To begin, here is my standard note about documentaries: to judge them fully and properly, one should also judge them by journalistic standards, which requires researching the subject in a similar fashion to how the documentarian should have. It requires an amount of work that is rather infeasible for a critic (perhaps especially for an amateur critic like me). So, you should take this entire review with a heaping scoop of salt and remember that it’s only part of the story.
Waltz with Bashir tells the story of filmmaker Ari Folman as he attempts to reconstruct his lost memories of his presence for or participation in the Sabra and Shatila Massacre of 1982. It begins with a friend telling him about a dream relating to that time in the military that sparks a “vision” based on the day of the massacre. Folman visits a psychologist friend to learn about memory and then sets about finding people who were present at the massacre to find out what he saw and what his participation was. The first person he finds is one from his vision, an old friend whom he believes was there with him, who is willing to talk to Folman but says, “It’s okay if you draw, but don’t film.”
It seems that interaction was the impetus for what really makes this film unique: it’s an animated documentary. It follows most of the same structure and even similar beats and types of shots to what most documentaries do, but instead of simple medium camera shots of faces, it’s an unusual and striking animation that frankly looks like nothing else.
Folman and illustrator David Polonsky come up with an artistic style that is truly unique. It looks something like a mixture of the animated sequences in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (David Yates, UK/USA 2010) and the animated sequences in Chicken with Plums (Vincent Paronnaud/Marjane Satrapi, France/Germany/Belgium 2011). However, this film has a hand-drawn roughness to its look, apparently from the fact that Polonsky drew the film with his non-dominant left hand, that is unlike anything I can remember seeing. (Though admittedly, I am far from an expert on animation.)
And that striking, odd animation fits the film, which is not actually about a massacre or about Folman but rather about the nature of memory.
The psychologist immediately tells Folman about one of my favorite pieces of memory research (I was a psychology major, so yes I have favorite pieces of memory research): subjects were given a series of photographs of their childhood. Most were real, but one was fake, with their image superimposed on a scene that never occurred. Confronted with these photographs of fictitious events, subjects created memories of the events, claiming to remember details far beyond what the photographs could tell. Some subjects required a little nudging to start creating their memories, but most required nothing more than the picture. Folman uses this research as a jumping off point to explore the nature of memory, the way some people lose memories of the same events that others are convinced that they remember to the most minute detail.
Like Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada 2012), the film is using the way that it tells its story to make a point about memory. However, this film is mostly using its visuals–it’s an animation of the past, not a photograph, that we see slowly being constructed as Folman seeks out witness after witness. Even their memories and current interviews are presented in animation, as parts of the picture show rather than an objective, photographic reality. It’s a very smart technique that makes the film’s point very quickly and simply.
And then, when it appears that we’ve gotten the final version of Folman’s participation in the massacre and the massacre itself, he pulls the rug out from under us and shows us actual footage of the aftermath of the massacre. The rubble-filled “camp,” the screaming family members, the dead bodies, the blood, the smoke–everything we’ve heard described and seen drawn out for us is now suddenly there in real photographic reality. It’s one of the more powerful endings I can ever remember seeing in a film, and it’s the visual technique that makes it so powerful.
Throughout the film, one thing that keeps it from becoming a dull slot through depression is its sense of whimsy. There are dark jokes between the soldiers and bits of comic relief in the animation. But perhaps the best part is Max Richter’s original music. In parts of the film, the haunting, dramatic score adds to the emotional power of the story being told. At other points, the bizarre lyrics on top of the spot-on ’80s pop and rock music is what lightens what could otherwise be an oppressive film.
Waltz with Bashir is not a typical documentary, and it’s one that should not be missed. It has a special look that gives it a power few documentaries can even come close to matching, so much so that it actually surpasses its already highly-charged subject matter.