Waltz With Bashir looks back at one filmmaker's combat experience.
There's something deeply disconcerting about Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, a sense that the film is keeping its distance from you. The story it tells is compelling, at times even harrowing. But with so many stylistic standpoints and told with such a flat lack of affect, the movie remains elusive.
Director Folman stars, detailing his personal attempt to come to terms with atrocities he witnessed during Israel's 1982 war in Lebanon. The journey begins over drinks with his old friend Boaz, when the latter admits to being haunted by dreams of all the dogs he shot in combat--evocatively rendered hell hounds of the past coming to collect on the present. Folman, oddly enough, claims to have no memories at all of his wartime experiences, save for a single recurring image of emerging stark naked from the water near the Sabra and Shitila refugee camps where countless Palestinians were massacred.
The unique visual signature of Waltz With Bashir is both striking and off-putting. The animation resembles the Rotoscoping used in Waking Life, Chicago 10 and about a thousand annoying television commercials. But Waltz was created with Flash, 3-D and traditional animation techniques, with certain scenes looking more like a website than a movie. Some events have been dramatized, while others are simply told to the camera in straight documentary talking-head format. It's a fluid, slippery thing that seems to be discovering itself as you watch it.
Folman tracks down his old army buddies and begins to ask them about the camps. He also speaks with psychologists and historians and slowly recovers his recollections of the war. I'm sure repressed memories are common among soldiers, but there's something hokey and unconvincing about the way Folman employs it here as a cliffhanger.
Much as if this were Seven Pounds or I've Loved You So Long, the carnage at the camps is only hinted at obliquely, deliberately misleading the viewer for far too much of the running time.
There's much to discuss regarding the central event, during which Israeli soldiers stood idly by (or worse) while a Christian Phalangist militia went on a tear through the Palestinian refugee camps, slaughtering hundreds, or maybe thousands, as retribution for the assassination of Lebanese President-Elect Bashir Gaymel two days earlier.
But Folman plays hide and seek with the chain of events, leading us to believe that he and his fellow soldiers did more than just observe. It's not just too coy, but the timing of the final revelation also shortchanges the most important question in the film: When does observation become complicity?
I guess it's not fair to criticize the acting in a documentary when everybody's playing themselves, but then again this isn't any normal documentary. Folman's restaging of conversations with old friends is stiff and awkward.
He's much better served by the straightforward interviews, particularly one with an oddball vet who considers patchouli not just a scent, but a lifestyle choice. Yet even then, the strange animation creates a disconnect, providing another layer of interference between the filmmaker's journey and the viewer when there are already too many impediments.
Folman fares infinitely better with the war footage, as every soldier's story is treated to a trippy visualization with an often absurdist bent, and some very sly use of inappropriate rock music. (You may never hear PIL's "This Is Not a Love Song" the same way again.)
The aloof quality of the film gnaws away at you, and not even a final flourish of sickening, real-life photography from the camps in 1982 can quite bridge the gap. Waltz With Bashir is almost there, but not quite.