There are times when someone sits down to watch a film and after 90 minutes realize that they've been sitting there in stunned silence the entire time. Did they like it? Maybe, maybe not. Was it a good movie? Well, it was certainly a "good for you" movie. But was it fun, was it enjoyable? It was both technically impressive and entirely engrossing, but enjoyable, who knows. Perhaps, just perhaps, the person you're talking to just finished watching Waltz with Bashir. This 2008 release, which won a DGA award for Best Documentary, a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and was nominated for an Academy Award in the same category is certainly an experience.
When I was in graduate school, I had a professor – a documentary professor – who had an incredibly broad definition of what makes for a documentary film. Waltz with Bashir unquestionably would fit my documentary professor's amorphous, widely encompassing definition, but it might not fit the standard definition. The film, written and directed by Ari Folman, is an animated one.
The main character in it is Ari, and his character spends the majority of the film remembering and interviewing people about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon (the First Lebanon War). Within the context of the film, Ari is trying to remember what part he played – if any – in a massacre, and to that end, he is interviewing other people with whom he spent time during the war and/or folks who may be able to shed light on what happened. The film, consequently, is loaded with flashbacks and functions much more as a series of short stories rather than a single story.
As for the truth behind it, and what makes this a documentary, all tales told by veterans in the film are true, or, at the very least, true for the people who told them (one of the themes the movie deals with is the vicissitudes of memory). The vast majority of the real people who are turned into animated characters for the film are in fact the people to whom the stories happened (only two actors were used). However, while the film strings the stories together into a single overarching plot, that part isn't necessarily true, Ari didn't go out and find friends from the war and link up with other people through them, he put up an advertisement looking for stories from the war.
Is that relevant? I don't know; that probably depends on your definition of "truth." The stories from the war actually took place, they just don't necessarily go together, and don't necessarily fit with Ari's life in such a neat, pat, manner. Plus, as I indicated above, the film is animated, which, for some, may hurt its truth claim.
As for the animation, it's absolutely brilliant and completely unique. It may look a little like rotoscoping, but in one of the behind the scenes featurettes, an animator is quite clear about the fact that it isn't, everything in the film (save the last few live actions shots) is in fact fully animated. Several of the featurettes deal with the construction of the film and the animation (there is also a Q&A with Ari Folman). The entire piece was actually filmed first and then edited. Storyboards were made from that, those were then roughly animated, and then the final film's animation was done on computer using the rough animatics as a guide. The final result is a completely different visual look for the piece, one that is cartoony and stylized, but real in an oddly disturbing way.
Sadly, the Blu-ray release of the film doesn't do the actual animation any favors, as the many night scenes appear terribly grainy. Additionally, the live action footage at the end of the film was clearly not shot in high definition (it is too old for that), and doesn't look particularly good when upconverted. Both the Hebrew and English audio tracks for the main feature are far better than the video. The sound is crisp and clear and even some of the more difficult accents completely intelligible.
Waltz with Bashir represents not just a brilliant achievement in terms of animation, but it tells a fascinating story – set of stories – about war and responsibility and action and inaction. It is an examination of a what people do during war, what they forget, and where war leaves the survivors. It is a powerful and wonderfully interesting film.
Is it true? Is it documentary?
There's truth in it certainly, there's documentary in it. Does the rest matter?