Israeli documentarian Ari Folman has created something more than a little different with his Oscar-nominated animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, the title of which refers to the assassinated Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel and a sequence that occurs rather late in the film. However you feel about the movie, it’s impossible to deny that it’s really like nothing else. That may be both its strength and its weakness.
The initial concept of the film stems from Folman listening to a friend from his army days tell a story about a recurring nightmare about 26 dogs chasing him—a nightmare spawned by half-remembered memories of his involvement in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Strangely, Folman himself isn’t similarly haunted. In fact, he can’t recall anything at all about that time, which leads to him having his own recurring dream. From there, Folman seeks advice about blocked memories and proceeds to visit and interview old army friends, who might help him remember his lost chunk of time. The bulk of the film then deals with these interviews, the various memories and ultimately the process of putting the pieces together—or at least attempting to.
Folman is hardly the first person to use film as a kind of personal analyst’s couch. In fact, you can make a pretty strong case for serious filmmakers down the years who made films in an effort to either free themselves from an obsession or to try to better understand themselves. What is remarkably different here is the manner of presentation. The creation of an animated documentary is itself unique so far as I know (if anyone can name another, I’d be glad to know it), but this is hardly the film’s sole break with tradition, since Folman uses the freedom of the animation to give birth to visualizations of each person’s memories. Rather than just recording their words, Folman attempts to illustrate the events.
The question arises as to how effectively Folman succeeds in his attempts. For me—and I’m in the minority here—I find his success in the matter at best uneven. All too often the animation just isn’t that good. Some of it is too halting not to be distracting, while even more of it moves at a funereal pace. In many cases, this is compensated for by striking imagery, some of which lingers in the mind long after the film. Much of it is disturbing—a factor that makes Waltz With Bashir a movie you admire without actually enjoying (I don’t think the idea is for the viewer to enjoy it). Often I found myself admiring the attempt more than the results.
Thematically—and politically—Waltz With Bashir dares to go places that less ambitious works wouldn’t. That it ultimately explores Folman’s questions of his own guilt—and by extension that of Israel—in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in camps during the Lebanese invasion is what gives the film its weightiness. No one is arguing that Israeli forces actually participated—the massacre was carried out by a fascist Christian militia—but the question does arise as to the degree of culpability in “letting” the massacre happen. Who knew what and at what point? Folman can’t answer this and he doesn’t try to bluff his way to an answer. He merely picks the protective scab—in his case, the blocked memories—to reveal the wound underneath. The questions of how and why are unanswerable. The nightmare that it did happen, however, is inescapable. The question of the degree of guilt through inaction hangs heavily over the film.
As filmmaking, Waltz With Bashir is daring. It’s also thematically daring. How artistically successful it is may be beside the point. Folman seems less concerned with artistry and more concerned with the message regarding his own state of denial. His film is almost a slap in his own face, and it attempts to similarly stun, if not outright shatter the viewer. In some respects, I think it succeeds in this goal, if only because what the film most reminded me of was Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2005)—and that’s a film so utterly shattering at its conclusion that audiences tend to sit in stunned silence. I’m not sure that Waltz With Bashir is quite that powerful, but it’s in the same realm. Rated R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content.