By making an animated documentary, writer-producer-director Ari Folman has created a story that speaks to the emotions of those involved with more power and grace than any filmed conversation ever could. Waltz With Bashir at once embraces fact and fiction while also blending them, transcending easy labels in its effort to round up the entire story, whether its Folman’s or a friend’s memory of lost youth or an impressionistic rendering of the pain, joy, and boredom visited on men at war. The film is a documentary, but its interviewees and their stories are animated; the men and women are real, except for the two whose faces and voices have been fictionalized and dubbed at their own insistence, rising from the discomfort of talking on film about things they thought they’d buried; the events portrayed actually took place, though Folman is the first to admit, especially after talking with a doctor and psychiatrist, that one of his most powerful memories of war may be nothing more than an invention of his own tired mind. Everything about the film exists in dualities, and Folman is smart enough to know that only in those tensions between real and remembered, between guilt and ignorance, can you find some path to redemption. The narrative centers on the 1982 Lebanon War, but its central argument is moral, not political; the film is sympathetic toward victims of all nations, and dwells more on the cost of wars than how they begin. The film is antiwar in the truest way possible because it uses as evidence for its case the unending sorrow people suffer in times of tragedy, even as it follows one man’s attempts to uncover his past and uses that connective tissue to flesh out and explore the other aspects of what really happened. Waltz With Bashir is a powerful, haunting, moving film, and a worthy vessel for its message.
The film opens in a dream sequence with a pack of wild dogs running through the streets of town, attacking people, knocking down tables, and always following the yellow-eyed monster leading the parade. There’s a queasy depth to the animation that gives it a feeling of liquidity; this isn’t rotoscoping, but art director David Polonsky and chief animator Yoni Goodman aren’t creating something straightforward, either. It almost feels like when a man or animal turns his head, the nose moves before the eyes, as if the image just barely slides, and only occasionally. It perfectly sets the tone of dread and vague unreliability, as if the viewer is going to have to try just as hard as the protagonist to see what’s happening. The pack of dogs eventually reach their destination: the bedroom window of Boaz Rein-Buskila, who’s dreaming the whole thing. In fall 2006, he meets up with his friend Folman to discuss the dream, and it’s in this first major interview — the first scene that, in a standard documentary, would be just two guys sitting around talking — that Folman’s filmmaking skill and his team’s animating prowess really begin to transform the story into something special. The animation would have been a good cheat for the wartime flashbacks that Folman will eventually draw from his subjects, but keeping the format for the present-day chats gives the film a more internally consistent feel, making the transitions less jarring and retroactively making the war scenes more real or believable, since they’re presented in the same medium as everything else. Boaz begins to reminisce with Folman about their time in the Israeli army during the Lebanon War, and reveals why the dogs in his dream are haunting him. (It’s one of the many sad details that illustrates what war does to people in the short and long term, and I won’t discuss it here.) Folman says he doesn’t have any flashbacks from Lebanon, and can’t really remember anything except for one simple memory that could only be so beautifully rendered in animation: lying in the Mediterranean, just offshore, while signal flares fall down on a city being torn apart.
So Folman sets out to discover what happened to him in the war. He talks with a friend and doctor about how or why his brain might be blocking the memories, and he begins to track down men he knew were with him in hopes that they can fill in some of the narrative gaps. As his journey progresses, Folman skillfully shifts between his own timeline of discovery and the events of the war from his youth, collecting more interview subjects along the way whose stories often don’t shed any light on Folman’s life specifically but do paint a typically harrowing portrait of young men in battle. As Folman’s memories begin to return, the story marches inexorably toward the Sabra and Shatila massacres of September 1982, in which Lebanese Christian Phalangists killed hundreds of Palestinian refugees following the assassination of Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel. Folman slows the pace of the stories down as the massacre nears, knowing what will happen but narratively and emotionally unable to prepare for it, but he also draws more on all his sources, ranging from men who fought alongside him to reporter Ron Ben-Yishai, who covered the war.
The film is also interesting in that, though a documentary, two of the interviewees are dubbed by actors and drawn (one assumes) to look different than their real-life counterparts. Boaz, the man whose oppressive dreams inspired Folman’s quest, isn’t even played by himself, and it’s never clear why. A blurb on the film’s site says that Boaz’s obsession with numbers and rationality made him unwilling to appear in a film where he would present himself to be morally conflicted or the inhabitant of the same gray world as everyone else, but that doesn’t quite fly. There’s no shame in not wanting to talk about the horrible things you said or did twenty years ago in a war you wish you could forget, and it would have been nice had Folman stated in a title card that two of the men interviewed had had their appearances and voices altered at their request. It’s not as if it would have damaged Folman’s film, or message, in any way, and would in fact have acted as a kind of silent argument in support of the filmmaking style that blends truth and memory with such heady grace. But that’s a small bone to pick with a heartfelt film from a man who so clearly prays for peace. Speaking of the babies born to the film’s staff during production — three of them Folman’s — the director said, “I hope that when they grow up, these babies will watch this film and will see it just as an ancient video game that has nothing to do with reality.” Folman has different goals for Waltz With Bashir than the director or writer of a fictional narrative; namely, as nicely structured as the film is, Folman knows there’s no actual end, only a point where he needs to stop once he has driven home the emotional conclusion. But the film still feels full, feels accomplished and true, and that’s thanks to Folman’s ability to tell his story and, in so doing, tell everyone’s.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.We Didn't Know if We Would Live or Die, We Didn't Know if It Was Wrong or Right
Film | January 20, 2009 | Comments ()