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Cinema in Retrospect: "Waltz with Bashir"

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” is unlike almost any other movie. Although the film has many great moments and strong scenes, its use of animation as a representative storytelling mechanism -- especially as an analog for memory and trauma -- is bold and incisive. 

“Waltz with Bashir” is a 2008 Israeli animated documentary centered around Folman’s journey to reclaim his identity and memory from the shattered pieces of the First Lebanon War. The film examines how memory, identity and trauma function, especially within an ever-evolving cultural climate. “Waltz with Bashir” is both a harrowing examination of the past and a brief glimpse into the cross-section of guilt and dissociation.

The choice to animate the film is off-putting at first. The first scene shows the opening credits interspersed with a pack of rabid dogs tearing through streets with vicious intensity. Despite their ferociousness, they bound with precise determination, ignoring all passersby and obstacles. Finally, they converge, barking up at a dark window on the top floor of an apartment. There is an eyeline match -- a cut between a subject and the object of their gaze -- and the camera pushes in slowly as a half-shadowed man stares down. The matching reverse shot , which is a cut between two facing subjects, slowly pushes back and reveals over twenty dogs with glowing yellow eyes staring back.

From the first scene, the animation’s haunting uncanniness bleeds through. The dogs’ movements are fluid but also static. The scenes are detailed and gritty but also filled with thick strokes and solid colors. The world is as textured and deep as it is enveloped by muted colors and shadow. Similarly, the animation’s physics are neither discretely jittery nor natural. Objects seem to swing from one place to another with exact precision. The motions are fluid, yet they feel distinctly manufactured.

The film is a documentary, depicting real conversations and events, yet also heavily centers around the imagination and memory of those involved. The film’s animation bridges these two, tracing over and reconstructing physical encounters and providing a representational medium for the malleable and personal memories of its subjects. 

The film’s animation not only provides an outlet for the expression of the internal, but it also serves to equivocate external and internal experiences. Instead of distinguishing flashbacks from interviews, the consistent use of animation throughout emulates the characters’ struggles with the intersections of past and present.

A recurring thread throughout the film is the emotional toll war takes on its players. While “Waltz with Bashir” looks specifically at the First Lebanon War, the trauma and resulting coping presented are universal. Several characters mention that they had to disassociate their actions from reality or pretend they were in movies or looking through a camera to rationalize or cope with their actions. The violence they were tasked with witnessing, carrying out or enduring was so luridly unimaginable that it was easier to pretend it wasn’t real.

The film frames the resulting desensitization as a defense mechanism. When people who aren’t soldiers by trade or want are unwillingly dragged into killing and destruction beyond their understanding, it places its onus on them to deal with their actions. War systematically strips people of identity, not only by physically destroying and eliminating their homes and bodies, but also by blaming them when it happens.

Toward the end of the movie, Folman admits that part of the reason he feels so guilty for his role in the war and massacres is that it makes him feel like a Nazi. Folman’s military position and lack of agency brand him with a self-hating identity to better fuel the war effort, the trauma of which then was magnified by his Jewish heritage. While he was “just following orders,” they were orders he neither knew the ramifications for or scope of. In the end, Folman confronts his past by acknowledging not only his actions but also the impossibility of his situation.

Beyond its relation to trauma, “Waltz with Bashir” seems interested in the way culturally pervasive media frames memory and history. Many of the film’s flashback sequences are underscored by the popular music from the era; as unwitting soldiers roam through toppled towns in tanks, blind to the scope of their destruction and the danger of their situations, the backing tracks suggest that such obliviousness is by design. It is not that the soldiers are uniquely mistaken in their predictive evaluations as much as such misconceptions are natural byproducts of media systems that normalize and romanticize wartime violence. 

Slightly before the eponymous “waltz” scene, a group of cornered soldiers is approached by a reporter and cameraman. Despite receiving fire, he treats them no differently than he would any other news item; the safety of human life is superseded by the opportunity to generate content. Real-world violence allows recorded violence, which can later be commodified into entertainment violence.

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Aside from its examination of entertainment and violence, the film’s framing mechanism is uniquely fitted to capture its medium and purpose. While “Waltz with Bashir” is ostensibly an account of Folman’s journey to contextualize and reclaim his wartime memories, it is more generally an overview of how memory works as a storytelling mechanism and formative measure of identity. Memories cannot exist before their events, but they also cannot cohesively recapitulate them. 

At the same time, not having a memory of an event or experience suggests that one hasn’t experienced it. Thus, when Folman cannot pin down his wartime escapades beyond a singular, decontextualized nebulous image, it is almost as though he hasn’t had them. Then, via Folman’s interviews with his friends and former peers, the audience by proxy of him gains perspective into not the exact events but their impacts. 

If storytelling is the interpretation of memory, then lasting trauma is an inhibitor of narrative. Animation cannot capture the specificity of an image, instead, its very sparseness allows it to succinctly evoke memory.

Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at henry.skalbeck@richmond.edu.

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