In interviews, Israeli director Ari Folman eagerly explains that his animated “documentary” Waltz With Bashir isn’t rotoscoped over live-action footage, but a mixture of Flash, cel, and 3D original drawings. His emphasis on technique may be necessary to clarify that he doesn’t have actual archival footage of the battlegrounds he depicts, but it also seems as though he’s trying to set the film apart from Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking Waking Life, which Waltz often resembles, visually and structurally. Like Waking Life (which was computer-rotoscoped over footage Linklater shot), Bashir expands a series of dialogues into dreamy visions, which comment on the elusive nature of consciousness and memory. But unlike Waking Life, Bashir attempts to illustrate real events—and to pin them down and clarify their elusive nature.
The film begins with Folman listening to a friend describe a vivid nightmare, which relates in grisly fashion back to his time in the Israeli army in the 1980s, during the Lebanon War. Realizing his own army duty has become a disturbing gap in his memory, and trying to come to terms with that part of his life, Folman interviews other friends about their army experiences, and brings their stories to life with vivid animation that layers flat planes on top of each other to produce startling depth in some scenes, and comic-strip simplicity in others.
The trouble with Bashir’s extraordinary technique is that it lacks the confrontational realism of live footage; the extreme stylization of the animation can be distancing, making it hard to relate the images to real events and people. But that’s also part of Folman’s point; he’s approaching memories that have been lost to him and memories that aren’t his, and he deliberately produces them as surreal and nightmarish, overwhelming and difficult to grasp. And yet they’re often staggeringly beautiful and personal, with a surreal subjective intensity that gets at the heart of the chaos soldiers perceive in combat. In the end, he finds few answers—his film is more impressionistic portrait and meditation on memory than serious journalistic inquiry into the South Lebanon massacre at the center of his mental block. What he finds is that human recall is treacherous, but that art and a lonely beauty can be found—or, in time, carefully created—even in the ugliest of places.