Waltz with Bashir is a 2008 Oscar-nominated Israeli animated documentary written and directed by Ari Folman. The film follows the director in his search to clarify to himself his role during the 1982 Lebanon War, in which at just 19 he served as part of the Israel Defence Force, and his struggles to remember what exactly took place, particularly his involvement in the Sabra and Shatila Massacre. The film explores the ways in which he and his fellow servicemen have coped with their own memories and actions from the period.
The style of animation is immediately striking, most often muted and bleak, but with bright spots of colour frequently punctuating the drabness, bold and vivid. Dream sequences in particular employ washes of rich teals and oranges. Technically, the film is created in a complex, unique style. At first it appears to be rotoscoped, but is in fact a combination of Adobe Flash cutouts, traditional animation techniques, and 3D technologies. First shot on a sound studio as a 90 minute live-action video, this was then transferred to a series of storyboards, which in turn spawned 2,300 individual drawings, all of which were cut up into hundreds of constituent parts which were then all moved in relation to one another to create the illusion of movement. This technique gives the characters a fluidity of movement; a sense that they, as people, aren’t entirely a single, solid object, rather a collection of fragmented pieces put together to give the illusion of a single entity.
The narrative was inspired by a conversation Folman had with a friend, Boaz, and his account of a recurring dream where 26 dogs tear through the city and demand to eat him. He tells Folman that during the conflict he was charged with shooting local dogs to quiet them as his unit infiltrated villages in search of wanted men, and the dream is his torment for killing the animals. When Boaz asks if he experiences anything similar, Folman says he has no clear memories of what happened during his time at war. That very night, however, he dreams of bathing in the Mediterranean with two other soldiers, watching flares float ethereally down through tower blocks in a city, followed by hordes of screaming women fleeing through the streets past them.
Knowing that it must be related to the conflict, but still not having any recollection of that event, he asks his friend and collaborator Ori Sivan what it could mean. Sivan explains that memory is a living thing, and suggests he asks the other men in his dream if they remember anything that could help. The narrative, then, follows Folman as he visits comrades he served with, listening to their own experiences, recollections (some more fractured than others), and subsequent dreams and feelings. These recollections help him realise he has been suppressing his own memories to the point that he doesn’t recall even being in many of the places in which he served, or being with the men he served with, and in turn he begins to recollect and piece together his memories, little by little.
Dream sequences and surreal, darkly comic scenes feature heavily in the film, recalling Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five from time to time – a major influence on Waltz with Bashir. In fact, the title comes from one of Folman’s memories outlined near the end of the second act; the commander of his unit, Shmuel Frenkel, grabs a MAG machine gun and, to Chopin’s Waltz in C Sharp Minor, dances a crazed waltz with it in the street amidst gunfire and explosions, in front of walls covered with posters of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. The medium of animation allows for these scenes to be realised much more easily than live action, and Folman exploits this advantage accordingly, featuring numerous beautifully surreal dreams and montages throughout, many of which contrast starkly with the bleak recollections of wartime.
Music is also utilised to great effect throughout. As mentioned above, piano pieces by Chopin feature, as do contemporary pop and rock tracks from the period, such as OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’ appearing in a bizarre memory of troops being transported on a “love boat”, and a beautifully realised sequence where Folman seemingly ‘walks’ from Beirut to Tel Aviv whilst on leave, set to PiL’s ‘This is Not a Love Song’. There’s also a chillingly comic montage of soldiers and rebels shooting and blowing each other up in a Keystone Kops-style chase sequence, soundtracked by a Hebrew cover of Cake’s ‘I Bombed Korea’, only with ‘Korea’ changed to ‘Beirut’. Scenes like this perfectly sum up the lies these young men told themselves during the war in order to distance themselves from it – it’s all just a laugh.
With tensions in the Middle East flaring up once again, and fresh atrocities being committed seemingly every other day, Waltz with Bashir is once more achingly topical, not to mention essential viewing. A beautifully animated film depicting horrible actions, all of which are blown apart by the final few minutes of live-action documentary footage, it is undeniably a hard watch at times, but one that provides a powerful insight into how, sometimes, such wartime atrocities come to pass.