As everyone who reads the papers, watches the news or is even vaguely awake to the global political landscape will know, the Middle East poses a policy problem which governments neither foreign nor domestic have yet been able to solve. Conflicts dating back centuries still bubble and fester, from human rights abuses to conflicts in religious doctrine to warring factions within individual countries. Israel, as the only Jewish nation in this blisteringly hot corner of the world, often finds itself embroiled in disputes, and wars, with its Muslim neighbours.
To try and unpick the intertwined complexities of the Middle East would take more brainpower and time than your author has – and I would be foolish to try and do so – but while watching Ari Folman’s 2008 animation/documentary Waltz With Bashir, I was compelled to recall that outside of the political, military and socio-economic battles which constantly rage in the region, there are human beings trying to eke out an existence in a perpetual warzone.
Folman’s film is autobiographical in nature, based on his remembered experiences of the First Lebanon War in 1982. It’s 2006 now, and Folman, a former infantryman, realizes that he cannot remember any details from his service, despite being told he was present at the abhorrent Sabra and Shatila Massacre, one of the most infamous episodes of the year-long conflict. Meeting with ex-servicemen – some of whom he served with and some he didn’t – Folman tries to piece together what he did in Lebanon, and how involved he was in the horrors that occurred.
Entirely animated, aside from a short clip of archive news, Waltz With Bashir is balancing on a thin wire: showing war through animation mandates additional care, so as not to show violence as trivial or cartoonish, and Folman’s personal experience means this could easily be a chest-thumpingly pro- or anti-Israel political piece. Thankfully, neither of these potential issues really raises its head. First and foremost, this is about humanity – and a lack thereof – in war.
The chilling opening, in which Folman dreams of being chased by rabid attack dogs, immediately ensures that this is not to be classed as purely ‘animation’. The sequence is visceral, the unique animated style stressing shadow over light, and injecting the setting with streaked orange afterglow as the relentless creatures barrel down a busy road. It’s the first in what will be many memorable scenes, and the craftsmanship on display is astonishing.
Vividness, indeed, is one of the defining features of Folman’s movie. The personal nature of the stories being told – not just Ari’s own but those of the ex-servicemen he meets – ensures that they’re packed with honesty and detail; a soldier recounts his tank unit being attacked, then escaping by swimming out to sea at night only to wash up, alive but exhausted, at the beach to which his platoon had retreated. It’s a rare moment of good luck in a story playing out under the abominable events it chronicles.
Folman himself comes across as a repentant, honest man whose amnesia is both blessing and curse. His nightmarish recurring dream haunts him, and his waking hours are spent in pursuit of a truth he may eventually wish he never learned. As the film’s tone darkens further and further, leading up to the final reel detailing the events of Sabra and Shatila, its protagonist remains stoically unpartisan, despite the film’s major scenes striking a potent anti-war note.
Gripping for its entire duration, and combining an ingenious animation style with a story full of tragedy and revelation, Waltz With Bashir calls to mind the sensational graphic novels of American writer-artist-journalist Joe Sacco, who was named as an inspiration by Folman and his team. Like Sacco, Folman uses art to peer behind the horrible, sheer curtain of warfare, and reveals the human tales behind it, often in painfully frank detail. (For those interested, read Sacco’s miraculous Palestine and equally brilliant Safe Area Goražde, they are superb.) Both artists use the prism of animation to look at suffering in wartime, and although animation – both static and moving – may seem an ideal tool to look at war’s cartoonish absurdities, both men masterfully harness it to unveil stories outside of statistics, people outside of parables.
Comparing Folman’s work to Sacco is perhaps the finest compliment one can give to Waltz With Bashir. Its clarity of purpose and singularly brilliant execution make it an achievement to be lauded, watched and studied. Far beyond a cartoon, and timelessly inventive, it’s an essential piece of cinema.
Verdict: a pulsating study of war, and the duration and damage of its after-effects, Waltz With Bashir is a coruscating movie, shot through with a streak of artistic flair as bold and memorable as any animated film in recent memory. Volatile and vital, it’s a must-watch by any standard, and one of the best films of the last 5 years.