It's Been Real
Waltz With Bashir
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"Our memories take us only as far as we are capable of going."-Ori Sivan

Little about Waltz With Bashir would define it as a documentary at first blush. For one thing, it's animated, which takes it immediately out of the realm of realism that we generally find documentaries centered in. For another, it contains actors, portraying fictional composites of real life people as well as government officials from the time period who are either dead or refused to participate in the making of the film. And, ultimately, the film's many lapses into surrealism clearly place it outside of a journalistic attempt to explore actual events. Waltz With Bashir is not a documentary in the way that we normally define them. Rather, it is one man's journey into his own memories, his attempts to document, for himself as much as anyone else, a period in his own life that he cannot seem to remember.

The film opens with Ari Folman (who wrote, produced, directs and stars as himself in the film) hearing about a disturbing recurring nightmare from a friend who served in the 1982 Lebanon War. This nightmare is rendered in stark, shadowy visuals that create a feeling of unease and foreboding; while the nightmare soon ends, those feelings will remain for the film's full runtime. After hearing this story, Folman realizes that he does not remember a thing from his time in the war, which shocks and disturbs him. Later that night, he has what he believes is a flashback, in which he and some soldier friends are bathing at night by the seaside in Beirut as flares descend on the city. When he wakes he goes to visit a friend, who encourages him to talk to other people who were in Beirut at the same time to try and regain some of his memories and to verify that the vision he had actually occurred.

Folman first rushes off to the Netherlands to talk with the only person he recognized in the vision, Carmi Can'an, who has no memory of the event occurring. From there, he speaks with other friends and veterans, a psychologist, and a reporter who was in Beirut at the time and was the first journalist to report on the Sabra and Shatila massacre that occurred there. Some of the conversations in the film are drawn from actual interviews between Folman and the individuals he spoke with, while others are composites of several conversations he had, read by actors.

Though the film often looks as if it was rotoscoped (a technique that animates over live footage, like in Richard Linklater's Waking Life) it is actually a combination of Adobe Flash cutouts and traditional animation, meaning that the only actual footage in the film is the closing dissolve from animation into archival footage of the aftermath of the massacre.

If the film is almost entirely animated (and not even animated off of existing live footage), largely scripted and featuring actors playing composites, how is it that Waltz With Bashir can be called a documentary at all? It is based on real events and does feature some of the people who actually lived them telling their real stories, but large swaths of the film are also surrealistic digressions into Folman's memories and the way that other people saw and described events. The whole film, however, is suffused with aching emotional realism that makes it as powerful as any documentary I've ever seen. Additionally, it seems to me that Waltz With Bashir is the only way that Folman could have accurately depicted the story he was examining. After all, he was not looking into why the massacre occurred, nor was he attempting to get the big picture of the Lebanon War. He did not seek to contextualize the events, nor to examine them in a larger historical context. Instead, he set out to regain his own memories of the war, an endeavor that would be impossible to film. In order for audiences to empathize with him, to truly understand what he saw in his head and how it affected his memories, the film's animation is necessary, vital even. It is the only possible way for Folman to make what is probably the only (or at least one of a very few) documentary ever made about a man's journey into his own head.

The film may not be a documentary in the strictest sense of the word, but for all intents and purposes, it is. It just documents true events that would be impossible to film. There is an excellent quote in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (yes, I'm still a geek) in which Dumbledore says, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on Earth should that mean it isn't real?" The same logic applies to Waltz With Bashir. Some viewers might argue that the animation lacks the confrontational realism that could come from a live-action documentary, that the surrealism and stylization can be distancing. I would argue, though, that the style is part of Folman's point. He is trying to remember memories that have been lost to him and trying to conceive of memories that are not his, which would likely make them surreal and even nightmarish, emotionally overwhelming and a bit difficult to grasp. Yet the images he has created are staggeringly beautiful, with a surreal subjective intensity that renders them more personal than words ever could. In the end, whether Folman truly remembers what occurred or not is of less concern than what he has learned by trying to recall the darkest period of his life. Waltz With Bashir is an emotional, impressionistic portrait of its director's headspace, and what he finds there is that memory can be a tricky thing, but that true beauty and art can be found in even the bleakest of places.

Read more It's Been Real here

Coming up on It's Been Real:

3/18: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

4/1: Exit Through the Gift Shop

4/15: 8: The Mormon Proposition

4/29: The King of Kong
comments powered by Disqus