wider context of their lives, simply because we don’t get to know a lot about anybody’s life before the war. Viewed as a cinematic treatment of war, Waltz with Bashir doesn’t reinvent the wheel.
Stylistically, in fact, the film’s approach to the subject is not unlike that of Full Metal Jacket or Black Hawk Down: War and violence are portrayed in an extremely stylized fashion. Images and sound turn the experience of war into something esthetic, surreal, rhythmic—so rhythmic, in fact, that you can dance to it, as one of the soldiers in the film does, thereby inspiring its title. Waltz with Bashir certainly looks very different from the aforementioned films by Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott, of course, but Mr. Folman still uses the same stylistic toolbox.
Now, the one-million-dollar question is this, of course: Can an animated film really portray a war and a massacre that happened in reality, less than 30 years ago, without coming across as shallow and callous? The scenes in which it puts a beat and a soundtrack to images of death and destruction might send a shiver down the audience’s spine for the horrors they portray, but they might just as easily come across as a glorification of war and violence. It’s a very fine line to walk.
Waltz with Bashir pulls it off, because it never loses sight of the human dimension of what’s happening on screen. Right at the beginning of the film, a haunting sequence shows the recurring nightmare of a soldier whose job in the war was to kill the guard dogs of every village his unit passed: He killed 26 dogs, altogether, and he remembers every single one of them, because they keep visiting him in his dreams. It’s just one of a number of anecdotes in the film showing that violence has consequences—for its perpetrators as well as for its victims.
However, the film’s biggest achievement, in the end, remains its examination of the human capacity for guilt. Waltz with Bashir doesn’t just trace the ways we tend to process the notion of having done something wrong, but dissects it: rationalization, justification, repression, denial, confrontation—layer by layer, the film peels off the different human responses, tracks how they blur and shift over time.
Toward the end, a few lines of dialogue skid close enough to excusing the protagonist from his responsibility to make me raise an eyebrow; but even as the film suggests it might spin off in that direction, it draws attention to the ways Germans have responded to the Holocaust after World War II. By the time the merciful veil of animation is pierced by live footage from the aftermath of the massacre in the film’s final seconds, it becomes abundantly clear that excusing anyone from their guilt is not among Mr. Folman’s concerns.
Waltz with Bashir deserves praise for its stylistic sure-footedness, certainly, and for the fact that it very successfully applies animation and an array of modern storytelling techniques to the cruelty and absurdity of war. What really makes it an indispensable and unique work, however, is its unflinching, sharp-witted look at the length and breadth of the human response to guilt. In that respect, it’s as profound and insightful as anything you’re likely to find on film.