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.
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.
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.