[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
Early in “Waltz with Bashir,” director Ari Folman has an onscreen conversation with a friend about a psychological experiment. In the study, subjects were given photographs of themselves from their childhoods, but one picture was digitally manipulated to depict an event that had never happened. Even though the image was fabricated, half of the subjects in the study claimed to remember the event upon studying the picture. Memory, after all, is pliable (“It’s alive,” Ari’s friend tells him), but whatever we may know about the manipulation of images, we’re still inclined to believe that a photograph can’t lie. This idea has preoccupied theorists and filmmakers from Andre Bazin to Errol Morris as they’ve puzzled over cinema’s relationship to “the real”; for Folman, the tension between memory and photographic evidence is a point of departure.
Memory, as a reflection, distortion, and omission of historical truth, is very much in question in “Waltz with Bashir,” a documentary that reconstructs Folman’s experience as a soldier during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent massacre of over 800 Palestinian refugees in Beirut by Lebanese Christian Phalangists. In the film, Folman realizes that he has no recollection of that time, and begins to interview the other soldiers he served with, along with therapists and trauma experts, to piece together his lost time, the absent memory of this horrific historical incident.
The photographic image — and the illusion of certainty that it suggests — does not suit the ambiguous terrain “Waltz with Bashir” surveys, and so it makes sense that Folman has instead used a combination of Flash, traditional, and 3D animation, rather than stock footage, filmed interviews, or live-action reenactments, to visualize his conversations and reimagine his forgotten experience. Visually and generically, the result is quite unlike any film I have seen; it’s as though Folman is creating a new form, or at least a new subgenre: the animated documentary. Still, as revelatory as it often is, it’s also impossible after the fact to imagine a more appropriate aesthetic approach for the film’s subject. Thoughtful, wrenching, and uniquely beautiful, “Waltz with Bashir” more than lives up to the hype that’s been building since its Cannes debut in May.
“Waltz with Bashir” moves at a breathless pace from one evocative image to the next: ferocious, rabid dogs race down city streets; nude soldiers emerge from the sea, rifles in hand; a man drifts along the water, buoyed by a large nude woman who cradles him like a massive life raft; a soldier dances in a street through a hail of bullets, accompanied by a Chopin waltz. Folman’s gorgeous imagery, often plucked from recollections of dreams, runs the risk of aestheticizing historical tragedy, mining a massacre for pretty pictures set to a self-consciously eclectic soundtrack. In execution, though, his technique ends up foregrounding the subjectivity of his imagery.
Many of his reenactments are thrillingly mounted — in one of the most memorable, a soldier recalls a commanding officer being shot and killed in a tank, and his subsequent, horrifying dash along a beach as his fellow soldiers are picked off, one by one. Though this scene could play as an action sequence, the animation keeps us at a remove, constantly aware that what we’re watching is mediated by time, perception, and point-of-view, one filmmaker’s take on another man’s experience as relayed in an interview. The entire film is structured by such interviews, each of which allows Folman to uncover a certain version of the massacre by layering one personal experience on top of another. The film is essentially an investigative documentary that plunges the depths of conscience and consciousness in its search for something resembling truth.
Folman may not get to an answer by the end of “Waltz with Bashir.” But if truth is elusive, history is sometimes more certain. He closes the film with archival footage of the massacre, which is all the more bracing after the nearly 80 minutes of animated footage that precedes it. Some pictures don’t lie. “Waltz with Bashir” leaves it to us to weigh recollection and evidence, to grapple with undeniable atrocity and moral uncertainty. Because, sometimes, forgetting simply isn’t an option.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer and a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly.]