The film Waltz With Bashir opens on a pack of mad dogs storming through a peaceful park, terrorising the public. The pack finds itself staring at it’s target, a middle aged man standing in a window staring out at them. The surreal turn of events is revealed to be a recurring dream of an old war buddy of filmmaker Ari Folman, who served with the Israeli Defence Forces during the war in Lebanon.
Waltz With Bashir resides in a seldom visited grey area between a documentary and an animated film. Much of it was digitally filmed and drawn over, making the world look like a cell shaded comic book with a yellowish hue. This allows Folman to take creative liberties that most documentarians couldn’t.
The plot is a series of dialogues between Folman and his old war buddies, ex-commanders and his personal friends, in which Folman tries to remember what he did during the war in Lebanon, which he has largely forgotten. He is most concerned about what he did during the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
The narrative is non-linear and isn’t always focused specifically on Folman. There are several stories from other different soldiers perspective that don’t advance the main storyline but support the themes kind of like Tim O’Brien’s classic war novel The Things They Carried. Like in the novel, the theme of killing or causing death is something approached gradually and not chronologically.
It was interesting to see how they treated different subjects on screen. One ex-soldier is introduced practicing martial arts, and during the interview is grinning and joking like he is talking to a friend. A commander, that Folman knew less, is in a studio and speaks matter-of-factly. I thought that was an interesting touch and added to the meta-documentary memoir-y feel, whose integrity I felt compelled to question due to the oxymoronic nature of an animated documentary. Since much of it was drawn over video it is more reliable than, say, graphic journalism, but is still less honest than true video.
In Joe Sacco’s “Journalism,” he depicts the accounts of victims of the Bosnian Genocide using comic panels. Like in Waltzing With Bashir it’s almost a relief to see it through the lens of fiction instead of having to deal with the reality of what happened.
In the film, Folman meets with a trauma specialist, who shares shared a story about how one of her patients coped. During the war he imagined he was seeing everything through a camera. He was able to be brave and composed because he thought of war as a movie. What brought reality back to him was visiting the stables and seeing all the horses slaughtered. “The camera broke.”
Most of Waltzing With Bashir is dedicated to Folman trying to understand a recurring dream where he is passed by a large mob of crying women. During the final scene, when the dream is deciphered and Folman remembers what he subconsciously repressed for years it cuts from animation to video. The realities that were black, white, and shades of yellow become real images of real atrocities. In that moment, his camera broke.