Trauma: what’s the best way of capturing it without the use of words? Shaky cameras, a shell shock ringing and black and white flashbacks don’t work anymore. What Saving Private Ryan achieved for the very first time is now being rehashed in almost every single Hollywood blockbuster that is out there not to make a point but to cash in the revenues. That is why I was left feeling extremely overwhelmed once the credits to Waltz with Bashir started to roll over a black screen.
Waltz with Bashir, an Oscar nominated animated movie directed by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, is without a doubt one of the most innovative and interesting visual displays of trauma I’ve ever seen. It plays on so many different, unseen, original notes and touches upon some crucial cinematic themes that aren’t brought up enough in today’s world of cinema, that it creates a surreal aura around itself and enters perhaps my top 10 of the 2000s. Let’s have a look at why its approach to such a difficult phenomenon such as human trauma is so unique.
We’re talking about an animated film that tackles the filmmaker’s personal experience as a 19-year-old infantry soldier in the 1982 war with Lebanon who witnesses a ruthless massacre (Sabra and Shatila massacre – the killing of almost 3500 Palestinians and Lebanese civilians) unfold right before his eyes. As an adult he has a hard time remembering what he saw and can’t bring himself to find the right answers so he decides to seek out others who were in Beirut at the time to discuss their memories, including a psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorders and the first journalist to cover the massacre.
The film follows the filmmaker as he interviews his old friends and strangers, and shifts from the present to the past using the power of animation. This is where the secret lies – the animation.
Waltz with Bashir uses traditional hand-drawn animation that translates incredibly well onto the screen due to the fact that most of the original interviews were used as a template by artist Yoni Goodman. The film as a whole was first shot on a sound studio and then transferred to a storyboard. This allowed the illustrations to gain a certain feeling of movement and energy. The dark hues enabled the filmmaker to present his vision of an almost surreal, dream-like (as well as nightmarish) world where very little is certain and where people don’t act according to any set of rules. Don’t let this fool you.
Waltz with Bashir is very realistic. Some of its scenes reminded me of the great war movies such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket especially with its juxtaposed use of upbeat 80s Israeli pop music playing over images of explosions and destruction. But this isn’t the point. The point is that this film manages to create something refreshing out of something so nostalgic and “outdated” as classic animation in order to bring up the issue of trauma.
The loss of memory and especially the loss of a memory as harsh as the witnessing of a massacre can be easily interpreted as an example of trauma. One does not forget the sight of dead bodies nor the sound of shots being fired at a mass of women and children. However, that is what happens to the protagonist. His personal trauma is the pain that comes from the realization that his mind has completely canceled out such a brutal memory, as if he was responsible for it, as if he was the man who pulled the trigger. Perhaps it is the weight of guilt and desperation brought on him by trauma that make him seek out the truth.
Perhaps it’s only for personal reasons. In fact, the filmmaker never raises his voice, he never manages to get as emotional as we would wish him to be. Ari Folman’s voice is monotonous, predictable and yet it transmits the feeling that this man has been through a lot. The same goes for the people he interviews. Six out of eight interviews present in the movie are authentic interviews conducted by the filmmaker himself prior to the making of this movie.
Some of the interviewees talk about war the way they talk about going for a beer in the evening. Their voices are flat and their descriptions become repetitive and oversimplified but it’s precisely that, that makes these interviews and the way they are displayed visually so powerful and gut-wrenching. The unscripted voices of these interviewees deepen the film’s message and turn simple animation into a document, a film essay where an invisible thesis is made and arguments are brought up by the people at the microphone.
The film opens like some kind of thunderous nightmare. A pack of dogs with shining teeth takes an entire city by surprise and creates chaos. The camera tracks the dogs as these strong, growling beasts make their way across streets, parks and squares, spreading panic and fear in the eyes of bystanders. We don’t know what it is, we don’t know why these dogs are relevant, but we know one thing: it’s disturbing and unsettling.
This opening sequence turns out to be a nightmare dreamt by one of Folman’s old pals from the war and succeeds in transmitting to the audience the overall feel of the movie in a matter of two minutes. Dogs from hell and soldiers with machine guns – there is no palpable difference, says Folman. The soldiers with machine guns have no motivation to do what they do best but they still do it, just like those blood thirsty dogs that storm the city for no reason other than to cause chaos and destruction.
In terms of visuals the movie is capable of conveying to the viewer where the present is and where the past takes over. Contemporary action unfolds with a much darker color palette, mainly using a contrast of black and orange in order to create this neon-light effect that pulsates with a sense of nostalgia and regret. Most frames are occupied by one or two characters, reminiscent of documentary style filmmaking. Sometimes it’s just desolate landscapes, a silent night, filled with Max Richter’s moving classical score.
It is only when the movie shifts back to the past that the film assumes a different kind of spirit – a much more conventional one. The colors become brighter and easier on the eye. There is a prominent use of light green and yellow; shadows are also used to present a very realistic depth of field. The storytelling is visual, helped by an omnipresent voice-over narration that shift from various perspectives depending on the interviewee.
If carefully analyzed, one can come to the conclusion that this method of storytelling is the epitome of experiencing a traumatic event. In a sense, these shifting perspectives represent the human mind playing tricks on us. The story spins around on it itself but it never manages to find a firm safe point; every account that is being told is doubtful, ambiguous and unreliable. As I sat down and watched this movie I never felt sure of the next step – it always felt as if I was watching a number of different unrelated stories put together as a whole in order to fool me, in order to feed me something that at the end turns out to be something else. Folman’s trauma is unraveled step by step like a play constructed of different acts. His memory loss reflects an attitude of a man who fears himself, fears what he is capable of and what the people around him are capable of.
The world of Waltz with Bashir is populated by normal, everyday people who at times, depending on the situation, can turn into blood thirsty hounds, willing to kill an entire city just for the simple taste of blood. And I think that that is one of the most accurate depictions of trauma you’ll ever find on the silver screen.