Waltz with Bashir got a lot of attention – primarily with arthouse audiences – upon its release in 2008. With a striking, realistic art style, a hard-hitting and intellectually fashionable subject matter and unconventional structure, it was nominated for an Oscar not for best animated film but best film in a foreign language, won the equivalent award at the Golden Globes and earned top awards from respected animated film awards such as grand prizes from Zagreb and Tokyo Filmex. It is not hard to see why it was such a darling of the arthouse animation crowd: completely adult-oriented, based on harrowing real-world experiences and from a culture not generally associated with animation (this and $9.99 being the first animated films made in Israel since 1962), it is certainly not the average animated feature.
Key to its seriousness and distinctiveness is that it is an animated documentary. Not a thousand miles from Nick Park’s Creature Features work, a series of interviews are taped and then the animation is made to match it. But these interviews, some repeated or even conflated to make the details work better for a film, are not simple observations of life delivered by cute animals: they are recollections of Israeli soldiers from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The main character of the film, the director and writer Ari, has a strange memory of his time serving in Beirut, but can remember almost nothing of the actual events. So he sets out to interview others who were there to try to piece together the truth. There is brutal violence, graphic depictions of death, even one absurd sequence where gratuitous pornography is animated, something I doubt could be featured in live-action. And at the very end, in a fine moment of contrast, real news footage is played, reminding the audience with stunning simplicity just how real these events are, and the distance between reality and animation is artificial.
This is not made to tell the story of a war. It is not to educate, to make political statements or to excuse. If you don’t know the background, you may well be lost. If you don’t know why there would be Palestinians in Lebanon, or who the Phalangists were, you might struggle to understand all the implications of what is happening, but you are likely to understand the stories individuals tell and the sense of despair, helplessness and disgust so many of them retained after the event.
Visually, there is much to be praised, though it is somewhat annoying to read other film reviewers who clearly have very little to do with animation clearly not recognising the very obvious visual characteristics of Flash animation, presumably because they see only blockbusters and have no knowledge of the evolution of Flash on the web or the cartoons from the likes of Cartoon Network that make extensive use of it. Those disconnected limbs and that odd fluidity, the slow movements of the heads and the way the camera can squeeze in and out – all are hallmarks of Flash. There were accusations of rotoscoping here, presumably because those bold lines and the smooth motions are reminiscent of the likes of Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and the like, but the filmmakers vehemently deny the technique was used. On the other hand, there are a few junctures where I suspect that at the very least the faces are traced or very heavily drawn from film footage – for example, one martial artist demonstrates a kick in a sequence the filmmakers were clearly so proud of they repeat it a few times – and his face has the most realistic expression for a person doing martial arts I have ever seen in animation.
Other sequences are fine for their strangeness and the symbolic elements, the very reason for making this a piece of animation; the are visions and dream sequences that come with really surprising and impressive moments of beauty, including the eponymous waltz. On the other hand, there is much that doesn’t satisfy: the idea of the suppressed memories seems artificial and forced, and the fleeting mentions of the Holocaust needed far more development to be valid thinking points.
But Waltz for Bashir is nothing if not memorable, powerful and unique. Well worth watching, if not one to enjoy.