Judge Adam Arseneau prefers the cha-cha.
Our review of Waltz With Bashir (Blu-Ray), published July 6th, 2009, is also available.
"Every night, the same number of beasts."
Waltz With Bashir, if one pardons the anachronistic metaphor, is something of a sheep in wolf's clothing—an animation that belies its deep exploration of memory, guilt, and disassociation. More interestingly, it inexorably alters our expectations on what expectations we can place upon a documentary and an animated feature in terms of profundity and personal artistic expression.
Facts of the Case
Filmmaker Ari Folman (Made in Israel) meets a friend for a drink late one night, a friend troubled by his reoccurring nightmare being chased by dogs. Each dog, the friend believes, represents an animal he was forced to shoot while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces as a teenager, hunting for Palestinian terrorists. When asked what dreams and memories haunt Ari of his time in the IDF, the director shrugs and admits to having little recollection of his time serving—even though he was stationed in Sabra and Shatila during the First Lebanese war, a scene of great violence and genocide.
Troubled by his lack of clear recollections, Folman visits friends and family, looks up old war buddies and listens to their stories, asks for shared experiences, examines old photographs of time spent in Beirut. Slowly, painfully, memories unwind and unlock themselves, revealing an unpleasant truth. For every gap in his memory, Ari finds a lost memory—whether real or imagined—that highlights the horror and futility of war.
"I'm kind of responsible for the film you're about to see," says Ari Folman bashfully at the start of the commentary track on Waltz With Bashir. Being the director, the writer, the producer and the main protagonist, this is of course the understatement of the year. A deeply personal and introspective film, Folman puts his entire psyche up for microscopic examination, discussing his own repression and rediscovery of lost memories of his involvement in the First Lebanese war at the age of nineteen, cumulating with his witness of the Palestinian massacre at Sabra and Shatila at the hands of Christian Lebanese forces. The participation of the Israeli Defense Forces in these events is still to this day a debated subject—but interestingly, not something discussed at any length here. This is a film about fragmented memory and personal guilt, not about troop placement or military orders. Just to make things interesting, it's entirely animated.
For the Israeli soldiers sent into Beirut to wage war, mostly teenagers fresh out of high school serving their mandatory conscription, the aftereffects of war see a gambit of repression, depression, and confusion. Folman himself witnessed many atrocious events, yet twenty some odd years later finds himself unable to recall all but the most scant of details. Visiting friends and war companions, he slowly builds a tapestry of memory back, patch by patch; some memories come tumbling back with frightening clarity, while others are assumed, shared by friends who insist Folman was there. Some are almost dreamlike, stylized representations hiding severe mental trauma, or the surreal horror of nineteen and twenty year old Israeli soldiers sent to kill insurgents who are only eight and nine years old, but wielding RPGs and ready to attack. Waltz With Bashir is an animated retelling of a filmmaker's personal exploration of his own internal war.
As Folman slowly reassembles his fragmented memory with the help of post-traumatic stress doctors, friends, and family, the film climaxes with the inevitable recollection of the massacres at the Sabra-Shatila refugee camps, a frightening and brutal sequence of events that placed the IDF in a terribly compromised position of being supervisors to genocide—an irony not lost upon the Israeli people. The politics of these events are not discussed, not even really broached in fear of having the film swallowed into endless debate and censure. Indeed, prior knowledge of political events in the Middle East and the First Lebanon War are not even required; Ari himself slowly recalls the events in a languid pace easy for audiences to follow. For the purposes of the film, the how and the why are simply not explored—only the cold and brutal realization of repression and shame at being involved. Waltz With Bashir is a story of the common Israeli soldier only; a story that has no interest (and perhaps no business) in exploring the politician's perspective, or the Palestinian or Lebanese perspective. The film ends when Folman feels the story ends—just not necessarily where audiences want it to.
Waltz With Bashir often tells its tale with a surrealist absurdity that borders on homage to Apocalypse Now, showcasing IDF troops smoking pot and surfing on the beaches of Lebanon, taking breaks now and again only to order the occasional air strike or shoot a passing car to bits. Sequences give way to horrible icy recollections of trauma and bloodshed, of murder and abuse. For many of Ari's colleagues, their most vivid war recollection is simply firing into darkness while on patrol, shooting at real or imagined shadows, civilians, or animals. This shooting of invisible enemies with a limitless supply of ammunition, with no understanding of political events or purpose, is as profound a metaphor for warfare as one will find anywhere.
Visually striking, Waltz With Bashir is an "animated documentary," which is a style of filmmaking wholly unique to this picture, bringing two contradictory schools together in unexpected harmony. Using a computer-assisted style that blends Flash, hand-drawn panels and 3D animation, the technique heavily resembles and can be easily mistaken for rotoscoping animation, the drawing over of live-action footage like in Waking Life. This technique in contrast is entirely animated, creating a cutout and halting style that evokes comics come to life. It might seem odd to match animation, a simulacra and suggestion of the real world, with the documentary format, a cinematic language devoted to authenticity. The trick here is that Waltz With Bashir only exists to capture the broken and fractured wartime memories of a soldier. It makes no claim to be accurate. Call it a haunting subconscious exploration of historical events; the surrealist twists in animation, the drawing shadows and angular cuts of buildings take on an almost German Expressionist undertone, as alienating as they are revealing. This is not reality, but nor is it entirely artificial.
Composed of dirty yellows, steely grays, and blacks, the animation style is crisp and angular, at different times resembling pop art, golden-age comics, surrealism, and photorealism; a true chameleon of style and function. The anamorphic transfer is clean and detailed, with deep black levels and strong outlines but no noticeable aliasing or compression artifacts. Some picture grain is evident, but mostly in nighttime sequences, no doubt a simulated film stock effect. One expects a digital film of this nature to have a stunning presentation, and Waltz With Bashir does not disappoint. For standard definition, this is as fine a transfer as audiences can hope for.
Audio comes in 5.1 surround versions of the original Hebrew language track and a dubbed English track. Both are strong contenders with clear but quiet dialogue that requires an aggressive volume placement to hear them clearly—then the picture explores with sudden bursts of gunfire, of explosions and wartime calamity, sending speakers shaking and rattling. The audio is impressive, making strong use of rear channels and environmental placement, with solid bass response. The score is a haunting, melancholy orchestral affair interjected with catchy 1980s-style electro-pop (no doubt popular in the region at the time) and classical pieces by Schubert, Bach, and Chopin.
Extras are also decent for a single-disc feature—we get a commentary track with writer/producer/director/main character Ari Folman, who mostly concentrates on discussing technical specifics and animation techniques for his track, letting the film speak for itself. We also get a making-of featurette, "Surreal Soldiers: Making Waltz With Bashir," a Q & A reel with Ari Folman, and a small featurette, "Building The Scenes—Animatics."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a haunting beauty in Waltz With Bashir, but also a peculiar lack of narrative closure, of finality in the tale. Audiences will want some manner of resolution here, but Waltz With Bashir shies away from truly delving into the memories it so deeply tries to uncover, letting them stand like surrealist paintings for audiences to explore. Once the full picture finally comes into focus, the film ends—and little is said of the politics or the extent of the involvement of the Israeli Defense Forces into the massacres in Lebanon. Whether this is a problem to you will depend on what you demand from your introspective films and your tolerance for moral ambiguity.
A unique, personal, and sobering journey through war and memory, Waltz With Bashir is an unforgettable cinematic experience. We may want more than the film can offer, but Waltz With Bashir is unapologetic, giving only what it can. It is a film born from but one man's memories, lost and now found; of a childhood spent invading foreign countries and of endless war, of brutality without comprehension. It is a sobering journey, and yet there is hope here, but like the broken and rebuilt memories themselves, often difficult to access.
No matter how you try and quantify it, Waltz With Bashir is cinema at its most interpretive and introspective, and for any filmmaker to put up his own person as the subject of a documentary, to go through such rigorous examination is a brave and daring thing indeed—even if the discoveries are as murky and unreliable as the missing memories themselves.
An extraordinary film. Not guilty.
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