WALTZ WITH BASHIR Review

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WALTZ WITH BASHIR Review
[Our thanks to regular reader Agent Wax for sending in the following review from the Singapore Animation Nation Festival.]

In many ways, this is the hardest review I've ever sat down and committed myself to writing. I regret watching Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir. No, it's not because it was a waste of time. It wasn't because it was bad filmmaking. On the contrary, it is filmmaking at its finest. Waltz with Bashir is, at the very least, an astounding animated documentary with incredible originality and breathtaking impact, a film that must be watched by anyone with even a passing interest in world affairs or Middle Eastern History. It is doubly unfortunate then, that Folman had been taking lessons from Michael Moore in making 'documentaries'. While Waltz with Bashir occupies the upper end of the scale in terms of quality filmmaking, it incredibly dominates the lower end of the political propaganda spectrum with its insidiousness.

The unique animation style developed by Yoni Goodman had my eyes glued from the opening scene. The music worked brilliantly to deliver the atmosphere without resorting to melodrama. Superb voice-acting from the cast. So far so good, but the remaining aspects of the film failed to live up to the clarity of the audio and visuals. I realise that for Folman, this documentary may be semi-autobiographical. Thus there is all the more reason for him to guard against bias. In the end, the end result was a cleverly put together film which addresses the main topic in a roundabout manner, and then only in the final half of the film. For a 'documentary' on the massacre, the first part of the film was unnecessarily and pointlessly devoted to war stories depicting the IDF soldiers as flawed, scared humans. Obviously true, but the plot was lost for awhile with all the initial side-stories, and their inclusion took on a glaring unambiguity as the film progressed: The atrocities of war can be committed by the best of men under the spectres of terror and stress, and that these men should not be held responsible. While I agree to a certain extent that this is true under intense combat situations, we will see below that that is FAR from the case regarding the massacre.

The Deputy Head Mission of the Israeli Embassy attended the screening and gave an introduction on this film. She talked about the background and then mentioned in passing that the screening was made possible by the Israeli Embassy. That should have been my first warning. You see, I had read quite extensively on the Sabra and Shatilla Massacre even before I had heard of Folman's film. There is sufficient distortion of the facts in Waltz with Bashir to warrant my discomfort. Unlike Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai where myth is often inseparable from fact, the events described in Waltz with Bashir took place in 1982. Yes, the pools of blood stain the hands of the Maronite Christian Phalangists who initiated the slaughter of civilians. It was, however, Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Defense Minister, who practically invited the Phalangists into Sabra and Shatilla after the assassination of Bashir Gemayel while the IDF sealed the area off and provided logistical support (such as firing flares at night to assist in the massacre). The film is ambiguous about the passage of time during the massacre, but it appeared to suggest that the events happened in one night, and was stopped by the IDF at dawn the next day. This is complete distortion. The massacre occurred over THREE DAYS. Three days of IDF soldiers stationed less than 500 metres away, watching through binoculars as civilians were raped, murdered, and evicted from their homes. Folman's allusion that the IDF did not realize the nature of the massacre as anything beyond an anti-terror action does not hold water. While I will not go so far as to compare the IDF to the Nazis, it is undeniable that the higher ups at the IDF were well-aware of the massacre, and either sanctioned it unofficially, or just couldn't give a shit.

I had heard such good things about Waltz with Bashir. I so much wanted to love it. And I did, for awhile. While I applaud Folman for attempting to face up to the guilt of the Sabra and Shatilla Massacre, this film falls utterly short of making any commitment on the issue, instead choosing to weasel out of the grasp of responsibility which even Israel's own Kahan Commission had assigned to the IDF.

So do I recommend this film at all? This is a tough call. On the one hand, I acknowledge that this is an incredibly well-made work of art. On the other hand, the film is propaganda and not fit to be described as a 'documentary' any more than a Michael Moore film.  In either case, Waltz with Bashir is certainly worth watching. It is an important film, arguably one of the most important in recent years, though not in the way the filmmakers would want you to think.

Review by Agent Wax

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Ari FolmanOri SivanRonny DayagShmuel FrenkelDocumentaryAnimationBiography

More about Waltz With Bashir

Dan SacharOctober 19, 2009 5:56 AM

I don't know Todd, for me the REAL film was in what you call the 'initial side-stories'. The film is about Folman's journey to re-discover his lost\repressed memory from the war. The stories of his friends are the little things which gives him the pieces to the big picture - the repetitive dream he is having.

"Folman's allusion that the IDF did not realize the nature of the massacre as anything beyond an anti-terror action does not hold water" - I'm sure that every soldier in every army out there felt the same thing at any operation he's been to. and I think that's what unique and important about this film. the story of Sabra and Shatilla is being told from the point of view of Folman, the simple soldier, from what he can recall at least. some images are his imagination, some are his hallucinations, and some, are pure facts - so I can totally understand why this documentary is so 'problematic' and caused these debates all over the world, documentary? animation?? with LSD-like trips in it?? no way. so yeah, maybe everyone should watch the film differently from a normal, straight-up talking heads documentary. because it's not one of these films. Want to know the real awful truth that happened at Sabra and Shatilla? you won't find it here - because it's not pretend to.

Dan SacharOctober 19, 2009 6:01 AM

And this long comment of mine sends us back to Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, and the the boring question of what is Documentary.. so let's stop. :)

Dan.

Ard VijnOctober 20, 2009 5:24 AM

I agree with Dan that "Waltz With Bashir" is NOT about the massacre. There are no fact sheets shown with how many people died, which politicians were fired, which ones were re-elected later, which countries objected or were elated...
None of that gets covered here.

The impression I got was that the documentary was about Ari Folman's questioning what the hell was happening with his memory. He was mere yards away from an atrocity, yet not only does he fail to remember it, he also forgot a lot of the years surrounding that event.

"Waltz With Bashir" is a fascinating documentary about his search for the missing parts of his mind, and he is NOT skirting the central issue by not tackling the massacre head-on. It's not about the massacre in itself. Any big traumatic event would have done. The film is about what the whole Lebanon war did to his mind. The massacre gets extra attention because it was the worst situation he was exposed to, and an ironically cruel one if you take his family's history into account.

Agent WaxOctober 20, 2009 6:46 AM

You raise some interesting points, and I do concur that for the most part, the film focuses largely on Folman's search for his missing memories, or rather, the memories his subconscious had altered to protect him from the fact that he had been firing the flares. However, I'm not certain that can explain the ending of the film. If you will recall, the film ends with footage of the aftermath of the massacre. We are not actually given closure on Folman himself or his search. Did he find what he was looking for? How did he handle it and come to terms with it? In that sense, it ended abruptly with inadequate focus on the resolution of his quest, which seemed to suddenly transform into a factual assessment of the aftermath. At least that is what I thought of it.

Unless the version I watched was censored or edited in some way (which I suppose I cannot rule out).

Ard VijnOctober 20, 2009 7:33 AM

OK, going into spoilers now:

I thought the version I saw (the UK BluRay which I recommend wholeheartedly) showed the massacre as starting one evening, going on through the night and the full next day and night, and being ended at sunrise of day three. I will check this this evening as I don't have the disc on me right now.

The film has a double ending, first with Folman speaking with his psychiatrist friend who explains the final missing pieces, and then there is the final ending with (for the first time) real footage of the massacre's aftermath, the last shot being a slow zoom-in on a dead boy buried in rubble.

I watched this film with my wife. We were both really impressed by it, but I thought the real footage at the end was unnecessary because it added nothing to Folman's search and seemed like an easy way to shock viewers.
My wife on the other hand thought this ending was very fitting, showing that a "massacre" is not just a historical event but a very real tragedy for all involved.

In retrospect I think it makes sense: Ari Folman made his picture as a comment on memory and subjectivity itself. He never mentions facts, just recollections, and these are all animated. But the pictures at the end are real and illustrate that the massacre was sadly a fact.

As a total outsider I do not think it looks like Folman "colored" the historical accounts to paint the Israeli army in a more favorable light (if anything I was shocked that the army looked just as mismanaged, inefficient and careless as any other).

What I think happened here is the same thing as what I had with my review of "Grace": I was so close to that subject that I couldn't watch the movie without getting my defense mechanisms triggered and that spoiled the movie for me. You obviously have a far greater previous knowledge of what happened in Lebanon than I had when watching the film, and the moment you spotted what you saw as a misrepresentation you went into "alert" mode.

Note that the parts of the movie you have problems with are based on subjective eyewitness accounts instead of facts, and by the time these happen Ari Folman has demonstrated already that people's recollections can be DAMN untrustworthy. Therefore I give him the benefit of the doubt in this case.

Dan SacharOctober 20, 2009 1:56 PM

I attended to a Q&A with Folman not long ago, he pointed out, like your analysis of the ending Ard Vijn, that the real footage needs to be there as a pure fact that the massacre was REAL - people died, he didn't hallucinate it. It's possible that some of the viewers didn't even hear about Sabra and Shatilla before the film, so that's why it was so important for him to insert it. Even if it doesn't really fits the film.

deathwithabeardOctober 20, 2009 3:40 PM

I'm not sure what to think of this review. The reviewer didn't seem to understand what the movie was about before or after he watched it. I mean, if he was told that this film was a documentary in the normal sense, I could understand how there could be some confusion... but watching the film for one minute being able to observe that the "documentary" was indeed animated should have told him that there was nothing traditional about this "documentary" and that it shouldn't be thought of as a documentary at all. Then, the article or "review" could have been structured around the importance for the proper context about these types of things.
As the other commentators have stated above me, this "documentary" is about the distortion of memory in the face of catastrophe and, in this particular case, bearing witness to the massive suffering of other human beings, the mind's need to repress it, setting up defenses against it; but then also the need to break down those quarantined memories and the necessity to address them. BRINGING THEM OUT INTO THE LIGHT. Which was why the director decided to make the movie an animated feature, so that it wouldn't be confused with a normal documentary with "hard facts". The only concrete part of the movie was placed appropriately at the end with actual footage taken from the massacre. It's basically saying to the viewer, "all that has happened in the movie thus far, was an effort to get to this place, this moment in time of human suffering, to remember it as best as we can, and here it is, the real thing: it's concrete, indisputable."

hype.jonesOctober 20, 2009 6:28 PM

I agree wholeheartedly with this review - BASHIR is an average film that's won more praise than it deserves. In my opinion, the more profound (and honest) recent Israeli film is LEBANON.

Agent WaxOctober 20, 2009 9:58 PM

Hmm. I can't argue with that. I probably AM too close to the content in some sense...

Agent WaxOctober 20, 2009 10:04 PM

No, sorry. Pretty much everyone considers this film to be a sort of 'documentary'. It is more often referred to as just that, in the media. Just because it is animated doesn't change that perception. I agree that it should have been marketed more as a 'memoir' than a 'documentary', though.

Agent WaxOctober 20, 2009 10:09 PM

Okay, that actually makes some sense. Animated = recollection; Footage = factual. I still would've preferred a short afterword before the credits describing the actual events, though, so that the audience has no misconception about discrepancies between recollection and facts, especially those who are unfamiliar with the massacre. Those unfamiliar with the topic may likely mistake one for the other.