Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir could easily be filed away under any or all of the following genres: documentary, autobiography, memoir, journalism, and nonfiction. If there’s one thing all of these have in common, it’s that none make for natural cartoons. The exception that proves the rule is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which began life as a pair of graphic novels before being adapted into an animated feature film. Waltz With Bashir takes the opposite route, starting as a film and ending up as a book. Could animated versions of Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale be far behind?
Folman has lost his memories of a key experience during his service in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1982 war in Lebanon. A conversation with a friend sparks a fragment of memory involving the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The Israeli Defense Force surrounded Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, but stood by as the Phalangists, a Christian Lebanese militia, entered and massacred a still unknown number of Palestinian civilians. Was he really there, as he now seems to recollect? Did he have anything to do with it?
Folman speaks of memory as “something stored in my system,” as if his brain were merely a computer, disassociated from any culpability in the massacre. He merely witnessed it, but it was enough for him to subconsciously erase his memories over the intervening years. He seeks out old comrades in the search of someone else who served with him and may help fill in the blanks in his memory. Like a detective story, the search for clues provides a useful storytelling device while providing an episodic narrative structure.
The title refers to a fellow soldier that madly waltzed with a machine gun while surrounded on all sides by Lebanese fighters. “Bashir” is Bashir Gemayel, the assassinated Phalangist commander lionized by Lebanese, and a celebrity on a scale that one Israeli likens to how he felt about David Bowie.
Folman is an artist as well as a filmmaker; at one point he asks one of his old friends if it’s OK to sketch his family during their interview. His visual sense manifests in Waltz With Bashir’s stunning images, composition, and color. Like Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, it features stiff, simplified characters atop fully-rendered 3D environments. Human faces are crudely rendered with small looped expressions, when not totally still (note that the 2D vector animation is not the same technique used in Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly). They contrast sharply with the fluid movement of the detailed, complexly lit vehicles, backgrounds, and weapons. If such stylized human figures were a deliberate artistic choice, what is to be gained? A few possible explanations:
- As recent CGI movies like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf have proven to their detriment, the uncanny valley (the point at which a simulation of a human becomes almost, but not quite, realistic and thus creeps audiences out) is a very real problem facing animators as technology progresses. All three of these are technological marvels, but the human characters are still just one step away from dead-eyed zombies.
- In the most practical sense, animation is useful to create images of historical events where no cameras were present. Folman does recount seeing journalist Ron Ben-Yishai boldly film the aforementioned firefight in which his friend had his machine-gun-waltz with Bashir, so perhaps some actual footage existed for reference.
- The dreamlike unreality of animation plays into Folman’s theme of the mutability of memory.
- Like Isao Takahata’s stunning Grave of Fireflies, animation makes it slightly easier to watch painful images. Takahata’s emotionally draining film involved a little girl slowly starving to death after the World War II firebombing of Japan, and Waltz With Bashir features such images as a field full of dying horses and the corpse of a child buried in rubble. The end of the film snatches away this distancing technique; we finally see archival footage of the massacre’s aftermath.
Is it fair to criticize the film for taking the Israeli point of view in a story about the Sabra and Shatila massacre? Save for one woman that appears in the actual footage seen at the end, Palestinians literally don’t have a voice in the film. But neither, for that matter, do the Phalangists. In the case of this historical event, Israelis were passive bystanders, neither victims nor oppressors. If to bluntly ask what Waltz With Bashir is for, it does three things: First, it’s a meditation upon the complexity and unreliability of human memory. Second, it’s an act of journalism; returning the Sabra and Shatila Massacre to the public consciousness. Third, it’s one man’s personal coming to terms with his past.