It is seldom that a movie comes along that seems to change your whole concept of a certain genre. Even rarer, when that movie touches more than one genre and is thereby doubly effective. With Israel’s movie Waltz with Bashir we get this feeling. And while this animated documentary might not be the first of its kind, it certainly is the first feature length film in this category, and that’s no small achievement.
The concept behind the film is set up in the opening sequence, where film maker Ari Folman is being told by his friend Boaz of a recurring nightmare. In Boaz’s dream, 26 very angry dogs are hunting him. Boaz explains that this is about his time fighting in Lebanon, and that the 26 dogs are ghosts of those same dogs Boaz had to kill before his unit could enter the villages they knew terrorists were hiding in. This sparked something Folman’s own mind, and he realizes that he has only one memory of his own service in Lebanon. Ari can only picture himself and two other people lying on their backs in the sea. They then stand up and walk naked to the shore, dress themselves and then walk down the street towards a refugee camp. As there is nothing more to this memory, Ari decides to find the one other person he can identify from this, as well as other people he knows or thinks he served with to see if they can help him remember anything else. This takes us through interviews with doctors, psychologists, friends and even journalists, interspersed with recreated dramatizations of the events being talked about.
From this you can already see that this isn’t simply the first feature length animated documentary, but combines docudrama techniques as well. What makes this even more unique is that the animation is done like an old cartoon or comic book, with two dimensional ink figures filled in with flat solid colours that don’t even attempt to look realistic. This afforded Folman the ability to recreate memories of the people he interviewed without having to look for archive footage, which in several cases, obviously simply didn’t exist. Folman did add one piece of live-action footage at the end of the movie, which I believe was absolutely necessary for the concluding impact. (I prefer not to tell you what this piece is, since I think it would spoil it for those viewers who haven’t had a chance to see this yet). Plus, the attention to detail regarding how the animations were executed was particularly amazing. For instance, when Ari visited his best friend Ori at his home, Ori’s son was playing in the room. In the film, Ari depicted the child on screen in the background to match the noises on the recording. This gives rise to a juxtaposition of the simplicity of ‘child’s play’ vs. the complexity of Ari’s psychological dilemma. So, on all the creative levels, this is truly a work of art that is both evocative and emotive, in addition to being a powerful, while still sensitive piece of storytelling about a very personal journey.
This type of comic-book animation also allowed for an overall tone to the film that otherwise couldn’t have been achieved. Folman was obviously looking for a method that would not distract the viewers by being technically dazzling. This worked beautifully, and also gave me the feeling that Folman was trying to say “this is my search for my reality, this is not yours”. I also believe that there was another reason for using these 2D drawings. In the first scenes with his friend Carmi in The Netherlands Ari sees Carmi’s son playing in the snow. Ari asks Carmi if he can draw pictures of his son. Carmi agrees but pointedly notes that Ari should “not film him”, and we then see the child with a toy gun shooting at a pretend enemy. I felt that what this was saying applies to the whole film. That the idea of a boy playing soldier in the snow is okay to portray, but please don’t encroach on the real person by making him too real to your viewers, as that would make it an infringement of his privacy. By the way, this is a very typical Israeli trait – that resistance to allow others to see what’s really inside – and for me, that makes this all the more impressive.
Of course, there’s nothing to mention here about the acting since these are all real people being recorded and interviewed. However, some of the choices are particularly fascinating – especially the journalist Ron Ben-Yeshai who is nothing short of an Israeli icon for his amazing war correspondence. What those of you who can’t understand the original language will miss out of, however, is the humour that’s included here, which probably won’t translate completely. One that might, however, is in one conversation where they talk about the first car bombs. Many of us will recognize “the bomb” as one of Randy Jackson’s slang phrases for something or someone that really worked well. The word in Hebrew for “explosion” is also used as slang for something that becomes extremely popular – which we know, car bombs became for far too many terrorists. So, while not a perfect translation, you might catch this one. But for the most part, there are many Hebrew speakers that will be smiling or even chuckling in many places in this film – which again, makes it all the more, well, “a bomb”!
I have to admit, however, that this movie may not have as much of an appeal that it does for certain audiences. If you’re not into artistic films or documentaries, I’m almost sure all the enthusiasm I’ve expressed here isn’t going to make you want to see this. I also wonder how interesting a film like this would be to someone who has never had any experiences with war on any level – either personal or through friends and/or relatives. But for me, a lover of film and its artistry as well as someone who lives in Israel, and has had this on my doorstep since I came here, this film holds relevance to me on more levels than I can describe. So while I personally think this is a marvelous film, I can understand people who will feel apathetic towards it because of the subject matter. Still, I must highly recommend this film to everyone, because of its extremely high production quality.