I made a profound observation near the end of Fall Quarter: one’s mind (or at least mine) is far more easily blown when tired.
So it was probably fortuitous that I slept for only three or four hours the night before viewing director Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. This animated documentary — yes, animated — dives deep into the memories of its subjects, swimming around in their experiences and sucking the audience into the emotion of it all. And my sleep deprivation only made me all the more susceptible to its tide.
All vaguely aquatic metaphors aside, Waltz is a film about the 1982 Lebanon War and its impact on the psyches of Folman and others who, like him, served in the Israeli Army during the war. The dialogue comes straight from interviews with these soldiers and other friends of Folman, all consulted in the hope that their stories and advice may help fill in the holes in his peculiarly spotty memory of this part of his life. What the audience sees is Folman’s visual interpretation of the memories and emotions of the interviewees and of himself. You get the idea that Folman really wants the audience to feel what his subjects feel, how he feels.
With a unique use of animation, supplemented with a few photographic backdrops, Folman does just that even more successfully than he could have had he used only sit-down interviews, reenactments and news footage with music pasted on top. Instead, he inserts into your mind the feeling of everything—the fear, the confusion, the powerlessness—without having to be filtered by the limitations of visual plausibility. He submerges you in the open seas of his subjects’ psyches. Thus, the hallucinations of a seasick young soldier on a doomed boat hardly seem annoyingly artsy or inaccessible, and you don’t get the feeling that the giant, naked, blue lady is merely a “representation” of what young Carmi is seeing in his delusion—you are seeing what he sees. Your head is swimming as much as his. Or at least it feels that way.
That’s what this movie is all about, really: how everyone feels about the events in question, especially the massacre of hundreds (possibly thousands) at the hands of Lebanese Phalangist militiamen. Folman wants to flood you with the confused, ambivalent emotions about the moral ambiguity of the war–it’s an anti-war movie, but it’s not necessarily about the war itself so much as the surreal and traumatic memories it created.
During the film, one of Folman’s friends describes to him an experiment in which a faked childhood photograph caused the subject to believe that the scene in the picture had actually happened in his past. “Memory is a living thing,” he says. Folman’s memory isn’t simply filled in—through the course of his interviews, it evolves.
I really can’t divulge without spoiling some crucial revelations. But rest assured, this ties back to Folman’s emotional response to the war and the massacre. Still, the flim is not without flaws. It risks getting a little self-indulgent with a few of its musical interludes (though the music itself is awesome), but it reins itself in just enough. The slightly stilted style of animation is a little strange at first, but not too difficult to get used to. The ending of the film feels inconclusive, but that’s clearly intentional and can only be pointed out as a “flaw” for not adhering to a traditional narrative structure.
If nothing else, this is a visually gorgeous piece of art. Remember Persepolis, in all its minimal monochromatic intensity? This is pretty much the exact visual opposite—maximal, expressive and colorful, but no less intense. Helicopter lights look indistinguishable from a rising sun. Falling flares illuminate an empty city with an eerily beautiful golden glow. A drive through a snow-covered countryside is starkly awash in pure white. There are, of course, less than savory images: a child soldier shot dead, horses languishing in living decay, entire families massacred—this is a war film, after all. But the style of animation hardly takes away from the horror and the reality of death. So maybe “gorgeous” wasn’t a good, all-encompassing word to describe the visuals. I’ll go with “striking.” More importantly, the visuals are Folman’s deadly weapon of choice in truly making you empathize with his subjects. As Waltz is a documentary, he couldn’t arbitrarily add written dialogue to the film. The images are what drive the emotions and senses of the war home.
So many war documentaries pride themselves in covering things as they really are, and that’s fine. What Waltz with Bashir does differently is cover how we really feel about them. But despite (or perhaps, because of) the fact that it’s more focused on feelings than facts, and that the visuals are more expressive than photorealistic, this film just seems to matter so much more than any other war movie in recent memory. That this film spends so much time floating in the emotions of its subjects doesn’t make it sentimental or biased–it makes Waltz a spectacle of subjective hyperrealism.