active recall: animating history

megan carrigy: waltz with bashir, an animated documentary

Waltz with Bashir

Waltz with Bashir

ARI FOLMAN’S OUTSTANDING ANIMATED DOCUMENTARY BRINGS TOGETHER INTERVIEWS, STORIES AND ACTS OF REMEMBERING WITH ANIMATED SCENES THAT RE-IMAGINE, RECREATE AND RE-ENACT THE PAST. TOGETHER THEY CONJURE A COMPLEX PICTURE OF EVENTS FOR WHICH THERE IS NO ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE. WOVEN TOGETHER, THESE ANIMATED FLASHBACKS, DREAMS AND MENTAL IMAGES CAPTURE THE TRICKY SURREALITY OF WAR AND MEMORY.

Folman draws heavily on his personal experiences with repressed traumatic memories. He is in fact the central character of his own film. Ari, a film director, retraces his time as an Israeli soldier in the 1980s when he supported Christian Phalangist militia in the first Lebanon War. He knows he was witness to two devastating massacres committed in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps but he cannot remember anything about them. Waltz with Bashir follows Ari as he seeks out friends and long lost colleagues in the hope that their stories and memories will restore him to these repressed events.

During the Lebanese Civil War, the Israeli Minister of Defence, Ariel Sharon (who 20 years later became the country’s President) planned for the Israeli Defence Force to occupy Beirut and support Bashir Gemayel, senior commander of the Christian Phalangist militia, as the newly elected President of Lebanon. When Gemayel was assassinated, Phalangist militia took revenge by attacking the Sabra and Shantila refugee camps at night, the Israeli Defense Force lighting their way with flares. An estimated 3,000 people were massacred in these camps including women, children and the elderly, provoking widespread protests from the Israeli people, a government inquiry and, ultimately, the dismissal of Sharon.

The film’s incredible history lesson does not lie in these details, however. Folman describes the depiction of war in Waltz with Bashir like this: “It’s like nothing you’ve seen in American movies. No glam, no glory. Just very young men going nowhere, shooting at no-one they know, getting shot by no-one they know, then going home and trying to forget. Sometimes they can. Most of the time they cannot.”

Presented from the point of view of the common Israeli conscript, Waltz with Bashir speaks to a nation, a whole culture full of individuals haunted by repressed traumatic memories of war. Seven out of the nine interviews in the film are with real friends and colleagues of Folman who gave testimony on their recollection of their involvement in events now more than 20 years old. The other two interviewees are played by actors recounting the real testimony of Folman’s friends.

It is a recurring nightmare Ari’s old friend Boaz tells him that prompts the filmmaker’s own journey into the dark, forgotten depths of his own past. This film itself must have provoked similar journeys for Israeli filmgoers, speaking to the grim history that continues to haunt the bleak reality of contemporary Israel.

The workings of memory constitute both a topic of conversation in Waltz with Bashir and a driving narrative force. Film has often been understood as the ultimate medium for capturing the capriciousness of memory. It has the capacity to connect the past and the present, the real and the imagined, with the same unpredictable logic that drives our everyday experiences of thinking and feeling. Folman makes full use of these capacities.

A veteran documentary director, Folman’s approach to animation is unique. Waltz with Bashir was scripted, shot first on video and cut to 90 minutes. Rather than animate the video using rotoscope, where animators paint over real video, the film was then drawn again from scratch. The video was storyboarded, illustrated and then animated using a combination of Flash, classic animation and 3D. This produces a remarkably poignant aesthetic.

The drawings are exquisite. Their deeply moving attention to detail produces textual effects that would never have been available to the video camera. At the same time, the animation replicates the conventions of documentary, mixing talking head style interviews and at one point even imagining a slideshow of war photographs. In animated form, archive takes on the same status as subjective memories and hallucinations, the animation powerfully masking the distinction between real and imagined scenes. Animation here becomes the ultimate tool for rendering experimental histories.

Having Waltz with Bashir in general release here in Australia is significant since animation has become a major site for innovation in Australian short films in recent years. Australian Sejong Parks’ short animation The Birthday Boy (2005), nominated for an Academy Award, stands out as a companion example for Waltz with Bashir. The Australian cinema, however, is yet to deploy animation so powerfully to conjure traumatic memories of the dark histories that haunt our own contemporary reality. Waltz with Bashir opens up that possibility.

Waltz with Bashir, director Ari Folman, art director, illustrator David Polonskey, director of animation Yoni Goodman, editor Nilli Feller, 2008, waltzwithbashir.com

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 27

© Megan Carrigy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2008
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