Posted: 12/31/2008


Waltz with Bashir


by Neko Pilarcik

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Director Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is a documentary about the lives of Israeli soldiers fighting in the First Lebanon War. The war ended with the massacre of thousands of Palestinians living the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by the Christian Phalangist militia. The film follows Folman as he talks with those he knew back then on a quest to patch up holes in his own memory of exactly what happened and who was responsible for the massacre. Besides being a gripping documentary about a war most Americans have head little about it is also animated. Beautifully.

When I first saw stills from Waltz with Bashir I thought, “There’s no way they animated the whole thing.” It just looked too good, the illustrations where so detailed and beautiful, like something you’d expect to see in a graphic novel not a feature film, let alone one animated by only eight people. But they did it with a style and skill more common to Hayao Miyazaki or Leiji Matsumoto. Take this scene for instance: The Israeli army is ambushed and the commander is shot, panicked some of the soldiers flee their tank and run towards the sea. The scene is done in POV, the camera bounces up and down with the footfalls, you can see the rocky ground fly beneath as shells explode and other soldiers dive for cover. The animation is so smooth and realistic that it has led many to believe the film had to be rotoscoped (an animation technique where live action footage is shot first and then traced as animation) but this is not the case, though some live action reference was filmed no tracing was ever done and in action sequences, such as this, it all came from the imaginations of Folman and his animators.

Many people have asked, “Why animate a documentary?” I know I did. But after seeing it you realize it’s the only way it could have been done. Not much footage exists from the war and certainly nothing as personal and intimate as what Folman and his team were able to create. In many documentaries you can sit back as an observer, watching interviews and archival footage and have a level of comfort, of distance from that’s happening. Not so in Waltz with Bashir you become a participant, you experience these stories and memories first hand, and you feel for the people in those stories. The animation plays an important part in this; it enhances the feeling of the surreality of memory and war while ensuring that you won’t want to tear your eyes off the screen. Personally, I wish more documentaries were done this way.
As an animated film Waltz with Bashir is truly refreshing. In this age when we’re told you need hundreds of artists, fancy computers and millions of dollars to make an animated feature, along comes a movie made by eight artists using Flash, (a program commonly used for making goofy web toons about exploding frogs) and it looks just as good as anything Disney could come up with.

Whether you look at this film as an animation or a documentary the fact remains it is a wonderful film. With its engaging style of storytelling and artwork that would make Walt jealous Waltz with Bashir is definitely worth watching. I truly hope this is the first, not the last, we see of this sort of film and this style of animation.

Neko Pilarcik Is a freelance animator and illustrator living in Chicago. She recently directed the animated short The Three Artists which screened at Cannes in 2008.

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