Charitably viewed, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is very close to being a flawless work of cinematic art. Its subject matter is relentlessly ‘serious’ and ‘important’, its visuals are not only stylish but arresting and its structure is a genuinely inventive demonstration of the links between psychoanalysis and detective stories. However, beneath the veneer of artistically slick visuals and introspection lies a film which, uncharitably viewed, is not only confused but actively confusing.
The film begins with an arresting scene in which a pack of wild dogs run through the streets leaving chaos and terror behind them. They eventually stop beneath the window of a friend of the film maker Ari Folman. In a bar, the dog-attractor explains that he has been having this same dream for years and he suspects that it is inspired by his time in the IDF when he had to shoot the guard dogs before his squad moved into a town. Upon asking Folman if he has any similar dreams, Folman responds by saying that the war and ensuing massacre of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian paramilitaries are simply not present in his system. However, soon after he begins a recurring dream about him and two other soldiers floating in the sea as yellow flares light up a city. Upon seeing the flares, the young men walk out of the sea and climb into their uniforms. Concerned about this apparent memory resurfacing, Folman shows up on the doorstep of another of his friends, a therapist, and asks him what to do. The therapist suggests tracking down the other people in the dream and the other people present at the time in the hope that they will help Folman’s memories return to him. The rest of the film is made up of interviews with Folman’s friends and a few other people who share their memories of the war and the massacre, gradually helping Folman to remember his time in Lebanon.
It is difficult to talk about Waltz with Bashir without heaping praise upon the talents of its animators. The initial scene with the pack of dogs is brilliantly intense and perfectly directed. Also note-worthy is the eeriness of Folman’s dream in which three young soldiers drag themselves out of the water and plod nakedly up the beach towards a cityscape lit up by yellow flares. However, while the composition and execution of these scenes are undeniably memorable, the film’s true genius is in the continuously destabilising effect that its visuals have upon the audience.
All throughout Waltz with Bashir, Folman switches between different levels of ‘realism’. For example, one scene is purely fantastical and features a giant woman stepping out of the sea and picking up a soldier and swimming away with him in what must surely be a tip of the hat to Moebius’ artwork for Jodorowsky’s Incal. From there we move to rotoscaped interview footage in which people have been filmed talking and someone has traced over the film in order to make it look like animation (a technique used in Bakshi’s adaptation of The Lord of The Rings ). So we move from the fantastical to the weirdly realistic. But Folman’s manipulations do not end there. In one scene, Folman recalls walking through Beirut airport and being surprised by how normal everything seemed inside the building up until he realised that, actually, he had been hallucinating the normality as the airport was in ruins; visions of visions about dreams within dreams. However, it is important to note that Waltz with Bashir’s ontological playfulness is not simply a matter of stylish trippy visuals and complex layers of framing, it is present in every aspect of the film from unrealistically cool 80s punk nightclubs (because nobody ever listened to Kajagoogoo) to camera angles that would be impossible to shoot from in the real world (an idea that also pops up in Michael Haneke’s Hidden ). Indeed, it is as though Folman is intent upon keeping his audience off guard and unprepared for what might pop up next; is this scene Folman talking to us? is it someone else? is it a dream? is it reality? is it speculation? Waltz with Bashir is never on an even metaphysical footing. Nowhere is this more clear than in the way in which Folman makes use of rotoscaping.
Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (2006) made extensive use of the technique as a means of stressing the hallucinatory quality of Dick’s vision and the blurring of the line between reality and dream that comes with drug use. However, Folman makes a far more intricate use of the same technique by blending it with more traditional techniques, sometimes within the same image. For example, in one scene we might have a crudely animated figure dressed in an overcoat that flaps in the wind with enough realism to suggest that the image was rotoscaped. Then, in another scene, the figures might well be animated in a realistic fashion except for their facial features that remain cartoonishly inanimate. The effect of this protean animation style is that you are never sure what it is you are looking at. It is as though Folman has strapped you into a roller-coaster that speeds up and down the uncanny valley leaving you forever unsure as to the reality of the figures you are looking at.
Linklater received plenty of praise for his use of rotoscaping and Folman’s deployment of it is arguably even more impressive. However, the difference between Folman and Philip K. Dick is that Dick’s toying with ontology always felt deliberate. Waltz with Bashir, by contrast, feels utterly out of control.
In one early scene, a friend of Folman asks him whether films can serve as therapy. The implied answer, of course, is that they can because if they could not then Folman’s friend would not be appearing on our screens asking about that very possibility. The film initially presents itself as a therapeutic exercise; an attempt by Folman to uncover his repressed memories. However, despite making it clear, in very heavy-handed terms, what the film is about, Folman then proceeds to allow that very thread to slip between his fingers.
While the film certainly devotes time to some of Folman’s recovered memories, it devotes equal time to the memories of others including Folman’s friends and a TV journalist who was in Beirut at the time. This need not be a problem in and of itself. Indeed, part of the therapeutic method laid out at the beginning of the film is that Folman should compare his memories to those of others. However, Folman somehow manages to lose track of which exact question it is that he is trying to answer. Indeed, regarding the issue of the reality of Folman’s dream, one of the three soldiers categorically denies being on that beach and Folman seems reluctant to press the issue. The situation worsens the further into the film you get as the later stages of the film shift from therapy to history and starts to focus upon the extent of the Israel Defense Force’s involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre and, in particular, whether then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon turned a blind eye to it. This section of the film works rather well and it builds to a moving climax as the film’s final scenes are real-world footage of the aftermath of the massacre. However, it is not completely clear what this has to do with therapy. Is Folman suggesting that Israelis have forgotten the part they played in what some have called an act of genocide? if he is then he is leaving rather a lot unsaid.
This is the point at which the director’s intentions become paramount. If taken either as a journey into Folman’s memory or into Israel’s collective memory then the film is strangely elusive in that it fails to make any clear point or even to adopt anything approaching a coherent viewpoint. As unsatisfying and confusing as this more mainstream documentarian reading of the film might be, it does feel somewhat uncharitable.
I think it is better to see the film as an extended exploration of an idea suggested early on in the film. After Folman meets with his therapist friend, he asks whether his dream actually happened and the therapist describes a psychological study that took pictures of people as children and then transferred them to a photo of a fun fair. When asked if they remembered that particular day, a shocking majority said that they remembered it very clearly despite the fact that it never happened. Memory is an active, evolving thing the therapist explains. Indeed, one of the problems with the idea of a repressed memory is that it is possible for therapists to unintentionally plant memories in people’s minds by attempting to ‘uncover’ them. This phenomenon is what lies behind the satanic abuse scares of the early 1990s.
The idea of false memory could be said to be central to a proper understanding of Waltz with Bashir. If we take the film’s strange shift from therapy to history to be (a) an expression of the idea that it is possible to have memories of events that never took place and (b) an exploration of the way in which history can be constructed thanks to the fallible and plastic nature of human memory then the film’s framing issues and destabilising visuals take on a more profound and cohesive meaning. The film refuses to provide any clear answers about Folman’s dream or the historical facts as it realises that there is no clear line between any of the different epistemological and ontological postures that the film adopts. Just as the visuals never settle down to a fixed level of realism, the same is true of the film’s arguments and content. Human memory is an imperfect and weirdly recursive storage device that cannot easily be sifted for truth.
Of course, the obvious response to this idea is ‘So What?’. The fact that documentarians frequently mistake their beliefs for reality should be obvious to anyone who has watched the works of Michael Moore, Robert Greenwald or Nick Broomfield. While I may applaud the style with which Waltz with Bashir makes its arguments, I cannot help but think that more could have been made of the subject matter regardless of whether one views the film through charitable or uncharitable eyes.