Using Flash animation to surrealistically describe the horrors of the 1982 Lebanon War, Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir has been assigned the niche category of animated documentary. This is a topic I know very little about, so my opinion on the movie is very ill-informed. I saw it mainly for the animation, as I was extremely interested to see how Flash would translate into a feature-length dramatic film. My feelings are… mixed.
Upon the realization that he doesn’t remember most of his time as a soldier during the war, with exception of a recurring vision of the Sabra and Satila massacre in Beirut, Folman embarks on a series of interviews with former comrades in an attempt to fill in the blanks. The film therefore unfolds as a collection of short stories: remembrances conversationally narrated by former Israeli soldiers. One man was stranded in enemy territory after his tank was attacked. Escaping to the shore, he swam for hours until he spotted the other tanks from his unit making their way down the beach. Another recalls a fearless, unarmed reporter walking calmly down the street amidst copious gunfire as his terrified cameraman crawled in front of him. The stories all lead up to the massacre, ending with gruesome live-action footage from the event. It is a pretty unsettling experience.
Like I said, I don’t know anything about this conflict. My more-informed friends have told me this film is a great stride for Israel because it doesn’t really choose sides or glorify war as a necessary action. This I commend. Unfortunately I think that a lot of it assumed a knowledge of both this specific conflict as well as the soldiering life in general. I understand that it was all based on real events and memories, and the interview style resulted in conversational, non-expository storytelling, but I felt a little lost at parts or unable to fully grasp what was going on or who certain people were. This has happened to me often with war stories- I could not get a handle on A Farewell to Arms because the narrator kept changing locations and nothing was ever explained (ugh I hated that book). I would assume that anyone who could relate to it or just has more interest in war would have been much more engrossed by the plot (as opposed to someone like me, who has avoided most war-related movies or books). It was still a very affecting film- intense and real.
I was there for the animation, anyway. The backgrounds were excellent, composed of fiery skies and detailed buildings, with good textures. The direction was good, especially the opening scene in which rabid dogs careen through the streets and the fantasy involving a young man sailing atop a large blue woman. The character design and movement, though, were less than exceptional. There was often not enough detail to tell people apart (which is important when the only characters in your movie are dark-haired white guys). I think a lot of it has to do with Flash as an animating platform, not the artists themselves. It gives everything this weird flat sheen and the colors don’t seem to fit. The lines are too thick. When shown close up, no one’s movements look natural enough, though for this film they seemed to be attempting a rotoscope effect with the interviews. It’s a lot of little things, and to me it was very noticeable and did detract a bit from my overall appreciation.
I’m sure the animation defects wouldn’t bother most people, and I definitely applaud Folman for experimenting with the art form when most animated movies are CG and for kids. I hope the animated documentary becomes a viable form of the genre (I still have to see Chicago 10, but that’s the only other one I know of). Waltz with Bashir remains a very powerful documentary about a terrifying and ever-present conflict as well as the mental after-effects of battle. I haven’t seen the other Best Foreign Film nominees and since obviously Let The Right One In isn’t getting the respect it deserves, I hope this wins for its show of uniqueness.