Waltz With Bashir (2008) – A Guest Post by The War Movie Buff

I’m glad to have another guest post today. This time it is from one of my oldest blogging friends, Kevin aka The War Movie Buff. He started his war movie blog only a few months after I started mine and I was glad to find someone who doesn’t only share the interest and posts regularly and writes in a very detailed and passionate way but also someone who answers comments and likes a good discussion.

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In August, 2010, I went to see a movie called “Julie and Julia”. Little did I know that taking my wife to a chick flick to get brownie points would change my life. The plot of the Julie half of the movie involved a blogger cooking a different recipe a day and writing about it. That gave me the idea to start a blog where I would review the greatest war movies. I had recently encountered Military History magazine’s issue on the 100 Greatest War Movies so I used it as my guide. My plan was to review one movie per week starting with #100. I started as simple a blog as I could handle (being computer-challenged) and journeyed into uncharted territory not knowing what to expect. I truly did not expect to get much traffic and being a high school history teacher I am used to lack of recognition. However, my very first post resulted in a response from a blogger named “All About War Movies”. This person quickly became my mentor, colleague, and friend. In recognition of that, I have chosen to write this guest post on a movie I never would have seen without her influence. When I became a faithful follower of “All About War Movies”, I realized that there were some very good foreign war films that I should watch. Being an American, this was news to me. In my whole life of watching hundreds of films, I could recall having watched only one foreign film (“The Seven Samurai”). I quickly came to respect Caroline’s recommendations and anytime she mentioned a movie I had never heard of, I checked on it. I decided to expand my parameters to include categories beyond the 100 Greatest. One of those categories is what I decided to call “Should I Read It?” which refers to subtitled movies. The first foreign war film I blogged on was one of Caroline’s favorites – “Joyeux Noel”. I was hooked on foreign films instantly. I now even watch non-war, subtitled films. I am proudly less Americentric now.

I give this background because the movie I am going to write about is not only a foreign film, but the best war film I have seen since I started my blog. It reinforced my belief that modern war films can and should be superior to old school war movies, even the classics. Technology and experience are huge advantages for modern war movie makers. “Waltz With Bashir” is an Israeli film released in 2008. The movie blew me away because it hit several of my buttons. It is historically accurate, I learned about an event that I knew little about, it is realistic in its depiction of the military and combat, and it is striking in its cinematography.

Writer and director Ari Folman spent four years creating what he calls an “animated documentary”. If not the first of this type, it is still ground-breaking. It won numerous awards and was critically acclaimed. The film is autobiographical. Folman takes as his theme the effects of war on memory. The movie begins with a jaw-dropping three-dimensionally animated scene of a pack of dogs running through the streets to a man’s apartment building. The dogs represent a memory flashback for a friend of Ari. The friend tells Ari each dog represented the 26 dogs he sniped during the Lebanon War of 1982. This conversation causes Ari to confront the fact that he has holes in his memory of his experiences in Lebanon. That very night he has his first flashback which involves himself and some naked comrades coming ashore on a beach at the city of Beirut. Another friend theorizes that people sometimes fill in gaps in their memory with fiction. He encourages Ari to try to fill in those gaps with the truth. Don’t fear opening those doors, “memory takes us where we want to go”. He assures Ari he cannot get hurt by learning the truth.

Ari goes on a quest to talk to comrades he served with and other veterans of the invasion. Their individual stories are vignettes that powerfully depict the nature of modern war. Several universal truths about warfare and young soldiers shine through. The adrenalin-fueled fear in a firefight is followed by the overwhelming silence of death. Soldiers tend to fire their weapons at nothing and nowhere when traveling through enemy territory. Soldiers are clueless pawns of the brass and the pols. Surviving members of a unit suffer guilt feelings. Unlike some anti-war movies, “Waltz with Bashir” does not glamorize the appealing aspects of armed combat.

The movie and Ari’s quest builds to the infamous Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacre. Ari’s unit is sent into western Beirut after the assassination of the Christian Phalange leader Bashir Gemayal. The film takes its title from an incident in which a member of Ari’s unit waltzes with a machine gun in the middle of a Beirut street while under fire from snipers and RPGs and as Lebanese civilians spectate. Time seems to stand still as he twirls amidst the bullet casings and ricochets. The dance symbolizes Israel’s relationship with Bashir.

The film concludes with the Israeli Defensive Forces allowing vengeance-minded Christian Phalange militia to enter the Muslim camps. The individual Israeli soldiers exhibit cognitive dissonance as they are slow to grasp what is clearly taking place before their eyes, abetted by their lighting the night skies with flares. It takes three days for an Israeli general to order a stop to the killings. The movie makes it clear that the Israeli government (Defense Minister Sharon and Prime Minister Begin) was complicit in the massacre, but Folman is not on a crusade. He lets the audience connect the dots. The memory theme comes full circle as Ari realizes that he had filled in the black hole of his memory of being near the atrocity by imagining that he and his comrades were instead at a beach. The movie closes with real footage of the massacre victims as though to remind the audience that although animated, the story is true.

I love war movies because I love Military History. I have been attracted to war stories since I was a child because of the action, but also because war brings out all the emotions and character traits in human beings. I prefer war movies that have action and are true to human nature. They don’t have to be historically accurate, but I insist they not be ridiculous and unrealistic. When you have seen as many war films as I have, you also are impressed when the movie takes a different approach to telling a war story. “Waltz with Bashir” fits this description (as do “300” and “Oh! What a Lovely War”). Movies like these prove that although the war movie genre (starting with “Birth of a Nation”) is almost a century old, there are still new ways to tell a war story.

“Waltz” looks very different from every other war film I have seen. Folman uses a variety of animation. The movie is mostly a blend of cut-out and classic animation. It is influenced by graphic novels and has a scene reminiscent of Japanese animation. He includes some three-dimensional scenes, but used the technique sparingly and only for spectacular shots. His use of color varies depending on the mood of the scene. The war scenes tend to be monochromatic. The home front scenes are much more vibrant. (He makes the point that although he was fighting only twenty minutes away, at home the public was unaffected by the war and life went on as usual.) The shading and shadows are amazing. The look is mesmerizing. Blu-ray was made for movies like this.

The movie is true to human nature mainly because these are real people who Ari interviewed and built the story on. From my reading of men in combat, I have a good idea of how men behave under that stress. For those vast majority of people who do not want to read extensively in this difficult area, movies can serve the purpose of educating civilians about what their young warriors go through. This is important because these young men deserve to be understood. Civilians need second-hand memory. Undoubtedly, some Israelis were offended by what they saw in “Waltz”. The fact is that atrocities happen on both sides in every war. Good war movies like this show what really happens in war, but also provide the why.

As an American, I admit to being ignorant about most modern non-American wars. My blog experience and Caroline’s influence have opened up my eyes to several conflicts that I would have remained clueless about. I have watched movies on the Bosnian War (“No Man’s Land”, “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”), the First Chechan War (“Prisoner of the Mountain”), and the Lebanon War (“Beaufort”, “Lebanon”). They are all good movies that taught me something and encouraged me to research the war. My modus operandi when I read books is usually to read books that I can learn from. I am not as strict with movies, but it’s an added bonus when the movie is instructive.

In conclusion, we war movie lovers all have our reasons for loving this genre. But don’t forget it is a genre with many fascinating subgenres. Be willing to sample from them all, even the ones where you have to read. And try out the newest one – animated war documentary.

Thank you Caroline for giving me this opportunity to spout.

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11 thoughts on “Waltz With Bashir (2008) – A Guest Post by The War Movie Buff

  1. WarMovieBlog says:

    I seem to remember watching this, but I guess I never put up a review. I think it confused me to the point I didn’t know what I should write about. Time to go back and give this a second look. :D I do remember thinking it was a bit too “experimental” for my tastes.

    • I think it’s a fantastic movie and not that experimental at all. It just tuches upon something which is hard to handle. – Repressed memories. I’m sure if you give it nother try you’ll like it better.

  2. I remember hearing about it but I admit that I was turned off by what appeared to be a strange story. I will go and watch it since both of you appreciate it so much.

    • I hope you will give it a chance. I’m glad when I find movies which choose another approach. I think it worked very well, every detail of the movie is well chosen, the way it is told, the images, the music. I liked it a lot.

  3. nem baj says:

    Thanks a lot for the extensive review. It certainly deserves a look, and even a second look. Yet I’m not a fan for several reasons…

    The first being the Flash-based animation techniques, which I find very tiresome (I’m OK with that for a clip though) after a few minutes. Now, I haven’t had a television set at home for decades, so I’m probably not on par with what is currently accepted in that department. The younger generation in my family would certainly disagree with me.

    The second being it’s a docudrama, a classic succession of testimonies and re-enactments. I’m not fond of the process in general, and in that case I find that applying the same ‘animated’ treatment (though notably delimited by color palettes, as Kevin duly noted) to both testimonies and re-creations is quite confusing. In particular, the very limited facial expressions of the protagonists in both segments clearly prevented me from relating to any of them.

    I’m not enthusiastic at all about Band of Brothers or The Pacific, yet I confess there’s something quite moving about those men’s faces decades after the facts. Here, I had a hard time linking the ‘present’ characters and their past characters in wartime – and imagining what had happened to them during the 25 years in beetween.

    Which leads me to the third reason: what is it really about? Feeling guilty for shooting dogs, or launching flares? A few nightmares, and a lot of visual references to Apocalypse Now ? A vague sense of collective guilt for a fault which eventually isn’t that bad, since it’s those politicians who dit it, hey… To put it bluntly, I found the film to be quite comfortable. No Heart of Darkness or Lost Highway here, it’s more like Hitchcock’s Spellbound without the love story.

    Nevertheless, it remains a remarkable attempt to renew the war movie genre, and as such I fully agree that Waltz with Bashir deserves to be watched and reviewed.

    PS: I keep a much fonder memory of Avi Mograbi’s Z32 (maybe coming to a film institute near you) which, for all its own flaws and eccentricities, tries in my view to address the same topics with far more nerve.

    • I reviewed it as well a while back and my review was as enthusiastic as Kevin’s. I didn’t have any of the problems, didn’t find it confusing nor experimental.
      I tought it was a look at the way how repression works, a very psychological approach to the war. It certainly had similarities with video clips. Max Richter’s score is very important. I like a lot what he does, like Shutter Island for example.

    • the war movie buff says:

      I think “Waltz” uses the interview technique partly to show how different soldiers dealt with their memories. It also adds authenticity to the stories.

      In Band of Brothers, this technique was used to set up the episode. The interviews were not used in the body of the episode. Also, the old men speaking are not identified so there is no attempt to match them with their younger selves. I loved that approach because it does not give away which members of the regiment survived the war.

      As far as some people being turned off by the animation – if everyone would like it, then I probably wouldn’t (if you get my drift). Like I said, when you have seen as many old school war pics as I have, anything different is welcome (although less so if it is pretentious). “Waltz” is not an artsy movie.

      I did not mention the Apocalypse Now scene because I was trying to control the length (believe it or not). The scene is cute, but you have to really be looking for it.

    • nem baj says:

      I won’t even try to curb your enthusiasm, let’s just say it didn’t work for me.

      About Apocalypse Now:





    • media412 says:

      “The first being the Flash-based animation techniques, which I find very tiresome”

      THIS. Now I remember this being the biggest “turn off” about it. Still need to revisit it, though.

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