Not content to turn history into a clinical account, animator and documentary filmmaker Ari Folman both mythologizes and records his search for longforgotten memories of being a soldier in Israels first war with Lebanon in the 1980s in Waltz with Bashir. Not an animated biography, nor a cartoon documentary, Folmans Waltz takes therapist Ori Sivans testimony of the dynamic nature of memoriesIf some details are missing, memory fills the holes with things that never happenedand creates an awesome hybrid of fact and personal fiction.
Waltz is likewise alive, refusing to be cowed by the stultifying assumption of documentary filmmaking that reifies the testimony of talking heads. Folman makes his lay experts look compelling and human by refusing to shoot them up against a wall of absolute credibility, and they know it. He celebrates both the strength and the gaps of their stories and treats them with real respect rather than unimpeachable pieces of crumbling parchment paper. Carmi Cnaan, a friend and fellow ex-soldier, explains cryptically, To this day, I escape into sleep and hallucinate.This is shortly after he teases Folman by relating the practical reasons he had for entering the military, namely because he feared he was the only nerd good at chess and math but with masculinity (i.e. libidinal) problems.
While Folman treats his experts testimony with great respect, candor and humor, he knows that by now the unreality of the groups memories have already seamlessly coupled with their vivid reminiscences. As a result, he combines the terror of being in a warzone with the shock of stress-induced fantasies: Cnaan witnesses the ship hes stationed on (The Love Boat) overlayed atop a gigantic nude woman doing the backstroke.
Folman relishes making the big small and vice versa, perfectly capturing the mutability of emotions the events recall. Its a credit to his skill as a storyteller that his hilariously specific approximation of the pornography that was being watched while Beirut was under siegecomplete with plumber, dog, two women and an inordinately large monkey wrenchfeels like a warm embellishment and not a Herzogian putdown.
Waltzs look is equally stirring. Although Folmans style looks distinctly like the kind of rotoscoping technology used in A Scanner Darkly, he actively eschewed the impersonal technique. Instead, after filming sequences on videotape, he drew up storyboards, then prepared animaticscomposed of cutouts of the live actorsand then subsequently broke those down into 3,500 individual key frames. As a result, his film looks like a strange combination of Hergé and Charles Burns distinct styles, canvassing inky, richly detailed landscapes with cartoons that think theyre human.
Best of all, his characters dont try to imitate the natural look or movements of the material actors that theyre based on. Folmans creations are like 3-D shadow puppets that only look real in silhouette form.When they move, its clear that theyre not meant to just be human. As memories and figments of
people, theyve moved beyond those limitations as inhabitants of an extrasensory and necessarily incomplete dream world. Its what the documentary form has sorely lacked, the kind of aesthetic skepticism that self-deprecatingly embraces the impossibility of an empirical snapshot and as a result, creates something new and startling altogether.
Folman doesnt conflate dreams with memories however but rather playfully asks where one stops and the other begins. In trying to stay true to the imaginative spirit of both, his fusion of interviews with reimagined recreations of events gives equal prominence to both oneiric and factual hallmarks.
He knows that he doesnt have to make the ambush of Israeli soldiers plowing through Lebanon hyper-realistic for it to be real; and he doesnt have to resort to overwhelming surrealism to be dream-like. As a product of laudatory experimentation, the scene just happens to be both.
-- Waltz with Bashir Directed by Ari Folman At Lincoln Plaza & Landmark Sunshine Theaters Running Time: 87