It is hard to pinpoint what exactly makes Ari Folman’s animated, war documentary Waltz With Bashir work, but that is the magic of the film—it just does. Perhaps, the international sensation it caused in 2008 can be attributed to its hard-hitting criticism of the 1982 Lebanon massacre at Sabra and Shatila or the unique way in which that story is shown. Whatever it is, this soul-searching saga will keep viewers riveted in their seats long after that last credit has rolled up the screen.
Director Ari Folman acts as the protagonist in his own film. The action surrounds Folman as he tries to unearth buried memories about his time spent in the Israeli army during the first Lebanon War in the early 80s. Through a series of interviews with fellow army comrades, Folman attempts to learn the truth about his role in the massacre. His battle to re-discover memories of that horrific and ultimately life altering experience leads the audience on a mind-opening journey of recovery and memory rehabilitation.
What separates Folman’s film from many other war documentaries is its style—animation. With very few adult animated films available to audiences today, Waltz with Bashir fills a creative niche, long overdue, with its unique animation techniques.
Animation director, Yari Goodman developed a brand new way to deliver animated stories to the big screen. By taking video footage from the original interviews Folman completed, Goodman was able to map them out and convert them to hand drawings. From there, the sketches were turned into traditional animation. This labor intensive process had four of the film’s illustrators completing close to 2,000 sketches each, upping the film’s budget and time schedule. It took four years and 2 million dollars from beginning to end to complete.
In the end, the animation was a complete mixture of methods and included flash, classic and 3D animation for a “touch of flair,” said Folman. The animation is dark and jaunty, similar to some of the noir graphic novels that fascinated him in his childhood, and continue to do so in adulthood. Folman credits these graphic novels with providing him with the inspiration to develop his documentary in this distinctive style.
Folman claims that the animation kept it from being “boring,” and allowed him the freedom to search for his memories while also creating a war documentary. This “freedom” is seen in surrealist scenes, representing the memory and dream sequences of both Folman and his army comrades. Such sequences where Folman and his companions rise eerily from an ink-black ocean to slosh towards a desolate, and fire ravaged cityscape would have been expensive and perhaps not as true-to-form if they were shot in live-action.
Waltz with Bashir is only the second animated feature-length film, since 2010, to come out of Israel—ever. It is this novelty, combined with the film’s originality and jarringly beautiful animation that has contributed to its international acclaim. Folman’s film represents a true David versus Goliath story. The film has had to combat an Israeli film culture that has struggled to find its niche both at home and internationally, until very recently.
Fellow film critic Stuart Klawans put it best when he wrote that Israeli cinema has become “commercially viable by being more artistic” and “self-assured by being more critical.” Waltz with Bashir could not represent this statement better—its animation is the first of its kind, and it unabashedly criticizes Israeli government officials.
Approval of the compelling yet slightly disturbing film is represented in its critical acclaim. At the 2008 Cannes film festival, Waltz with Bashir became the first ever animated documentary selected to compete and the only Israeli animated nominee. Although the film did not win the coveted Palme d’Or prize, it went on to be nominated and win numerous other international prizes including an Oscar nod and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.
Waltz with Bashir represents many “firsts” for Israeli cinema. The action in this film comes from Folman’s real-life journey to discover what his memory has struggled to keep secret. It is this type of exciting truism that represents a step in the right direction for both animation and documentary cinema.
Waltz with Bashir is available to Orange County viewers through rental sites like Netflix and for purchase through iTunes.