Waltz with Bashir: Memorialising through Animation

September 28, 2009


Some of us might have read about the 1982 Lebanon War, but most likely none of us have actually lived through it. Although the director Ari Folman was an Israeli soldier at that time, he himself did not witness the brutally merciless Sabra and Shatila massacre that took place at night. And yet he has a nightmarish vision. Vision of himself waking up in the seaside in Beirut, finding flares slowly raining down in the city and colouring the night in orange light. A pretty vision, but also very sad, as if each one of those flares were a departed soul.

At this point, he did not recall how he lighted those flares for the soldiers to slaughter in dark.


Dream isn’t the opposite of reality. Lies and illusions that we delude ourselves with are at odds with reality. Dream on the other hand, is only a step away from reality. Often our inner most thoughts and desires, perhaps hiding under our subconsciousness, materialise themselves as bizarre visions in dream. It may appear strange at surface but when you search deep down to its core, you may find the same piercing truth that’ll haunt you ’til you confront it. And isn’t it really sad that the reality is sometimes so absurd and cruel that it might as well be a dream? Like madly shooting at a car not knowing their faces (turned out to be a family with children) and taking out your frustration of losing your leader (beloved for absurd reasons) on innocent people the worst possible way.

Perhaps that is why the director chose to animate this film in such a dreamy style. Instead of using actors and fake situations to re-enact real stories told by the survivors, the film presents real feelings and pains in fictitious landscape and colours, proving that animated documentaries can be just as real and painfully moving.

Left: Right:

Competing memorial ideologies: Exhibition vs Monument

There are essentially two competing ideologies behind our current approaches to memorialising architecturally, which is through either an exhibition (more objective) that displays facts and artefacts, or a monument (more subjective) that tries to evoke that pain and sadness of actually being there. To briefly go over one example, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is intriguing because it’s able to remain objective while adding subjective tones to manipulate our feelings. I think comparing the design of this building to Waltz with Bashir will prove highly relevant to how Folman mixed objective and subjective voices.


The visitor’s journey through this museum is basically divided into three different floors: 4th (objective exhibition from witness perspective), 3rd (subjective monumental experience from victim’s point of view) and 2nd (triumphant liberation through assimilation of witness and victim).

1. The journey begins when a visitor first takes an elevator coldly clad in steel with exposed bolts to un-organ-ise himself as a ‘tourist’ and re-organ-ise himself in a position of soldier-as-witness, before arriving at the fourth floor. Likewise in Waltz of Bashir, its hallucinatory opening sequence serves as an elevator for us to enter the animated non-fiction of Lebanon War, slowly ascending to the source of this man’s bizarre visions.

2. At the fourth floor, the objective historical exposition takes place, including audio and textual narration in that impersonal third-person, past tense. Darkness inside further helps that cinematic immersion, while the spatial arrangement is chronologically linear in a straight-forward, step-by-step, single-file route. There is emotional uneasiness, but no climax yet. At the third floor, the visitor becomes a ‘victim’ from ‘witness’. Less of an exhibition, it is more of a re-construction of a concentration barrack. No more detached observing narrations, now with horrific testimony of camp survivors played over speakers and videos. Spatial arrangement is less linear and now more disorienting and zig-zag, as if to reflect that chaos and terror.

more objective

More 'realistic'

more dreamy

More dreamy

Folman’s handling of subjective and objective voices is bit more integrated and not easy to be distinguished so easily into two large sections. As an animated documentary, there are narrations by real survivors of the war, and their stories and testimonies animated visually on screen. Character designs are less exaggerated and abstract, resembling more of realistic caricatures of people being interviewed. And there are scenes like the above where we can see civilians being shot through a moving binoculars under that calm narration, underscoring that objective tone of the film.

And yet, the characters are rendered in bold, contrasting primary colours, and animated with a strangely unique technique that is similar to rotoscoping (but not quite), which make firing a machine-gun look like dancing in waltz. So what we see is sort of real but sort of not. And that hazy line between dream and reality is what this film presents: memories and visions. Waltz of Bashir offers real objective facts about a real historic event but still instil enough subjective voice to move us and make us care.


3. Let’s talk about the last segment of the museum and how it differs from the film. The journey ends at the second floor, where there exhibits a depiction of Jews immigrating to US and becoming an empowered state, realised through America’s ideals of tolerance, freedom and justice. Even today, the museum is criticised by some as exploiting Jewish sufferings to boost American heroic ideals (especially since the building was erected at a time when immigration to the US from countries of radically different ideals increased).

And this second floor is particularly interesting because the exhibition of Jewish artefacts are finally ‘fleshed out’. Whereas third and fourth floors were all dark and full of black and white photos/videos, the second floor is more illuminated with more contemporary pictures and even videos of them testifying in courts, where visitors can feel symbolic liberation of Jews speaking out and being freed by the tolerant state.

There is a live footage of the aftermath of the massacre at the last scene of Waltz of Bashir. Having sat through 80 minutes of animated landscape was no doubt extremely transformative, although for a very different reason compared to the museum. Folman did not witness the little girl’s lifeless head but it will be his new memories, as well as anyone else’s who has witnessed the film’s nightmarish memories.

Above: Below:


16 Responses to “Waltz with Bashir: Memorialising through Animation”

  1. animekritik Says:

    The dogs’ animation is absolutely awesome. At the same time, the fact that it’s an Israeli (wth ample resources, acquired technical knowledge etc) that can make this film is itself a commentary on the political situation over there. Who’s animating the ravenous dogs? The answer might be paradoxical…

    Great post!

  2. coburn Says:

    This is the best thing I’ve read yet about this film, which I’ve found difficult to describe to people as an experience, and I’m not sure I could have written about myself. The holocaust memorial is a very powerful analogue here.

    A scene I remember being struck by was the one with all the Israeli soldiers driving around listening to rock music amidst massive carnage – kind of a dark spoof of the rock’n roll warfare movie, but also a scene that gave a sense of what it must be like to be a bunch of young dudes with big guns and tanks turned loose in a foreign country. There was that sense that the soldiers were thinking in a sort of Full Metal Jacket mindset which distanced them from their actions.

    It’s the end of this film that really sticks in the mind because it reminds me of how many times I’ve seen documentary footage of suffering and not really been appalled. All those dream sequences and interviews that had seemed quite interesting in the film suddenly lead toward something intensely provocative about how we relate to real horror.

  3. I have nothing useful to contribute other than thanks for writing an interesting post on an interesting film. I would like to see it for myself.

  4. gaguri Says:


    No idea who animated what scene (lol sif I’d know that) but apparently this unique animation technique was developed by the staffs in middle east, so yea it’s really a labour of dedication isn’t it.


    Haha, I’m sure there are better reviews out there, although probably none that compares the movie to US holocaust museum, for the sake of my interest. It’s hard to believe that you can be so relaxed and listen to rock music while marching over the city in tanks, etc., really adds that absurd tone of reality. And the last few minutes of that live footage was surely much more appalling than many documentaries I have seen, it hits you like a train after the animated dreamy tale.


    “I would like to see it for myself.”

    Then mission accomplished =D

  5. Martin Says:

    Thanks as always for your insight. I’ve heard good things about this film, not least the rotoscoping/animation and the way it conveys the themes and ideas (which are often difficult to depict when the subject matter is as unsettling and politically sensitive as this). The screencaps remind me a lot of Richard Linklater’s take on the technique actually, which worked well for his portrayals of dreams (Waking Life) and drug-induced paranoia (A Scanner Darkly).

    Although I’m unlikely to get the opportunity to visit the museum you mention any time soon, Waltz with Bashir is out on DVD over here so I’ll see if I can get hold of a copy. Thanks again for recommending it!

  6. gaguri Says:

    Yea I think the way colour is used is similar to Linklater’s as well, and does very well to portray dreamy reality. You don’t have to visit the museum (lol as you can tell from my last section that I wasn’t too happy with its meticulously cunning layout), but you’re more than free to buy the DVD whenever you feel like a well-documented animation!

  7. 2DT Says:

    I think some mixture of realism with dream-reality is almost ideal when it comes to this kind of testimony. Sadly, disbelief is a common response to atrocity, and so one needs an objective anchor at which to point and say, “This moment happened. It was real.” But at the same time, it’s the nature of trauma to be beyond expression, bigger than reality. A Holocaust survivor remembers demonic rows of smokestacks, when in reality there may have been only two. To really know what the survivor felt, we had better start adding those chimneys in our mind.

    The fact that this film tries so hard to model traumatic consciousness when the director himself never lived through it is pretty interesting, and kind of troubling, too. But while I’ll never subscribe to Jung’s belief in the universal unconscious, I do believe in cultural consciousness, and in trauma that spreads beyond an individual’s memory and becomes the pain of a people.

    Great entry. I enjoyed it.

  8. Cello Says:

    I rented this movie, watched it for 10 minutes, and turned it off. This is going to be one of those rare times where I have to disagree with you. The animation reminded me of Eminem’s ‘Mosh’ video and the story didn’t hold my interest at all. But kudos to the filmmakers for trying something different. It paid off in Scanner Darkly, not so much in this.

  9. gaguri Says:


    Oh there is an absolutely delicious analogy in the film, where this lawyer talks about how we sometimes fabricate memories and fill in the missing details. In a way, the director is in a search to find the missing pieces and fabricate new (and arguably more complete) memory. Even if it’s fabricated, and not ‘real’, I think this memory will remain just as real and personal for lot of people, and certainly most Israeli people.


    Haha no worries, I actually had a feeling lot of anime/Japanese film fans wouldn’t like it, so I’m pretty surprised to find many people finding interest to the visual style. It did extremely well in other foreign countries from what i recall but I don’t think it was received too well by Asian countries? I don’t know.

  10. gaguri Says:

    There is no problem with linkage but I wonder why you linked this article, as I barely talk about designing the setting of this movie. I have plenty of other articles that go deeper into that subject area, which would be lot more relevant.

  11. Kitsune Says:

    It sounds like an interesting film, I should check it out 🙂

  12. gaguri Says:

    Please do 😀

  13. muhootsaver Says:

    I’m really interested in this movie, but I heard the director actually made a script for the movie and for some parts, had hired actors to read off the script, which kind of defeats the purpose of documentary. Do you know if this is true?

  14. gaguri Says:

    Hmm I never heard anything about that. If that is true, then I am a little disappointed because that’s not what I’d like to see from a documentary. O well, ignorance was a bliss I guess.

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