Animation and memory: Waltz With Bashir

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An animated documentary might seem at first a contradiction in terms. But Waltz With Bashir is exactly that: the real-life exploration by the film’s director, Ari Folman, of his part in the massacre, in 1982, of almost 3000 people in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. A teenaged soldier on his national service at the time, Folman realises that his memories of the period are hazy at best, so after consulting his analyst he tracks down old friends and commentators of the period in the hope of reconstructing what happened — and what didn’t. 

The film is beautiful and brutal, packed with startling images from animation director David Polonsky and powered by Max Richter’s jagged score. It’s a thrilling but disturbing journey as Folman’s former comrades recall the terror, fury and confusion of a war they barely understood; these soldiers aren’t hard-eyed idealists, but frightened, middle-class boys, lacking clear leaders and unsure why they’re there. There are terrifying battles, dangerous escapes and moments of nail-biting tension to rival Saving Private Ryan, or the brilliant, under-rated A Midnight Clear

But these are, arguably, familiar: the stuff of war movies since the genre began. What really makes Waltz With Bashir important is not just that it’s animated; it’s what animation allows Folman to do. This was a war fought on television, so there’s no shortage of live footage; but while the TV footage shows what happened, it can’t show how it’s remembered. And that’s the brilliance of this film: by using animation, Folman is able to show us how the events of the film looked and felt to its participants, and how time has blurred their memories into other aspects of their lives: the great (and chilling) revelation for Folman, late in the movie, is not recovering what happened, but realising what it meant.

Waltz With Bashir is, of course, the second acclaimed animated autobiography of the year, after Persepolis, which I found a more satisfying blend of personal experience and political context: Bashir is good on the “what” of the war but frustratingly light on the “why”. What both leave you with, however, is an exhilarating sense of animation’s potential as the true modern medium of memory. We live in a time where every news event is caught on camera. Whether it’s 9/11, 7/7 or the Asian tsunami, we all share the same collective images, shown simultaneously around the world. What animation does so brilliantly is to re-personalise and re-sharpen these events, and to reframe “this is how it was for all of us” into “this is what it meant to me”.

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