Waltz with Bashir: An Inquiry into Reality

(Written in 2009, and first published 25 Dec 2009)

The Film
First premiered at Cannes in May 2008, Waltz with Bashir subsequently won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and earned an Oscar nomination in a similar category.

Directed and written by Ari Folman, an Israeli who is not exactly prolific in his work, Waltz with Bashir is only his third film in 12 years after Clara Hakedosha (1996) and Made In Israel (2001).

The Palme d’Or nominee is made with a paltry sum of less than US$2 million, and considering it is a full-length animated feature running close to 90 minutes, it is a remarkable achievement.

Waltz with Bashir is such a unique motion picture because it is fundamentally an autobiographical war documentary but dressed in the wonder and limitless creativity of animation.

The story follows an Israeli filmmaker (presumably the role played by Folman) in his quest to piece together the puzzle that is the 1982 Lebanon War which he took part in but could not remember what really happened.

The Boston Globe says that Folman was a soldier with the Israeli army which invaded Lebanon and was in Beirut when Christian militiamen massacred an estimated 3,000 Palestinian civilians.

Here in the film, “he has lost his memories of the war and seeks out other veterans to interview in order to piece together their collective story and contemplate their ethical culpability in the massacre” (Wasserman, 2009).


Animation as Reality
In my opinion, Folman’s decision to film Waltz with Bashir in animation is a masterstroke. Rarely do we get to view documentaries in an animated form which brings to mind a question: Since documentaries are presumably truthful accounts of reality, and animated features fictional, then is an animated documentary, in the theoretical sense, even possible?

But first, what does a documentary mean? Is there even a clear definition? A check with Dictionary.com says that a documentary is “based on an actual event that purports to be factually accurate and contains no fictional elements.”

On the other hand, an article by Henrik Juel from ‘P.O.V’ (a Danish Journal of Film Studies) says that “the phrase ‘representation of reality’ is utterly mistaken as a definition of documentary, because the idea of film as mirroring is a false one and a very misleading ideal.”

“Memory is dynamic, it’s alive. If some details are missing, memory fills the holes with things that never happened.”

Waltz with Bashir has many segments in which Folman, as an animated figure, interviews war veterans – many of them his close comrades – seeking out their past experiences and hoping what they say would be able to trigger and unlock his memory.

The interviews conducted are actually for real, and with real veterans, based on an article from ‘Film and Video’ by Debra Kaufman who says, “the first step was to videotape, on a sound stage, the interviews [and] once the movie was videotaped, it was first turned into a storyboard and, from there, an animatic.” Folman’s film, in this aspect, works like a documentary.

However, Folman in Kaufman’s same article says that “we need to dramatize those scenes (reenactment of war scenes) in the studio as much as we could; we’d sit in two chairs with a plastic grill in front and pretend we were in a car.”

Now this begs the question: Is this a capture of reality? I would say no. Documentaries are not filmed in studios but out in the streets, at actual locations where the situation(s) is or are happening, or where the subject(s) is or are in.

The footage is caught in real-time and then edited to form a coherent narrative. Waltz with Bashir apparently does not show such footage until the very end of the film where an abrupt cut from animation to live-action reveals Palestinian women treading along a debris-strewn street in utter despair, lamenting over the devastating loss of lives as they flee from the refugee camps in perhaps the film’s singularly most powerful sequence.

Are the 85 minutes that precede this sequence not a capture of reality? I will further explore this in the next section, ‘Truth as Reality’.


Animation is another realm of filmmaking which I feel belongs to the opposite end of the spectrum, far from what documentary filmmaking is all about. It emphasizes on imagination, creativity, and fantasy. In other words, it is fictional and a product of the hypothetical mind.

Does this form of filmmaking make the images any less real? Folman does not seem to think so. In a film review by Wendy R. Weinstein for ‘Film Journal International’, the director says that “he never considered telling his story through ‘real-life video.'”

Weinstein also backs Folman’s decision to film in animation. She writes that “this provocative, poetic, searing exploration by the Israeli director Ari Folman into his forgotten past as a member of the Israeli mission in the first Lebanon War is only stronger for being drawn. As a friend tells him, “memory is dynamic; it’s alive,” and so is this animated documentary.”

Because it is animated, it becomes more difficult to imagine what it would have been like in 1982 Lebanon during the war as there is no actual footage, or even a live-action re-creation of the armed struggle and massacre. Therefore, there are no ‘real’ images which we can interpret to further our understanding of the situation at that time.

Interestingly, this is apt for a film like Waltz with Bashir. The use of animation runs parallel to Folman’s theme of being unable to remember the past, or what I term as ‘amnesic memory’.

Folman’s inability to remember his experience from the Lebanon War is reflected in the fiction that is animation. In one scene, he is led away to safety by a huge, nude sea goddess as his comrades burn to death after their boat is attacked by a stray enemy airplane. Could this have happened?

Strangely, Folman remembers this but not the ‘real’ images that he struggles to picture, resorting to questioning the war veterans in an attempt to make sense of his past. The veterans’ descriptions are the product of their memories; whether these memories are true is another matter.

The important idea here is that whatever one sees in film is not concrete but imagined. Animation allows Folman to portray these ‘imaginations’ in the most realistic (and idealistic) of ways.


Truth as Reality
Can what is seen in Waltz with Bashir be regarded as the objective truth and whether this reflects reality? Not quite. Similar to Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), the bulk of the narrative in Folman’s film is based on individual recollections of an event of horrific significance.

Is any interviewee’s recount any truer than another? Is it even an actual recollection of the past or is it only diluted with half-truths? After more than 20 years, the limits of memory mean that one cannot completely be sure.

Rashomon has taught us about relativism in which truth is relative and subjective to each person’s perception. However, in Waltz with Bashir, it is not about finding the absolute truth within differing, separate points-of-view but rather questioning how close the recollections are to the objective truth so that we are able to respectfully (and truthfully) preserve the sanctity of those memories – to remember history as it is, and for what it is worth.

“Do you ever have flashbacks from Lebanon?”
“No. No, not really.”

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times refers to the film’s depiction of events leading to the massacre, and the massacre itself, commenting that it is impossible to pin down the answers – “My impression is that some knew, some could have stopped it, but the connections between the two are uncertain.”

This uncertainty exists even after the film ends; Folman does not provide viewers with answers leading to the objective truth, but that is because he is unsure of it himself even after conducting interviews in the film.

Waltz with Bashir is a somewhat futile pursuit for the objective truth, but it makes us ponder about truth as reality. What really happened continues to be vague; yet whatever did happened, and of which is caused by the insanity of war, has brought about the reality of human suffering and this is captured excellently in the film. There is truth in human suffering which is something we can feel and understand.

However, there is no considerable truth in memories where the line between reality and fantasy is very often blurred. Human suffering then becomes the key theme of Folman’s film not only because it is a concrete representation of ‘truth as reality’, but also it acts as a spur towards the quest for the absolute truth i.e. what really did happened, which in my opinion is the secondary theme.


Artistic & Technical Merit
Waltz with Bashir features animation different from what is seen in Pixar films or what is observed in the hand-drawn beauty of Miyazaki’s best works. Nonetheless, it is just as impressive.

Its artistic style reminds that of another recent animated film – Paronnaud and Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007) which also deals with the past, in this case, about the Islamic Revolution in Iran during the late 1970s. Both share graphic novel-esque visuals – stylized and unsophisticated – keeping the look of the film simple yet eye-catching.

To a large extent, Folman’s film feels hallucinatory and surrealistic as if everything is just a terrible nightmare. This nightmarish mood is forced upon the viewer in the opening sequence as described by Jayson Harsin in an article in ‘Bright Lights Film Journal’. He says “Waltz With Bashir‘s opening is a remarkable one – 26 wild dogs bounding down the street, frothing at the mouth, trampling everything in their path…it is disturbing, moving, and also a kind of symbolic foreshadowing.”

Harsin continues to elaborate on the potency of the animation used in the film. “The animation style and often the lighting give a surreal glow to the events being narrated, which works perfectly to illustrate the story of a man’s trip into his own psyche. Folman uses animation expressionistically to present a surreal ethos, the mind driven through dreamscapes in pursuit of an elusive memory.”

Music, I feel plays a very important role in enhancing our film-viewing experience. In Waltz with Bashir, the original score by Max Richter not only acts as a brilliant accompaniment to the film’s stark and gloomy visuals, it also features songs which describe “repression and depression” (Harsin) as a way to deal with war.

In a way, these songs translate the accompanying visuals into words, thus providing us an additional text to the main narrative, that of a ‘sub-conscious commentary’ which is at times ironic as evident in the song ‘Enola Gay’ by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark when it “accompanies Israeli planes pouring bombs onto Lebanese combatants.” (Harsin).


The film editing is well done. For most parts, the film plays out quite straightforwardly, coherent in a chronological order. I never once felt a moment of confusion.

The recurring ‘dream’ sequence by Folman, which shows a group of naked soldiers emerging from the still water in slow-motion as flares above their heads light up the night sky in an eerie orange glow, acts as a counterpoint for what is real and what is not. But then again, what is real may not be what it seems as mentioned earlier.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian says, “there is a bold shift from animation to TV news footage. I am not sure quite what to make of this shift, and have an uncomfortable feeling that it is an aesthetic error, and a tacit concession that the animation techniques used until that moment are lacking in seriousness: once the tragedy is directly broached, they must be abandoned. A minor loss of nerve, perhaps.”

I strongly disagree with his view. For the past hour or so, Folman has paced the film slowly, with growing suspense and mystery, as if building towards a payoff at the end.

The highly unexpected ‘jump cut’ – not of time and space but of reality and imagination – left me in shock (and in awe) of Folman’s mastery of the film medium. It probably rivals in audaciousness to the famous bone-to-satellite jump-cut scene in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

In conclusion, even though it is still early to tell, I daresay that Waltz with Bashir may be Folman’s magnum opus. It is an accomplished piece of cinema which refuses to be pigeonholed into any specific genre. While often labeled as an animated documentary which is, to a certain extent, an experimental genre, it somehow goes beyond the conventions of animation and documentary filmmaking in their own rights.

It is part-fictional, part-autobiographical, and questions the essence of truth, reality, and imagination as a filmic quality as well as through the characters’ memories of a past event. The cinematic power of Waltz with Bashir cannot be disputed; Folman’s masterpiece will continue to grow in resonance and relevance.


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