Martha Polk is an intern in the Walker’s Film/Video department. Recently graduated from Carleton College with a degree in Modern Middle East History and Cinema and Media Studies, she plans to write and talk about movies for the rest of her life.
Apparently once the Telluride festival and the accompanying student symposium start, they unfold at mind-crushing speed. All of a sudden I’m back in the Twin Cities with four days behind me that permitted hardly a moment to eat a meal or navigate the bears roaming the nighttime streets. Well, better late than never, I suppose:
As an animated war documentary, from the outset Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir operates on intriguing ground. After all, documentaries are supposed to at least tip their hats to that murky, malleable concept of objectivity, so why the cartoon medium in this business of uncovering truth? Alas, Folman combines these somewhat contradictory tendencies successfully. An Israeli veteran from the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon, Folman opens the film with his realization that he has virtually no memory of the war and thus ventures on a personal and cinematic quest to uncover what actually happened. In this way, Waltz with Bashir embarks on the kind of fact-finding missions of more traditional documentaries and halts on familiar questions of war reflection, namely, who and how did I hurt. He interviews classmates, other soldiers, the first Israeli reporter on the war, and his best friend who also happens to be an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder. Slowly, the pieces start to come together around the Sabra and Shatila incident, a massacre that left thousands of Palestinians dead by the hands of Lebanese Phalangist militiamen and by the acquiescence of Israeli forces. Such interviews and historical descriptive elements could have thrived on film or video (as such material does in the talking-head/news footage documentary genre) but Folman’s movie demands more. Waltz with Bashir is made complete not by mountains of facts but by the fog of memory, the fluidity of dreams, and utter darkness–both emotional and aesthetic. In other words, a revealing interview with the ex-reporter carries the same narrative significance as a dream in which Folman jumps the boat to war and finds refuge on the curves of a giant naked woman in the sea. A pack of wild charging dogs, their ferocity other-worldly; a vague and repeating vision of silhouettes emerging from water; a surreal dance through gunfire–these elements necessitate the animated image in order to realize their full effect. “I knew it had to be this way,” says Folman, “if I couldn’t animate the film, I couldn’t do it at all.”
And so, Waltz with Bashir manages a difficult harmony of elements. The animated image pulls us into personal dream worlds that, side by side with interviews and bits of historical exposition, compose Waltz with Bashir‘s truth, a truth which lies both in the hidden intimacies of one man’s memory and in the assertion that universally, war is hell.