WALTZ WITH BASHIR Review
[This review originally appeared as part of my TIFF coverage over at Showcase. It seems appropriate to reprint it here with the regular theatrical release about to kick off.]
At first glance the idea of an animated documentary seems odd, maybe even counter-productive. After all, isn't the point of a documentary to get as close to its subject as possible with as little interference from the film maker as possible? And doesn't animation by its very nature require constant interpretation and reshaping by the director? But mere moments into Waltz With Bashir the decision to make the film an animated feature not only makes sense, it is arguably the only real option to make the film at all.
Much as Art Spiegelman's Maus - one of the greatest graphic novels ever written - dramatically re-cast the holocaust memoir by drawing his own family history as a literal game of cat and mouse, Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir is a total re-envisioning of what the war documentary can be. Like Spiegelman, Folman is not so much concerned with the history of the events he is documenting - though neither project is light on history by any means - as he is with the effects on those involved, the prime person involved being Folman himself.
You see, better than two decades ago when he was still in his teens Folman was a member of the Israeli military serving in Lebanon. And as a teenager just a single generation removed from the Holocaust - his parents were interned at Auschwitz - Folman was made an unwitting participant in an act of genocide when the Christian Lebanese forces the Israelis were allied with carried out the large scale slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Lebanese refugee camps as retaliation for the killing of their political figurehead, the titular Bashir. Twenty years on Folman, obviously suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, has blocked off all memories of those events with the first unsettling images returning only after a childhood friend who served in the same campaign calls him late at night looking for help dealing with a recurring nightmare. Folman has no real help to offer but the conversation triggers a recurring dream of his own, a dream that in turn spurs him on to find former army comrades and piece back together the events of his youth. And this is where the use of animation makes brilliant sense.
Though Folman does eventually piece things back together the film is not so much about the events as it is about the journey. Waltz With Bashir is a film about the shifting, unreliable nature of memory, a film that dives into dreams and jumps back and forth between visits to old friends and comrades to flashback sequences told from multiple perspectives to the occasional talking head providing context. Simply recreating the remembered battle sequences would have been prohibitively expensive using live action photography and using stock footage would have stripped the film of the personal perspectives so essential to what it is. And that doesn't even bring in the dream sequences. The medium here is a perfect match to the content. Far from distancing the audience from the material the animation makes it far more intimate and personal than it ever could have been otherwise. That it is also jaw-droppingly gorgeous is an added bonus.
A deeply personal piece of work Waltz With Bashir not only catalogs the horrors and idiocy of war but also puts a deeply affecting personal face on events. Folman's journey through the film is a difficult and troubling one, one that raises more questions than it answers while making it clear that the scars left on these young men - all of them were still teens when armed up, sent into action and told they would probably die in Beirut - will endure for the rest of their lives, to say nothing of the effects on those they left behind in Lebanon.