Re-animating: Ari Folman's "Waltz with Bashir" rebuilds a set of disturbing memories of war. (Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Autobio-Animation and the Horrors of War

Dennis Harvey January 6, 2009

Just as the graphic novel has in recent decades completely altered the once strictly-kidstuff landscape of the "comic book," so now animated features are beginning to embrace more grown-up stories and audiences than anything in the long history of "cartoons" before them. Last year there was the striking Persepolis, which adapted Marjane Satrapi’s tragicomic memoir about growing up a Western-leaning liberal in increasingly fundamentalist Iran. Now there’s Waltz with Bashir, another autobiographical Middle Eastern story, albeit a very different one in both form and content.

A veteran Israeli director of both nonfiction and narrative works, Ari Folman has created an "animated documentary" that expands the definition of that lattermost term. Bashir, which was a closing-night feature at the San Francisco Film Society’s SF International Animation Festival this past November, is basically an illustrated talking-head documentary—with the real-life talking heads heard on the soundtrack, and a whole lot of dramatic illustration onscreen. Its germ lay in Folman’s realization that he’d blacked out entire swaths of his experiences doing compulsory service in the Israeli Army over 25 years ago. Particularly, he had no recall of witnessing the notorious 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacre, in which Christian Phalangist militia killed a debated number (estimates range from 300 to over 3,000) of Palestinians—men, women and children—at refugee camps in West Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

He set about tracking down and interviewing former fellow soldiers, a quest that provides the movie’s own structure. (Of the nine now middle-aged veterans scattered over Israel and Europe, two have their testimonies here read by actors because they wanted to remain anonymous. The others, and Folman himself, tell their own stories.) Each provides the director with recollections that are flashback mini-movies in themselves, variably comic, surreal, horrific and incomplete. These allow the director and the Bridgit Folman Film Gang to mix it up a great deal in tone and technique, the latter encompassing an animation mix of Flash, computerized 3-D modeling, and hand-drawn images.

The result is more grounded in realism than the B&W woodblock-like stylization of Persepolis, but with plenty of arresting, sometimes fantastical images to emphasize the diversity and unreliability of individual memory. Like Satrapi’s film, Bashir also uses pop tunes of the era (mostly New Wave hits) for their incongruity, and their reminder that we’re viewing the horrors of war through the eyes of young men barely out of their teens who’d be partying hearty if they weren’t stuck in uniform.

might very easily have been done as a straightforward doc mixing interviews and archival footage, though Folman determined early on (his words) "That would have been SO BORING!" Far more than providing just a novel gimmicky entree into depressing subject matter, however, the film’s visual presentation helps capture the distorted hyperreality experienced by many in combat, as well as the intangibles of post-traumatic stress disorder.

As the ex-soldiers’ recollections help prod Folman’s own blocked memory loose, there’s knowledge but no easy catharsis. Why did the Israeli forces wait so long to halt the massacre? Did their commanders willingly turn a blind eye? Why was there so little punitive consequence for those considered directly and/or indirectly responsible? Waltz with Bashir is a fascinating ride—closer in spirit to trippy Apocalypse Now than your average documentary downer as an illustration (in every sense) of war crimes’ endlessly complicated, never-ending toll.