Untimely Animations: Waltz with Bashir and the Incorporation of Historical Difference

Waltz with Bashir (Israel 2008) concerns itself with time on a number of formal and thematic levels, from its investigation of history to the use of animation to allow the recreation of an otherwise visually inaccessible past.  The animated documentary’s plot interweaves historical and personal time in the form of Israeli soldiers remembering, or attempting to remember, their involvement in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  A central preoccupation of the documentary is the untimeliness of trauma, where a repressed memory kept “out of time” will return to the present in unexpected and distorted forms.  This personal experience of trauma is extended to the sphere of national identity in the degree to which the documentary re-examines events that have been largely silenced within the official versions of history within Israel.  It is untimely insofar as it disrupts accepted understandings and exposes events that certain constructions of Israeli national identity would rather forget.  Of course the dynamic between remembering and forgetting and how best to relate to history, a theme that informs the politics surrounding Waltz with Bashir, was addressed directly by Nietzsche in his Untimely Meditations.  In “On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life,” he warned of the dangers of an excessive concern for the past, and of the necessity for a certain amount of forgetting as a condition for acting.  While Waltz with Bashir investigates directly the repression of the past, of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, it is also haunted by the events of the Holocaust.  The forgetting of one is enabled by the specific forms of remembering the other, a question central to the reading of the politics of the documentary.

The thematic and political questions of untimeliness are foregrounded in the plot but we argue that it would be a mistake to isolate them from formal questions of representation, for the use of animation in Waltz with Bashir has its own temporality, worthy of analysis in itself but also crucial in exploring the larger themes of the documentary.  There is a presentness to animation that enables the seamless weaving of the past into the present.  The use of animation in the documentary has an aesthetic timeliness insofar as it creates a fluid rhythm that bars access to the critical function of historical difference, in other words, history’s untimeliness.  While many critics have commented on the appropriateness or otherwise of the choice of animation for a documentary treatment of the 1982 conflict, little has been said about the specific nature of the animation itself.  By contrast we investigate how the animation works in Waltz with Bashir in a number of ways.  Firstly, we examine the significance of animation with respect to the documentary genre and how it informs the representation of historical time.  Secondly, we examine the hierarchy of modes of representation in the way that drawing and animation are privileged over more static and “realistic” forms such as photography.  Thirdly we examine the relationship between movement and representation by analysing specific scenes in the documentary.  Finally, drawing these threads together allows us to reflect upon the question of untimeliness in the documentary and how this bears upon larger question of representation, memory, history and politics.  We argue that the animation creates not only a feeling of being “out of time” for the protagonist but also a rhythmic timelessness that ultimately subsumes issues of agency and responsibility.

Documentary is a composite genre insofar as it aims to use whatever visual material is available, from interviews and reenactments to archived film footage, to “recreate” the event/period/story.  Much of the visual material was recorded for purposes other than the making of the documentary and, as such, is attached to another context and another narrative, for example the common use of news footage and home video in the documentary genre.  Importantly, recorded footage also bears the trace of the technological process of registering the image, which can also indirectly refer to the period in which it was recorded ‑ the colour of early video, the flicker of the newsreel, or the pixilation of camera phones.  The differences in the depicted events and the technologies of seeing/recording can be considered untimely in the degree to which they assert their historical specificity and resist full incorporation into a documentary’s narrative.  A documentary accords greater value than does a fiction film to the indexical bond that ties the recorded material to a particular place, figure or event and in doing so, is presented with the difficulty of allowing for this untimeliness and yet remaining coherent.  Moreover, the notion of coherence can be linked to timeliness in insofar as historical events, and associated footage, temporally unfold in the documentary as a causal sequence or a structured argument.  Bill Nichols argues that in documentary there is a rule of exposition that stands outside of the particular space and time of the footage and the narrator is often the vehicle for this exposition because their voice links disparate elements and gives coherence to the whole.[1] Voiceover narration not only has the capacity to order events and points of view as part of a temporal sequence, but in standing outside the narrative it also possesses its own time, the presentness of enunciation.  The speaking voice has a temporal consistency, a timeliness, that can always be distinguished from the events enunciated.

Waltz with Bashir does not employ a single narrator but is nevertheless able to create a coherent present through the focalisation of events in the figure of Ari Folman, who investigates his own inability to remember the Sabra and Shatila massacre and his involvement in the war.  His search for a coherent recollection of the events is the principle of exposition that holds together a range of “documentary” materials from dreams and battle scenes to interviews.  Using Nichols’ typology, Waltz with Bashir can be considered an interactive documentary due to its use of testimony and with respect to how the filmmaker appears to reach an argument in negotiation with a range of interview subjects,[2] from psychiatrists through to friends and fellow soldiers.  The voices of these interview subjects are used to explain events and to link together scenes, a common function in interactive documentaries.  Nichols notes, however, that often this “bridging function” is imposed after the fact in editing and postproduction,[3] which is true of Waltz with Bashir.  There were three steps to the process, the interviews were conducted and a script written, there was then a second round of filmed interviews organised into a video, and finally there was the creation of the animation based on the video and script.[4]   As a result of this revision, Waltz with Bashir tends towards the expository mode of documentary filmmaking for the testimony only ever serves as “evidence for the filmmaker’s, or text’s, argument.”[5]  Ari does not hold open interviews but explicitly states what he wants to know and the interviewees readily play the role of helpers in his epistemological quest.  He effectively stands in the documentary’s present, imposing a temporal order by means of which all acts of recollection are coordinated.  There is very little doubt that the protagonist’s involvement in the war will be revealed in the narrative, although the exact nature of the revelations remains unknown until the end.  This tight rule of exposition implies that the protagonist Ari Folman always knows what he does not know, for most dialogues are structured around the absent object of his memory and there is a predetermined acceptance of traumatic foreclosure in the plot.  The traumatic event does not erupt unexpectedly, in an untimely fashion, but is rather fashioned as a space to be filled in the denouement.

This reflexive staging of trauma brings into question a direct reading of Waltz with Bashir as a documentary about traumatic experience and, therefore, the need to draw upon the extensive literature on traumatic experience as an interpretative framework.  The filmmaker may have undergone a traumatic experience due to his involvement in the massacre but from this, we should not draw the conclusion that trauma has a determining role in the production phase of the documentary.  Trauma can be analysed solely as a storytelling device in Waltz with Bashir and it is therefore important to distinguish traumatic experience from its re-presentation in the carefully composed documentary narrative.  It is safe to assume that the filmmaker was aware of the nature of his “lost” memories before he began production of the documentary, that is, before the recording of the interviews and the staging of the narrative, and certainly before the reworking of the interviews and other documentary material as animated sequences.  Consequently we do not examine trauma as the basis of the text – its productive centre ‑ because the issue for us is the use of trauma as a formal trope.

Trauma as a formal trope is fundamental to the narrative of Waltz with Bashir.  Early in the documentary, Ari visits the analyst Ori Sivan and discusses how false memories operate and Sivan’s professional testimony implicitly supports and legitimises the filmmaker’s argument.  Likewise, the characters Boaz, Ari and Carmi readily provide descriptions of their dreams in conversation thereby acknowledging that dreams can serve as evidence in lieu of more detailed eyewitness descriptions of the war, which, as a consequence, shifts the focus of the documentary from questions of responsibility to the effects of the war on the psychological states of the soldiers.  Furthermore, when Carmi is asked whether or not he shot someone, he gives the vague reply “I don’t know” and when asked about the massacre he states “It’s hard to say…I don’t remember anything about the massacre,” in other words, he remembers what he does not remember.  There is no attempt to search his memory or to discuss the conditions of not knowing in these interviews, where he could have argued that all combat occurred at a distance, we rarely saw the enemy, etc.  This personal testimony does not entirely coincide with what is shown on screen including a scene where Carmi and his comrades fill with bullets a Mercedes containing a family shortly after they land on the beach.  In his conversation with Ari, Carmi readily accedes to traumatic foreclosure which implies an understanding of the discourse of forgetting that suits the documentary’s rule of exposition.  It is, to follow Nietzsche, forgetting in the service of action but also forgetting as the precondition of narration.

The use of interviews and the foregrounding of the filmmaker’s quest are common features of interactive documentary but what should also be acknowledged is the importance of animation to the narrative structure and temporal organisation of Waltz with Bashir.  Most critics focus on choice of animation as a means of representation and not on anything specific to quality of the animation itself.  Aoun argues that the animated sequences fail to provide an authentic representation of the massacres in Beirut in 1982 and that the choice to animate the documentary fails to give the event the respect it deserves.[6] Other critics support the use of animation in the documentary with many arguing that animation is the appropriate vehicle for evoking the experience of combat or that the uncanny qualities of animation allow us to understand the nature of trauma and repression.[7]  Lane argues that the animated “fluid images” amplify the traumatic concerns of the documentary.[8]   Yosef notes how fantasy is similar to animation because it is an iconic sign – a sign that maintains a relationship of resemblance with reality ‑ and is consequently able “to represent the traumatic events of the past, which are too awful and shocking to be represented directly.” [9] Likewise, Alice Burgin defends the use of animation using Lyotard’s argument about the impossibility of authentic representation within postmodernity:

in many ways the deliberate choice of animation in Folman’s film subscribes to [Lyotard’s] idea.  The trauma of war, massacre and death exist so far beyond representation that animation becomes a most suitable technique, implying reality, rather than demanding it, and potentially risking the possibility of denying or undermining it.[10]

These arguments about the suitability of animation in the representation of the traumatic events derive from different premises, even though both argue that animation is indirect.  For Yosef, the animation mitigates the traumatic impact of the events upon the viewer while still invoking them through a process of resemblance, whereas Burgin, argues that the images only “imply” reality and thus preserve the place of the traumatic experience as “beyond representation” and, as such, beyond resemblance.  The difference between these arguments is not simply a matter of different processes of reasoning but testament to the difficulty in establishing the status of the animated image in documentary.  This is both a question of ontology ‑ in what way are the animated images of the event ‑and a question of time insofar as moving images in film and animation are located in the present unless otherwise nominated – i.e. through the use of past tense voiceover – which raises the question; in what way can these images be in the present and yet of the past?

Waltz with Bashir is quite explicit in its suspicion of certain forms of representation, particularly photography, and this further brings into question the temporal and ontological status of the visual component of the documentary.  In one scene Folman visits Professor Zahara Solomon, a scholar of post-traumatic stress disorder, who tells him a story about an amateur photographer participating in the war.  The photographer was initially able to avoid the traumatic experience of combat because “he looked at everything as if through an imaginary camera” upon which the viewer is shown a series of beautifully composed still images.  These are drawn images but due to their composition are posited within the documentary’s diegesis as photographs of the type that regularly win photojournalism awards.  Then, according to Solomon, “his camera broke and he freaked out” at which point the still images flicker across the lens like film slowed down in a projector – with no indication of why there is a shift from the aesthetics of photography to the mechanism of film – and once this flickering stops on a single image, the image begins to move internally.  It is a slow tracking movement of a type that is used extensively throughout the documentary and is accompanied by Solomon’s statement, “He said that the situation turned traumatic for him,” thus establishing a connection between the slow movement of the “camera” and trauma.  The scene itself, presumably the photographer’s memory, describes a field where hundreds of horses lie dead and wounded as a result of the war and which closes with a close-up of a horse’s dead eye with the photographer reflected in the iris.  This contrast between drawing (animation) and photography might first suggest a rejection of realism in favour of artifice, in line with those critics who argue animation is the most appropriate vehicle for representing “the unrepresentable,” however a more productive reading of this opposition might be between photography which, in the words of André Bazin, “embalms time” and the living movement of drawing and animation.  Writing on the ontology of the photographic image Bazin argues that rather than supplying us with a historically accurate record, the photographic image is actually a form of oppression, where “for the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.”[11]  Unlike other forms of visual art “the objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture making.”  Such credibility is for Bazin “the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye.”[12]  Without the space for human intervention, for the active process of making meaning, the realism of the photo is a lifeless process, where history is not recorded but time embalmed – as dead as the Arabian horses on the battlefield.

This correlation of the drawn and the living also has the potential to mask fundamental historical differences, for the drawing has its own time that is related to its process of manufacture and this is distinct from the temporal status of the depicted events.  This also applies to animation where the slow process of creating the moving image remains at a remove from the time and movement of the objects referred to in the image and, consequently, there has long been an interest in the history of animation in showing the act of drawing alongside the movement of the depicted figures.[13]  This temporal independence of drawing is a feature of all animation but in Waltz with Bashir it also pertains to the drawn features of characters, which often appear to move independently of a character’s or object’s actions.  The shadows on the water in the main dream sequence bob up and down to their own rhythm, the shadows in the orchard slide across with a regularity not determined by the position of the sun, and the lines on each character’s face move in a time that is slightly out of step with their speech.  This can be contrasted with film footage where the time of recording is coincident with the time of the events depicted – it mechanically unfolds alongside those events ‑ and this is why in documentary filmmaking, as mentioned above, there is certain importance attached to archival and other images that are located in a particular historical period.  There is a presentness in drawn and animated forms that distinguishes them from the pastness, or “embalmed time,” of archival footage and the photograph but also from past and future tenses implicit in verbal recollection.  In an animated documentary, the presentness of the manufactured image implies that on the level of animation all the scenes are reenactments and, as such, have the capacity to reanimate the past; to make it live again.  Nichols argues:

Reenactments vivify the sense of the lived experience, the vécu, of others.  They take past time and make it present.  They take present time and fold it over onto what has already come to pass.  They resurrect a sense of a previous moment that is now seen through a fold that incorporates the embodied perspective of the filmmaker and the emotional investment of the viewer.[14]

In this sense, reenactments foreground the rhetorical or subjective elements involved in any restaging of events[15] and this might, in part, explain Folman’s statement: “in order to get back to being who I am to understand myself […] I had to be drawn, and thus find myself again, to understand who I am.”[16] The reenactment in Waltz with Bashir is not only the recreation of a few scenes from the past, but a creative act of remembering that “folds” the past into a continuous present, that is, into living rather than embalmed time.  However, it must be noted that in a documentary that is almost entirely animated, the “strange” temporal status of reenactments ‑ where “it is crucial that they be recognized as a representation of a prior event while also signaling that they are not a representation of a contemporaneous event” ‑ is elided.[17]  This qualitative temporal distinction peculiar to reenactments is flattened out in the creation of a living, animated and timely present in Waltz with Bashir, and consequently it has more in common with a fiction film than a documentary in spite of other generic features, such as the interview structure.

The animation complements the logic of exposition in Waltz with Bashir insofar as it draws attention away from the differences between historical periods and between recorded and reenacted scenes.  There has been consequently little attention in the critical reception of the work to the complexity of the relationship between the animated restaging and the documentary referent, with a persistent assumption in the industry that the animation involved rotoscoping.[18] This technique “where animators trace over live-action footage” was not used at all but, nevertheless, the rumour persisted much to the irritation of the animators who believed it undervalued their work.  Instead they used the more time-consuming process of cut-out animation even for those scenes where a video interview could have served as a model.[19] This raises the question as to why the animation in Waltz with Bashir was assumed to be rotoscoped when the visual style is quite different to the rotoscoping used in popular animations such as A Scanner Darkly (USA 2006) and Waking Life (USA 2001).  It is likely that this assumption arose out of belief that what is seen is actually a transcription of the real, for rotoscoping maintains an indexical relationship to actual film or video footage.  It is an indexical bond at second remove, where the mechanical recording of an event undergoes a second semi-automatic process of inscription in which animators draw over the recorded images.  Based on such a model, the animation is a not an independent stylistic object – a reanimation of the event – but the translation of embalmed time.

This idea of the translation of the real, however, does not sit easily with the fact that so many scenes involve shots that could only have been animated.  The animator has considerable freedom because animation is “penetrative,” insofar as it can show any events and states that are visually conceivable, which separates it from film, video and photography because the latter are concretely linked to a visual field that exists independently of the camera.[20] Although Waltz with Bashir relies on the interview structure, the filmmaker has not simply linked a character voiceover to existing footage but rather created images to perform this role.  This creative flexibility explains why animation was always the intended format, as Yoni Goodman the Director of Animation on Waltz with Bashir states:

This was Ari’s vision from day one, we just sort of gave him the tools to do it.  Like he says, if he had done it like an ordinary documentary, it would have been another talking heads and archive footage movie.  We wanted to recreate the actual events, and to do more; to give the sense of anxiety, of fear, to really bring out the horrors of war through nightmares and hallucinations, and animation is really the best, and in my opinion, the only way of telling the story as it should be told. [21]

In this desire to “recreate the actual events” many of the animated sequences take forms and depict events that are usually inaccessible to cameras – dream sequences, pans that move seamlessly from dialogue to aerial shots, shot reverse shots in a battle scene, and even a point of view shot of a RPG shell in the course of blowing up a tank.  These filmically impossible shots are interspersed with typical documentary footage of social actors interviewed on location ‑ in a bar, office, gym, home, etc.  The differences between such scenes, and how they fit within a schema of reenactment, are not highlighted in the documentary’s exposition and therefore the viewer is not called upon to assess the veracity of the documentary footage.  There is a visual omniscience in Waltz with Bashir which aligns it with a fiction film, or indeed, a drama documentary, where the viewer ignores the differences between the recreated and the real as they are increasingly sutured into the documentary’s plot and aesthetic.  However, unlike the drama documentary, Waltz with Bashir acquires the authority of the documentary due to the use of its conventions, such as the interview and cutaway, that is analogous to the use of handheld cameras in mock documentaries.

This visual omniscience is not only limited to the type of scenes that are created but the detail of each shot.  The animation may reference a set of events, often only vaguely remembered by the interview subjects, but in the act of recreating the remembered events there is the addition of detail that has the potential to alter the status of the event.  Consequently, cut-out, cell and drawn animation should be contrasted with documentary film or video footage which includes detail incidentally in the act of recording ‑ rotoscoping sits somewhere between the two in that it reduces the detail of a recorded image.  In the recording of an interview on site all the details of the visual field – for example the lines marking a subject’s face, the movement of people in the background, the colour of the sky etc. – are registered even when the explicit purpose of the interview is to elicit spoken testimony.  Filmed footage bears the mark of the real in a way that drawing and animation does not, which is indirectly referred to in Waltz with Bashir when Ari asks Carmi: “Would you mind if I sketch you and your son playing in the snow?” to which Carmi replies, “No. Not at all. Draw as much as you like … It’s fine as long as you draw, but don’t film.”  It is not clear why Carmi does not want to be filmed, except that it will locate him visually within a particular time and place and create a mechanical likeness – an embalmed image of who he is and was.  However, he has more to fear from drawing and animation than he does from the camera, for as these words linger, the screen pans to reveal an image of his son lying prone in the snow armed with a toy rifle.  On face value, the shot forms part of an argument about the effects of war or how the young are educated, through play, in the art of war, both of which would not have been predicted by Carmi when he made his statements.  In fact his interdiction “don’t film”, only gives greater moral weight to the image of his child playing with a rifle as it infers that there is something the viewer should not see.  In an animation where every detail is created, the viewer does not know if the detail of the boy playing in the snow as his father discusses the war was simply a visual accident or an addition designed to support the documentary’s argument.  This is further complicated by the fact that the voices in Waltz with Bashir are recorded and bring with them the authority of testimony, which can only be diminished by the addition of an animated image of uncertain provenance.

The peculiar status of the image in animated documentary relates to the difference between the visual artefact used in media production and that of the historical event.  Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media argues and that once an image is transferred to the screen, that is, once it is converted to pixels, all visual material is something that can be manipulated by computer software[22] :

If live-action footage were left intact in traditional filmmaking, now it functions as raw material for further compositing, animating, and morphing.  As a result, while retaining the visual realism unique to the photographic process, film obtains a plasticity that was previously only possible in painting or animation.[23]

Due to the fact that all images must pass through the computer, the question of the origin or mode of manufacture of the images is no longer relevant which leads Manovich to propose the following definition: “Digital cinema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements.”[24] Animation is the very condition of the cinematic with “digital cinema” a contemporary variant, and both are distinguished by their capacity to incorporate all visual elements into a single visual whole.  This is clearly a feature of Waltz with Bashir where there is a capacity to seamlessly incorporate a range of visual media and optical effects, from looking through a keyhole to photographs and video images.  For the fact that all must be rendered as animation and pass through a computer screen means that all can be attributed a stylistic consistency, which elides the differences between types of media found in documentary.  This is one of the reasons why the structure of reenactment in animated documentary, beyond noting that it is animated, is not readily recognised by the audience.

In most documentaries, attending to the past, and the documents of the past, must limit attention to aesthetic principles, such as compositional unity, harmony, balance and stylistic consistency but this is certainly not the case in animated documentary.  In Waltz with Bashir the style completes the logic of exposition, where we not only follow Ari’s story but are seductively drawn along by the flow of the animation, by the timeliness of style.  One way to approach the aesthetic of Waltz with Bashir is to argue that it is constructed around the continuity of movement, which stands both above and before the events depicted.  There is a timeliness of the animation that draws together all the scenes irrespective of the particular time, place or movement of the events.  The animated aesthetic, combined with the editing and music, creates a timeliness of movement that has the capacity to bring together the disparate, untimely, elements that are a feature of filmed documentary.  Waltz with Bashir has a rhythm that is grounded not only in the musical score but in the seamless editing of the visual score, where the animator acts like a DJ drawing together events in a series of mixes and segues.  In one scene, we see Ari sitting pensively in the back of a taxi as it drives through a snow-covered landscape with the reflection of barren trees passing across a side window.  The image of the trees soon gives way to the regular beat of palm trees and then tanks, so that the viewer is seamlessly drawn from the documentary’s present into its past, from one event to another without examination of historical difference and without reference to the epistemic status of the shift.  In another scene, we see Dayag walking away from a funeral and through the intermediary of a segue he is subsequently seen walking across the beach where most of his comrades were lost, the image then fades into another, where we see a soldier walk from the other direction and begin playing lead guitar on his rifle, the start of a montage sequence.  This seamless integration of images, events and times, which is often supported by Max Richter’s score, gives the documentary a seductive stylistic consistency.

This “seduction” is enabled though the incorporation of disparate elements into the animated form, so that they lose their temporal autonomy.  Characters and events unfold in Waltz with Bashir, but they do so according to externalized rhythms which evacuate the possibility of historical or individual agency, which is evinced in the scene where Frenkel engages in a highly stylized “waltz” – from which the title is derived ‑ in the midst of battle.  As Frenkel and Erez struggle for the MAG machinegun, the back and forth movement between them is co-ordinated as if they were engaged in a dance with the sound of bullets and shrapnel merely an ambient background.  Eventually Frenkel seizes the gun and crosses to the middle of the street shooting randomly, his firing and the movement of his body swaying to the rhythms of Chopin’s Waltz in C Sharp which occupies the soundtrack.  The result is a double loss of agency as Frenkel’s movements are not only directed by the non-diegetic music but constitute a reaction to the recoil from his gun, itself operating according to the dictates of the music.  The “action” in the scene is formally and existentially bracketed off from any tangible sense of combat and exists instead as stylized movement.  This creates a feeling of timelessness, and indeed we are told that it was unclear whether the “waltz” lasted an eternity or just a minute and that “Frenkel danced as if he meant to stay there forever.”  This sense of timelessness is linked to the lack of a clear point of view; we hear Frenkel’s voice narrating the scene in the beginning but Folman takes over the narration as the dance progresses.  The camera then slides over Frenkel’s body to reveal a poster of Bashir, a movement which creates further uncertainty as to who is witnessing and remembering the event.  The heightened surrealism of this scene suggests that given the investment of the documentary’s narrative in the mechanics of traumatic memory it ought to be a perspective or experience attributable to either Folman or Frenkel, not both.  Yet the perspective seems to belong to both, or neither, and the momentum of the scene, where the animated figures move in time to the rhythm of the waltz, further undermines the veracity of the act of witnessing.

If the “waltz” scene stands out because of the way in which all the physical, psychological and existential investments in combat seem to have been subsumed under the rhythms of Chopin’s music, we would argue that in fact much of the documentary is governed by a similar relation, where subjective action is subject to an external temporal structure.  There is a uniformity of movement in the documentary that effectively collapses any sense of temporal difference ‑ characters move at the same slow deliberative pace and the pans adopt a similar uniform rhythm.  The animation is often unable to register the impact of one person or thing upon another, hence characters walk along a road as if they were floating slightly above the ground in a way that is comparable to their movement in the dream sequences.  Whether a character is walking in an airport, being fired upon in a combat situation, or being rounded up to be executed, the pace of movement remains the same.  While this might be said to represent the distortions of traumatised memory, it applies equally to the documentary’s present and the wartime past.  The effect of such sustained continuity of movement is that characters seem to have no sense of agency, they all move according to the same melancholic rhythm.  For the viewer there is the feeling that everything is already determined, and that characters and actions are pre-ordained.

In the scene where the journalist Ron Ben-Yishai walks though a combat zone there is a sense that the action is taking place outside of him, that he has no impact upon the events.  Bullets fly all around him but he never alters his pace and his cameraman, who we are told is cowering in fear, also moves to the same hypnotic rhythm.  Civilians look on as mere observers, and one senses that all human possibility has been banished from the scene.  Later we see groups of Palestinians being forced toward a stadium; they move at a similar pace to Ben-Yishai.  Regardless of context (perpetrators or victims) or time (past or present) characters move according to the same somnambulant, external rhythm.  A central feature of the animated technique in Waltz with Bashir, the continuity of movement, seduces and fascinates, at the same time that it eliminates a dimension of agency.  How might this disconnection of movement from intention relate to larger questions of agency and responsibility over the historical events in question?

The standard reading of Waltz with Bashir is to regard the end, where filmed footage replaces the animation, as signifying a break with the deadlock of traumatic repression.  The footage of the slaughtered bodies of Palestinians represents the experience that Folman has been repressing since the war.  By extension, the archived footage represents an untimely irruption at the level of national identity, as the nation is forced to confront the actuality of events some would rather forget, as Harsin observes “the dream is over, the harsh memory recovered.” [25]   It is true that such a reading is possible, and indeed there is a contrast between the archival footage and the dreamlike animation that has preceded it.  However it might be overly simplistic to regard the ending of the documentary, with its change of medium and mode of reference to actual history, as opening up a possibility for a more ethical relation to the 1982 events, a relation enabled though the acceptance of responsibility.

Several factors mitigate this combining of the return of the repressed with personal/national responsibility.  Firstly it is worth remembering that the incorporative capacities of animation erode the temporal distinctions between past and present.  As such it seems naive to simply accept a few minutes of film footage at the end of the documentary as being able to carry the ethical burden of genuine historical recognition, especially when the distinction between memory and narrative, repression and (re)creation has been obscured throughout.  Secondly, while there are obvious differences between the archival footage and the animation, there are continuities.  The same music accompanies the end of the animation and the beginning of the film footage; music that continues to frame the melancholy determination of movement that evoked a sense of powerlessness in the animated sequences.  And while the footage of dead victims is hard to watch, when we see human subjects walking through the streets and amongst the bodies of their relatives, it seems as if they are subject to the same somnambulistic momentum as their animated precursors.  In other words the very temporal structures that divorce movement from intention in the animated sequences carry over to the archival footage.  Such continuity hints at a similar inability to act in the face of the “real” and it is not insignificant that we do not see Israeli troops in the archival footage, only Palestinian victims.

The theme of the loss of agency, and by extension a lack of responsibility, is extended in the accounts given by Folman and others concerning their inability to respond during the massacre or retain their memory of it.  In several scenes the shadow of the Holocaust is cast over the Israeli soldiers implying that intergenerational trauma underpins their capacity to act or not act.  The specificity of the Palestinian massacre is subsumed under the events of the Holocaust.  Journalist Ron Ben-Ishai remarks that the Sabra and Shantila massacre reminded him of the Warsaw ghetto and Folman’s trauma over his role in the massacre is explained by Ori Sivan as stemming from the trauma of the Holocaust:

Your interest in what happened in those camps is actually your interest in what happened in those other camps.  You are interested in the massacre at Sabra and Shantila not because of your responsibility for it, because you witnessed it, but because it reminds you of another massacre, where you were the victim.

Sivan concludes by stating that “you were cast in the role of Nazi against your will”.  The characters provide a justification for a lack of agency and responsibility because of the over-determining history of the Holocaust.  Such explanations for inaction can be connected with the way in which the animation in Waltz with Bashir severs intention from movement, creating a logic of determinism that is both part of the documentary’s seductive power, and part of its problematic politics.

Some critics have found that rather than creating the untimely irruption that would allow for Israel to come to terms with its role in the 1982 massacre, the documentary elides the issue of responsibility by presenting the Israeli soldiers as victims of intergenerational trauma.  Second-generation Holocaust victims, soldiers like Folman are unable to act, remaining witnesses to violence “against their will.”  For instance Raz Yosef argues:

Waltz with Bashir returns to the traumatic space of the first Lebanon war to position the protagonist as victim and redeem him from his tribulations. The horrifying archival images of slaughtered Palestinian men, women and children at the end of the film are then detached from their historical and political context and provide a kind of catharsis for the protagonist.[26]

We return to Nietzsche in the Untimely Meditations, that a certain forgetting is necessary to act.  While the narrative of Bashir is superficially predicated upon the relation between trauma, the inability to act and the recovery of memory, it is equally true that the elision of responsibility is enabled by an inability to actively forget the history of the Holocaust.  Nietzsche noted that “the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people and a culture.”[27] Waltz with Bashir is now the third favourite film of all time among Israelis,[28] suggesting that its untimely nature – in the sense that it might undermine one’s habituation to the present – seems exaggerated.  Indeed the incorporative capacity of the animation to seduce and displace the capacity for agency, combined with a narrative that equates the traumatized perpetrator with Palestinian victims, suggests that the vital and reflexive engagement with history that Nietzsche recommended is still some way off.

Works Cited

Ansen, David. “Waltz With Bashir.” Newsweek 152, no. 23 (2008): 60.

Aoun, Steven. “Waltz with Bashir.” Metro 163 (2009): 148-152.

Atkinson, Paul. “Movements within Movements: Following the Line in Animation and Comic Books.” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4, no. 3 (2009): 265-281.

Bazin, André. What is Cinema? Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Burgin, Alice. “Guilt, History and Memory: Another Perspective on Waltz with Bashir.” Metro 164 (2010): 70-74.

Dupont, Joan. “Ari Folman’s Journey into a Heart of Darkness.” The New York Times, May 19 (2008), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/19/arts/19iht-ari.1.13005821.html (accessed June 24, 2011).

Fox, Stuart. “Waltz With Bashir.” Scientific American Mind 20, no. 1 (2009): 69

Harsin, Jayson. “The Responsible Dream: On Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.” Bright Lights Film Journal 63 (2009), http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/63/63waltz.html (accessed June 20, 2011).

Jafaar, Ali. “A Soldier’s Tale.” Sight and Sound 18, no. 12 (2008): 28-31.

Lane, Anthony. “Private Wars.” New Yorker 84, no. 43 (2009): 74-75.

Leibovitz, Liel “Waltzing Alone.” The Nation March 9 (2009), http://www.thenation.com/article/waltzing-alone (accessed Jan. 20, 2011).

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001.

McCurdy, Kate. “Waltz with Bashir.” DG Design Network (Dec. 2008), http://www.dgdesignnetwork.com.au/members/131/Waltz_with_Bashir.pdf (accessed Dec. 12, 2010).

Nichols, Bill. “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject.” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008): 72-89.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Indiana UP: Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1991.

Nichols, Bill. Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” In Untimely Meditations. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983, 57-124.

Stewart, Garrett. “Screen Memory in Waltz with Bashir.” Film Quarterly 63, no. 3 (2010): 58-62.

Ward, Paul. Documentary: The Margins of Reality. London and New York: Wallflower, 2005.

Yosef, Raz. “War Fantasies: Memory, Trauma and Ethics in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 9, no. 3 (2010): 311-26.

[1] Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media, (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981), 184.

[2] Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, (Indiana UP: Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1991), 44.

[3] Nichols, Ideology and the Image, 200-201.

[4] Kate McCurdy, “Waltz with Bashir.” DG Design Network, Dec. 2008, http://www.dgdesignnetwork.com.au/members/131/Waltz_with_Bashir.pdf (accessed Dec. 12, 2010).

[5] Nichols, Representing Reality, 48

[6] Steven Aoun, “Waltz with Bashir” Metro 163 (2009): 148-152.

[7] Stuart Fox, “Waltz With Bashir,” Scientific American Mind 20, no. 1 (2009): 69; David Ansen, “Waltz With Bashir,” Newsweek 152, no. 23 (2008): 60; Joan Dupont, “Ari Folman’s Journey into a Heart of Darkness,” The New York Times, May 19, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/19/arts/19iht-ari.1.13005821.html (accessed June 24, 2011); Ali Jafaar, “A Soldier’s Tale,” Sight and Sound 18, no. 12 (2008): 28-31.

[8] Anthony Lane “Private Wars.” New Yorker 84, no. 43 (2009): 74-75.

[9] Raz Yosef, “War Fantasies: Memory, Trauma and Ethics in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 9, no. 3 (2010): 321.

[10] Alice Burgin, “Guilt, History and Memory: Another Perspective on Waltz with Bashir.” Metro 164 (2010): 72.

[11] André Bazin, What is Cinema? Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967, 13.

[12] Bazin, What is Cinema?, 12.

[13] Paul Atkinson, “Movements within Movements: Following the Line in Animation and Comic Books.” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4, no. 3 (2009), 269.

[14] Bill Nichols, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject.”, Critical Inquiry 35, Autumn 2008, 88.

[15] Nichols, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject.”, 88.

[16] Yosef, “War Fantasies”, 321.

[17] Nichols, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject.”, 73.

[18] Garrett Stewart, “Screen Memory in Waltz with Bashir.” Film Quarterly 63, no. 3 (2010): 58.

[19] Kate McCurdy, “Waltz with Bashir”.

[20] Paul Ward, Documentary: The Margins of Reality, (London and New York: Wallflower 2005), 93.

[21] Kate McCurdy, “Waltz with Bashir”.

[22] Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 301.

[23] Manovich , The Language of New Media, 301.

[24] Manovich The Language of New Media, 302.

[25] Jayson Harsin, “The Responsible Dream: On Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.” Bright Lights Film Journal 63 (2009), http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/63/63waltz.html (accessed June 20, 2011).

[26] Yosef, “War Fantasies”, 324

[27] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” In Untimely Meditations. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 63.

[28] Liel Leibovitz, “Waltzing Alone.” The Nation March 9, 2009, http://www.thenation.com/article/waltzing-alone (accessed Jan. 20, 2011).

About the Author

Paul Atkinson & Simon Cooper

About the Authors

Paul Atkinson

Paul Atkinson is a lecturer in the Communications and Writing program at Monash University. His research is broadly informed by the work of Henri Bergson with particular emphasis on the relationship between immanent change and extended movement. Published articles explore a range of topics including Bergson’s vitalism, comic books after 9/11, time and recognition, affect theory and temporal aesthetics. He is currently working on a series of articles that explore the relationship between processual theories of time, aesthetics and narrative.

Simon Cooper

Simon Cooper is a Senior Lecturer in Communications at Monash University. He obtained his PhD in Critical theory and Cultural Studies from Monash University. His interests span across the areas of technology, cyberculture, mass communications, popular culture, philosophy and psychoanalysis. He is a co-editor or Arena journal and author of the monograph Technoculture & Critical Theory: In the Service of the Machine?View all posts by Paul Atkinson & Simon Cooper →