Coming to us from Israel by way of the Cannes Film Festival (and nominated for the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), Waltz With Bashir has accomplished a remarkable film-ghetto hat trick, being simultaneously one of last year’s most acclaimed foreign films, one of its most celebrated documentaries and one of its most notable animated features. But it’s primarily the odd, almost unprecedented combination of those last two attributes—animated documentary—that’s been wowing people. Both of these modes of filmmaking are roughly as old as the medium itself, but it’s taken over a century for somebody to think of them as chocolate and peanut butter. (There are a few earlier examples, but none made much of a splash.) Innovation isn’t automatically laudable, though, and Waltz With Bashir, for all its undeniable boldness and unmistakably good intentions, represents a rare instance of ground that should really never have been broken.
Arresting visual treatment aside, Bashir inhabits a fairly well-worn documentary niche, being an investigation of war crimes—in this case, the 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians living in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Though Lebanese Phalangists were responsible for the actual murders, the Israeli army tacitly permitted the atrocity to take place, and some soldiers even sent up flares that permitted greater visibility of targets. Two decades later, writer-director Ari Folman, who was present (at some distance) when the massacre occurred, found that he had repressed all memory of the events. Waltz With Bashir—the title refers to Phalangist leader Bachir Gemayel, who had been assassinated two days earlier—depicts Folman’s struggle to come to terms with his responsibility for the massacre, as he travels around interviewing fellow soldiers and inquiring about their memories of what went down.
Those memories occasionally make for genuinely startling imagery—the film boasts a real stunner of an opening sequence, as the camera follows a pack of animated wild dogs that seem hell-bent on devouring first the camera and then the audience. However, like most other documentaries, Waltz With Bashir devotes a great deal of screen time to talking heads ... except that these particular heads are uglier and less expressive than usual, as they’re depicted via mediocre Flash animation. What’s more, even the more lurid wartime flashbacks, which ostensibly justify the use of animation, inevitably turn into set pieces that distract from rather than magnify the horror. Show me an animated Phalangist gunning down four animated Palestinian civilians in an animated landscape artfully filled with animated rubble, and no matter how aware I am that this actually happened in 1982, I’m observing it from a great distance—it might as well be EVE freaking out when WALL-E gets his circuit board fried.
It was during Bashir’s ostensibly powerful final moments, however, that my creeping unease with this extraordinarily misguided project turned to outright distaste. Shifting for the first time from animation to live action, Folman concludes his film with actual footage of moldering Sabra/Shatila corpses, and my horror at the images themselves was instantly undermined by my anger at their baldly exploitative function as a dramatic trump card. But seeing these grisly tableaux also retroactively confirms, in a nauseatingly powerful way, what an obtuse idea animating an atrocity is in the first place. Understand, I decidedly do not belong to the school of thought that believes certain terrible events defy representation (e.g., the folks who think Schindler’s List is somehow obscene). I am now convinced, however, that if you are going to represent such events onscreen, the last thing you want to do is aestheticize them, especially via crappy Flash animation that makes everything look like Homestar Runner Goes to Beirut.
Furthermore, I really don’t think that a non-animated Waltz With Bashir would distinguish itself in any way from hundreds of similar docs involving post-traumatic testimony, or from hundreds of similar dramas involving wartime atrocity. It’s the hybrid aspect that’s got so many people convinced this is a masterpiece—you’ve never seen a movie quite like this before. And you know what? There’s a good reason.