Waltz with Bashir (2008) – Review

A disturbing insight into unspeakable atrocities. 

Here’s the thing; a successful documentary is all about the perfect balancing act. You can go from being bias, patronising and prosecuting to impersonal, devoid of devotion and boring. Nailing that gripping edge, especially while dealing with traumatic subject matter, is a special skill. Ari Folman has a firm hand on this through Waltz with Bashir, an animated insight into the psychological effects of the First Lebanon War in 1982.

The film opens with an exhilarating nightmare sequence, showing a rabid pack of demonic dogs racing through the streets, bounding past the terrified locals as they hold their children. The vision is uncovered to be not Folman’s, but his comrade, who was forced to put down 26 Lebanese dogs to avoid alarming a small town of the approaching IDF (Israeli Defence Force). This alerts Folman to his own psychological blindspot and guilt – he doesn’t suffer from nightmarish dreams, mainly because he struggles to remember any of it. But it’s at this point Folman recounts a memory, not a bloody one, but a visceral, beautiful vision of him emerging naked from the sea to the backdrop of the night sky illuminated by flares. This sets off his trip of one-to-one interviews with old friends to uncover their traumas or fond memories of war, and also to rediscover his personal issues which plague his sanity.

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© – Sony Pictures Classics

The animation is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed. It’s not photo-realistic, rather it’s closer to a more 3D equivalent of Archer‘s graphics. Whilst you may be concerned that it is a gimmicky or even disrespectful way to portray the subjects’ heart-wrenching, troubling, horrific war tales, it has an unparalleled beauty and bravura. We hear stories of firing into the dark abyss of night without knowing who or what they’re firing at, explosive attacks resulting in the deaths of countless soldiers, an IDF soldier ‘waltzing’ with bullets on the streets of Beirut, to disquieting massacres of innocent locals for reasons that can only be described as senseless. The animation never lessens the impact, rather, it puts it on a different cerebral level, latching on to both our realistic perceptions of the war and tear-jerkingly energetic imaginations. Folman has managed to craft one of the most hard-hitting accounts of the harshness of war into more than a documentary – it’s a necessary evil.

As much as this is a very personal journey throughout, Folman never forgets that he should be providing an informative service, never letting those who let these atrocities take place away with, well, murder. It may not be the most accessible for those who are wary of international cinema (Hebrew is a particularly difficult language), but it demands your attention and in return it will seep deep into you, enraging, upsetting, and never letting you forget the horrors which to this point, you were probably not aware of. These recollections, 9 years after the documentary was released, are still as pertinent today. If by the end you remain unmoved, a tactful and brave move to finish on some real-life footage is beyond harrowing.

This is simply ummissable. A sensitive, remarkable piece of work that presents a devastating part of history in a way that never feels inappropriate, rather, it feels essential. 

Rating: ★★★★★

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