Feature: Waltz With Bashir
Tue, 06 Jan 2009 08:44:02
Memory may be our most cherished asset in this life. It comforts us, it pains us, and often it allows us to reform the idea of who, what, and why we are. It is variable and inaccurate, but without it life loses much of its purpose, for one cannot move forward without looking back.
Ari Folman's new animated documentary, Waltz With Bashir, concerning the director's pursuit of lost moments stemming from his experiences during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, is a rare and welcome piece of cinema that explores our most elusive trait. The film is a dance with the filmmaker. It is intimate and personal, harrowing and often disconcerting. The power of its images, drawn painstakingly from memories riddled with all of the inaccuracies of time's passing, lies in their simplicity, their honesty. Waltz With Bashir is not only a narrative of one man's "journey [of] trying to figure out a traumatic memory," but also an examination of the absurdity of war and the simple humanity shrouded by it.
In person, Folman's eyes are like ice but not cold; youthful, but old beyond their years. They are the eyes of a man who has "discovered a lot of heavy stuff regarding [his] past." They are the eyes of a man who has seen war, of the "very young men going nowhere…trying to forget" all they have had to experience of death. It is through these eyes and those of nine others that the tale central to Waltz With Bashir is told.
The film depicts a man's struggles with his past and what he has for 25 years told himself to be the facts of his own existence. Central among these facts is that his military tour as a 19-year-old young man was uneventful—that he was not present at a massacre of innocent Palestinians by a group of vengeful Christian Phalangists at Sabra and Shatila. However, over a drink with an old comrade, Folman discovers that there are "some major parts in [his] life completely missing from [his] memory." And so, Folman sets out in search of truth.
As the documentary unravels, the audience grows wary of where all of the unearthing of emotions and memories will lead to. The uncertainties surrounding Folman's military career increase and the audience tries to abstain from connecting the dots. Each moment drawn out on screen becomes visceral and, at times, slightly uncomfortable. Waltz With Bashir becomes, in a sense, a form of "dynamic therapy," not only for the director but for those watching as well. Folman is first to admit that he "went through a major psychological upheaval during the four years [he] worked on Waltz With Bashir."
While Folman may have been affected most by the film, the style and aesthetics of the documentary could only have been produced by a similar physical investment. As such, Folman brought on as his illustrator David Polonsky. Polonsky drew 75 percent of the over 3,000 images by hand. He lent his hand to Folman's mind in order to visually translate the very psychological nature of the film’s premise.
"Animation is freedom," Folman says. The process of drawing each image by hand "frees your mind" and allows the impossible to be made possible much in the same way that the process of remembering—forcing oneself to face the past head on—allows a person to slowly repossess the reality hidden within the fictional world we often create.
The raw, blood and tears experience of the production process translates and compliments the difficult process of self-reflection Folman went through, but telling this story through drawings "…was the only way to do it." The director went so far as to say he would not make the film at all if he could not animate it.
To some, utilizing animation for a documentary—especially one of such a serious nature—may seem like a misguided idea. Some may argue that storytelling in a medium that has been for so long associated with children, cuddly animals, and talking penguins may fail to imbue the subject matter—in this case, a massacre of gruesome proportions—with the seriousness it deserves. But, as Mr. Folman says, "if the story's good and it works and the illustrators are really expressive then they can touch you emotionally with their drawings." Seizing upon this opportunity, Folman succeeds in delivering his point in a way one could not utilizing the standard documentary concept of a “man being interviewed against a black background.”
Animation allows what a standard documentary could not in that it promotes a cohesive understanding of the events, leaving less to the audience’s imagination and thus allowing each person to connect to the story in an arguably greater way. In a sense, Folman does the only thing a filmmaker can do: he presents his point of view, the points of reference of his subjects, and then promptly takes a step back. "The rest is up to you, or film school or, it's just up to them now," he says.
At a point in the film, a reporter walks through the streets of Beirut—RPGs and bullets flying everywhere—noticing in the balconies children and mothers, grandmothers and fathers standing and watching as if what they were witnessing below was a film. This idea is essentially the same result that Folman acquires in utilizing animation. The audience becomes a witness to a grand, sub-reality concept—something that one cannot accept as actually happening. Folman translates actual experience into a somewhat mythologized, aggrandized situation. The reporter becomes a superman—impervious to the horrors of war—just as the audience does for a large portion of the film. One thinks, "this isn't real; this can't be real" and then, Folman changes everything. In the last few moments of the documentary, the director returns the audience to a unanimated world and the power of the film is made clear.
Folman allows that "there were a lot of fragile borders [in the film] between reality and dreams and subconscious and hallucinations." By exploiting animation and the power of imagery, Folman "smoothes everything." The film becomes a powerful emotional product, "a tough movie," because the drawn images distance and engage the audience concurrently.
While the film is not standard cinematic fare, that is not to say that it is inaccessible. Its images are beautiful and painstakingly created, its score is thoroughly enticing and appropriate and the story is, obviously, powerful. Because of this, Waltz With Bashir is likely to do well this year as Israel's official entry to the Academy Awards. On the growing Oscar buzz Folman is cautious saying that he "learned [his] lesson from Cannes," where the film was an early favorite but inevitably did not win.
Even without a win, Waltz With Bashir will certainly remain an important film in the greater canon. It can be seen as a stepping stone in documentary film, a new way of telling stories that need to be told. With Waltz With Bashir, Folman has created an intensely personal new type of filmmaking. In a way he allows us more so than any film, narrative, or documentary of late to interact with the story that is laid out. His goal is simple: to tell a story, to move his audience. He succeeds.