Waltz with Bashir a dance worth taking

Folman uncovers war memories with animated documentary

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A scene from Waltz With Bashir

Gazette File Photo

REMEMBERING A HAUNTING PAST. Waltz With Bashir, playing at Hyland Cinema, follows Ari Folman as he searches for his memories of the 1982 Lebanon War.

Waltz With Bashir
Directed by: Ari Folman

4 stars

At the outset, an animated documentary sounds like a fiendishly difficult thing to accomplish, as well as an odd way to tell a story.

The inter-relation between form and content invariably informs a piece of art, but with Israeli filmmaker and former soldier Ari Folman’s recent Oscar-nominated animated documentary, Waltz With Bashir, the form becomes the content â€" and vice versa.

Folman spends the film searching for his missing memories of the bloody Lebanon War in 1982, in particular the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which he fought as a young man. Folman is literally putting a puzzle together: with the help of animation director Yoni Goodman and using a mix of Flash and traditional animation, he rebuilds his existing memories with details supplied by other witnesses and creates animated dreamscapes to fill the empty spaces.

Stories told by his interviewees are re-imagined in bold strokes and colours, with a documentarian’s search for the real and a graphic artist’s eye for the dramatic.

The fluid animation echoes the film’s theme of the slippery nature of memory. As one of the film’s interviewees mentions, “Memory is dynamic. It is alive.” The eternally shifting character of his reconstructed memories allows Folman to modify the film’s portrayal of his experiences as he discovers more details about the war.

The subtle flickers of emotion across characters’ faces, however, are perhaps the most striking of all. The highly lifelike animation allows the audience to forget that what they are watching is mostly a fiction, one only partially based on personal testimonials, created by a filmmaker searching for the truth in a world of broken promises and bloody war.

Folman himself is a reassuring presence in the film. His steady narration and realistic goal â€" to discover what really happened â€" keeps the film from collapsing under its weighty intellectualism and ambitious form.

As we follow him through the paths of both individual and collective memory, the audience uses him as a surrogate â€" someone to do the detective work while we all piece together the clues he discovers.

Waltz With Bashir

However, choosing to blend the slick style of graphic novels with documentarian voiceovers proves to be not just an aesthetic choice, but a practical one. To tell a story to a worldwide audience â€" that cannot have known war in the intimate way he has â€" inevitably requires Folman to take some painful stabs at the underlying truths of war. His accessible technique of art and simple storytelling as a gateway to better understanding eases that process, but also allows for moments of astounding clarity.

A problem with this approach, however, is that the willful mixing of fact and fiction to portray war’s ambiguity takes away from the film’s sense of purpose.

At the beginning, Folman’s mission is clear: to find his true story. At the end, though, it is uncertain whether he has attained or can ever attain that goal. Just like in wartime, the end result remains muddled.

For Folman, art and its ability to plumb depths of emotion when the reality is just too alienating seems to be the best way to reach the visceral experience of war. Through his imagination, we can see the heartbreaking assault of war on memory, family, faith and simple ways of life.

Yet, perhaps the most arresting moment of the entire film is the final minute. Abruptly breaking from his dark, dreamy memory-world, Folman plunges us into archived footage of the survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre crying for their dead. It’s a heartbreaking reminder that no matter how hard we try, war cannot be transcribed so easily through art, or its losses so accurately portrayed.

Waltz With Bashir is now playing at Hyland Cinema, located at 240 Wharncliffe Road South.

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