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Cinema - Film Reviews - Review | by Pedrovmoura in Cinema - Film Reviews on 28/05/2009 - Comments (0)
Waltz with Bashir / Ari Folman / 2008 / 90'

A not-so-brief look at the feature animated film by Ari Folman, and a consideration of its narrative velocity in relationship to memory.


We all know this feeling: we’re walking down a street and suddenly we’re caught by a remembrance. If that thin film of memory is something that we suspect as harmful and unpleasant, we’ll walk faster, as if we could shake it off, flick it, like dust or rubbish. But if it’s something that we feel the need to reconstruct and recuperate, then on the contrary we will slow down, as if we’re waiting for someone to keep up with us, or as if we’re trying to make clear the right path to exit the enigmatic labyrinth of forgetfulness onto the open, bright plaza of recollection (this simile was stolen from Milan Kundera’s La Lenteur, or in its English translation, Slowness). And I believe that Israelite director Ari Folman’s animated movie Waltz with Bashir is under the aegis of this memory-retrieving slow step.
You will find synopsis and summaries of this movie elsewhere, along with a battery of information that may be of interest to you. You could start at its official site, for instance, (we have also pilfered the images from there and elsewhere in the internet). What we want to point out here are a few thoughts on the movie, and it will help if you’ve seen it. This is a not a text that will invite you to watch the movie, as if trying to “sell” it, but rather to invite to discuss it.
The first thing that one realizes is that this is an autobiographical movie, or at least it can be considered as one to a certain degree: besides the extra-narrative information found in a lot of places, and through the director in particular, the main character is called Ari and shares with the real-person common physical traits. In any case, we will use “Ari” when referring to the character in the movie, and “Folman” or “Ari Folman” when mentioning the director. So, despite all the fictional detours and transfigurations that do occur, we know that the author, the protagonist and the narrator are all the one and same person, which brings an important if highly elusive element to the movie: truth.
In the beginning of the movie, Ari is asked by one of his friends, Boaz – precisely the one who, describing his own repetitive dream-sequence/opening scene, will trigger Ari’s own seed of remembrance – if he thinks that movies have a therapeutic value. This is, as it were, the first lens through which we should see this movie. The linkage of this movie with its theme, memory, or better still, with the matter of memory (that is to say, in which the way human memory works is not the object of the narrative but rather the method through which that same narrative is constructed and structured), is something that has been tried time and again by many other cinematic experiences. I am not referring here to mere narrative juggling, as it happens in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, as an example, but to deep explorations of how memory affects things and is affected by them. Arguably, keystone examples may be found in Chris Marker’s oeuvre or Sukorov’s Russian Ark. Perhaps we could add Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as mid-way examples. Waltz with Bashir has become instantly part of this class of films.
There is not enough room here (and to tell you truth, neither the expertise) to go into the technical details of the film. It is not rotoscopy (even the classical-modern forms, to various degrees of success, seen in Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly or Renaissance) but a sort of digital morphing technique, whose first masterpiece is, I believe, Peter Foldès’ 1973 La Faim. Folman mentioned in an interview that he does “not believe in rotoscopy”, and he aimed to use a technique that prevented the audience from projecting itself, from identifying with the characters, and that reached a more real representation of war, less empathic and seductive than most, if not all, “action movies”. However, although Folman’s look on this is very debatable and probably impossible to attain – just as his wish to look at this movie as something “not-political”!! – this is less important for us than to consider how this technique (and showing how one cannot make a clear-cut, definitive distinction between “form” and “content”, but consider how the two work together in a “mode” that creates signification) strongly contributes to the physical slowness that mirrors Ari’s memory reconstruction. The author has mentioned several times that animation offers him great freedom where representation is concerned, but he – as far as I could know, through interviews and writings – does not discuss that much the specific ontological breadth of animation and the implications it plays within a work like this. There are many questions that I’d like to ask Ari Folman, not because I think the ones that have been posed thus far are not good, but because I see in this movie a very profound dimension that has not been broached so far. It is only natural that the main interest on this movie has been triggered by its political implications (for it does have them, despite what the director says), or by the so-called genre mixing (which is important). But our main interest it to address yet another force of the movie, of a conceptual kind. The film is obviously a political gesture, and a brave and strong one at that, given the fact it brings to the fore and discusses in its own way the accountability of Israel for the Lebanon massacres portrayed at the hands of the Christian Falangists (being the film’s subtext that Israel was indulgent, if not outright supportive both logistically and politically, with them). It is true that the film does not make the context entirely clear, that is to say, it is not concerned with explanations, it does not verbalize accusations, and it does not get involved directly with libels or allegations. But there a whole bunch of suggestions that add up to such underlying criticism (and Ari participates in it): the phone call in the middle of the night to Ariel Sharon at the exact moment of the massacre, that ends in an unflustered tone, the Israeli army officers seem almost arrogant, the machine-like “distraction” of the young Israeli soldiers, the apathy of the Israel citizens in relationship to those who have returned from Lebanon… This is a rare film of intelligence, and it is not restricted to the sphere of emotions or of fantasy. In this sense, it is a lively contribution to the world of animation, or better still, to the world of adult-oriented animated long features, as we haven’t seen in the last years. We know that Linklater’s Waking Life and Paronnaud’s and Satrapi’s Persepolis were stepping stones in this path, but if the former was a little to pretentious in its underdeveloped structure and the latter lost some of the original book’s force in its off beam rhythm, Waltz with Bashir results in a perfect match of its subject matter and the vehicle it employs to convey it. (Once again, I’d like to stress that this is something that seldom occurs in long features, for all the known reasons, mainly production-related; animation as a whole has a glorious history of outstanding, no, awesome – in all the sense of the word – experiences with short movies, whether if we approach it from a formalist point of view or from a narrative or even political point of view, as for instances, Pierre Hébert’s Memories of War).
For those reasons, I do agree with an article that brought this film to the same plane as the comics works of people like Rutu Modan and Joe Sacco. We could go further, and still within comics, we could mention Bill Mauldin’s cartoons or the Argentinean Oesterheld’s (and collaborators) Ernie Pike series; I would even go to the point of comparing the film, also stylistically, even if superficially, with Emmanuel Guibert’s masterpiece La Guerre d’Alan, namely for its underplayed palette, the large shadows taking a large part of the composition plane, and its “encyclopaedic” images (to use Fresnault-Deruelle’s term, when referring to images which explain something by showing how something works, as in a manual, although fully integrated in the narrative program of the comics work).
As we had seen, the autobiographical weight of this movie is evident. This provides with a reason, even if circumstantial, to return to Persepolis. But if Satrapi’s movie (and Paronnaud’s) and her original comic book is constituted by small, clearly contoured, unambiguous narrative episodes, Waltz’ diegesis is distributed throughout fragments of two distinct natures: on the one hand we have “reality”, i.e., the many encounters of Ari with his friends and other personalities, on the other hand we have “memory”, whether belonging exclusively to those friends, or the ones belonging to Ari but that are triggered by such encounters, or the ones who are of a composite quality. And animation becomes the exact, precise method through which these several layers of experience are shown, how they become visible. Although this is not the first time Folman is using animation (he had used a small insert in one of his documentaries), it is a new experience, not only for its specific usage in such a special and long project but also because the artists were given total freedom to come up with a tremendous visual creativity. But apart from these first considerations on animation, Folman has repeatedly mentioned that animation, for him, allows him to show the perception – even if diluted or merged with memory, or under the shadow of the shock of war – of all the interviewes. That is to say, the majority if not all of the most emblematic images of the movie (Boaz’ dream of the 49 dogs in the opening scene, Carmi’s giant blue woman, the slow descent of the flares, Ari’s vision of his girlfriend) should be seen not as literal dream-like or dream-proper images, but rather as representations of that specific perception. Even if it goes through less common “doors” (to play upon Huxley’s famous title). Actually, in an interview to Les Cahiers du Cinéma, Folman plays a pun upon this, saying that the structure of the film follows a trip not in its geographical sense but as in drug-induced hallucinations: we can also read in this that the presence, the involvement in war, allows for or brings about an euphoric experience not unlike the ones set off by certain drugs, although with utterly negative effects. This blend or creation of a common denominator between all the layers of perception (reality, dream, memory, senses) is something that we have witnessed in David B.’s L’Ascension du Haut Mal, where the artist’s masterstroke creates a common realm in which all creatures – dream-, nightmare- and memory-bound – have the same citizenship rights as the ones from the waking world. This strategy, present as well in Waltz, turns the whole experience of the film and the experiences shared in the film into a coherent and harmonious body.
The most debated and mentioned characteristic of this movie is that this film combines the classic documentary film method with animation, which leads to the aforementioned comparison with Joe Sacco, given that this author associates also two languages (investigative journalism/reportage and comics) that seemed to be traditionally and inescapably separate. Of course, this view is false. Even historically, because we can go as far as Winsor McCay to mention his film about the Lusitania ship to come up with a reference of “animated documentary”, not to mention the hundreds of “educational movies” that were made throughout the decades. But one does understand that social perception; the small number of strong cases reinforces that perceived split, which is now, hopefully, over for good. As we had mentioned, Folman has had other experiences with animation but this particular film brings to the fore a new dimension that sustains its acclaim and critical importance. Part of that difference is related to its somewhat classic approach to the documentary strategies, in relationship to which animation becomes the added value – as Folman has said himself – that becomes the actual foundation from which the characters’ statements and memories stem. There are no tangible documents to support those statements and those memories. Therefore, animation becomes – and here the English word is perfect – evidence.
I have no doubts that people who are aware and knowledgeable in documentary film will have a very different and specific approach to this film, but that is not our position, of course, lacking both knowledge on the subject and rigour. But it is in relationship to that very sphere that our main problem arises: we understand that the choice of presenting this “flight into reconstructed memory” through animation entails a problem where the concept of “truth” (whatever that is) is concerned, and Folman attempts to alleviate it through the use of real footage at the end of the film.
But here lies the major quandary for Waltz with Bashir: is it not the use of this footage, the use of an image of the real, a “document” in all the sense of the word, a sort of countermeasure or negation towards the very ontology of animation? Does that footage not play a role that points out the lessening of the testimonial value of the animated images, of its reality, its truth (whatever it may be)? Is not the animated image true enough so that it needs to be corroborated by the real image? In the aforementioned interview to Les Cahiers, Folman explains how these images were employed in order to wake the spectator from his “trip”. This is fundamentally a substantiation that animation does not have the same citizenship status as “real” images to convey “truth”. But if a singularity was achieved, why waste it? Serge Kaganshi presents a wholly different reading of this relationship between “animated” and “real” images, in the Les Inrockuptibles magazine, comparing Waltz with Art Spiegelman’s Maus; check his final note, especially; moreover, and returning to Pierre Hébert, and something he said in a masterclass in Lisbon, we could perhaps think of those final images as having a shock effect, something that “bursts the fantasy bubble”, which can be created by animation… However, I do not agree that this is the same line of discussion we should have in relationship to the ontology of Ari Folman’s animated movie: quite the contrary, the ontology of the animation of Waltz with Bashir aims to attain a value of replacement of perception and experience, both real at all times.
We find yet another curious, if wrong, image about this subject in the beginning of the movie. The protagonist, Ari, just before he comes to the realization that he must set in motion the gears of his own memory retrieval, affirms that the brain is a mere memory storage facility, according to the cybernetic metaphor of a “system” (in which there was no room for the memories of the Lebanon War). The problem is that memories, even from a neurological point of view, have no unarguable set physical place: they are transformed trough time, through revisitations, they are changed by the actions of keeping them, retrieving them, assimilate them, and shackle them (we could also say, suppress), and, above all, the action of reinventing them. As of course, that error of perspective of the main character is made right by the very fact he is able to remember, to recuperate those memories all along the movie. It is that act of recuperation that closed the movie. There is no need to discuss what comes “after” that, because the recuperation itself was the goal of the story, the end of the actions. What follows, the part with real footage, is a sort of “external” coda.
The idea of the circumference of a circle, of an edge, is constantly indicated. A direct mention is that of the military perimeters, in which several groups of soldiers, apart from each other, draw up several more or less coordinated protection zones. In Portuguese, we call “war zones” literally “war stages”, as in theatre parlance. However, in this particular war, there is no way to distinguish which space belongs to the stage and which to the audience; there is no dividing line whatsoever. No matter how distant one may be from the limelight of that stage, one is nevertheless participating on the scene, he or she will be on the stage. And notions of responsibility, accountability, involvement are all part of what’s discussed by the film: how can 100 meters be a difference so that Ari can feel no responsibility for what was happening? Should he feel guilty or innocent? Is there even room for such distinctions? Is one obliged to take sides, to make a choice between the two? Or is it rather a question of understanding the existence of a strange, gray and multiform in the interstices of all situations? It is not difficult to come up with associations to the circles of Dante’s Inferno, at one time differentiated among themselves and united in Hell. The footage emerges thus as that wholly external space, the end of the trip, the exit of Hell. But at the same time it unshields the body which had been created by the (animated) film.
We all know that there is so much more that one could discuss about this movie: the compulsion to re-think and re-observe history, the pressure to consider the Holy Land’s conflicts, the constant connection to the Shoah in whatever event the Israel people see themselves involved with, the somewhat easily-interpreted psychological and symbolic puzzles that criss-cross the movie, but that nevertheless create strong, remarkable images, the foundation (at least in terms of a wider international perception) of new methods of work and exposition, etc. It is not our place, however, to discuss those issues. We want to return to the opening theme, that of its velocity. In yet another text dedicated to this movie in Les Cahiers du Cinéma, Emmanuel Burdeau indicates how Folman appreciates the slowness allowed for (or is it an inherent condition?) by animation. And this is precisely the greatest strength of Waltz with Bashir: the ability to present us with an aquatic velocity, dense, slow, that has to do with the hazy, vaporous perception of the characters, and the progressive recuperation (and reconstruction) of memory.

Final note: for those interested in comics, the wonderful Hanuka Brothers (of "Bbipolar" fame) participated in this film; there is also a comics book version, but it's not very good, it's just a mechanised transposition of the animated cells/frames into a poor page composition.


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Reg. Court of Palermo (Italy) n°21, 19.10.2001
All images, photographs and illustrations are copyright of respective authors.
Copyright in Italy and abroad is held by the publisher Edizioni De Dieux or by freelance contributors. Edizioni De Dieux does not necessarily share the views expressed from respective contributors.

Bibliography, links, notes:


PEN: Pedro Vieira de Moura


Waltz with Bashir

Directed by Ari Folman

Produced by Ari Folman
Serge Lalou
Gerhard Meixner
Yael Nahlieli
Roman Paul

Written by Ari Folman

Starring Ari Folman

Music by Max Richter

Editing by Nili Feller

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Bridgit Folman Film Gang
Les Films d'Ici, Razor Film
Produktion GmbH

Release date(s) May 13, 2008 (Cannes)
June 5, 2008 (Israel)
December 25, 2008

Running time 86 min.

Country Israel
United States
Language Hebrew, English




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Ari Folman, the character, looking at the fleeting past
A younger Ari, as a soldier in Lebanon
The superimposition of memory, dream and reality
The slowness of rememebrance

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