A friend asked me recently what the best film I saw last year was. I’m not very good at these sorts of questions, wandering around as I do with just the most recent movie images in my goldfish brain. But on my shortlist for 2008 would have to be Waltz with Bashir. I noticed that the fellow nominees for Waltz with Bashir for the BAFTA best Animated Film were WALL-E (which won) and Persepolis. Bashir was also nominated for best film ‘Not in the English Language’, but the disparate movies in the animation category made me wonder how the comparisons were being made. The category is for ‘Animated Film’, rather than just ‘Animation’, so does this mean they are being assessed as whole films rather than as how well they show merit in a single craft area, like ‘Cinematography’, or ‘Original Screenplay’ (for which I think WALL-E ought to have been nominated too, because of its clever, almost purely visual, storytelling)?

[image: Waltz with Bashir from Channel4.com]

WALL-E‘s appeal as animation is partly from how deftly it, well, animates. The bouncing Pixar desk lamp is emblematic of the way that the studio has made objects come alive, using their pre-existing component parts (the red unicycle in from an early Pixar short is another example). Add to that the evolution of Pixar CGI technology and you have unprecedented vividness from tracks and cogs and air and dust. (WALL-E actually makes me think of I Am Legend in its startling evocation of an abandoned metropolis.)

Persepolis does the opposite. With its animation it makes things look less real, so as to be able to accommodate the events it narrates. Executions, interrogations, and most memorably for me, the scene with ranks of identical soldiers walking towards each other and falling into a pit in front of them quickly makes the futility and waste of the war all too clear. The war frames Marjane’s life, but the narrative here is about her own journey through it, and the animation serves that narrative quite effectively. Satrapi herself, in an interview on the film’s website, emphasises the importance of the story being animated, because that way, it comes to look less specifically foreign to a Western audience: “The novels have been a world-wide success because the drawings are abstract, black-and-white. I think this helped everybody relate to it […]”.

But back to Waltz with Bashir. That this documentary, about an Israeli veteran Ari Folman’s recollections of his part in the 1982 Lebanon War, is animated, allows us into dreams and half-memories. The film opens with a nightmare of some dogs running through a city in search of a guy holed up in his apartment. This guy is a friend of Folman’s, and the dream signals an unease about what happened with them as Israeli troops that went into Lebanon in 1982. Folman continues to investigate, interviewing old comrades about the period. There is so much he can’t remember, and his own recurring dreams are vivid but enigmatic.

Waltz with Bashir

[image: Waltz with Bashir, from The Guardian online]

This frame shows Folman in his dream wading towards the war-torn city, flares dropping into the ruins. His two comrades are lying in the water next to him. Soon they too get up, and all three start towards the city. As the narrative shifts back to a waking reality, Folman gradually pieces together the events that his unit was involved in.

[brief discussion of the ending coming up, so skip a couple of paragraphs until you’ve seen the film] At the core of the story is a massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian Phalangist militia that has been facilitated by the stationing of Israeli troops in the area. While the Israelis did not actually participate in the killing, they sent up flares to illuminate the area. Folman’s guilt at his complicity has been so great and so hidden that he’s had no conscious memory of his part in this for most of the film. The flares in the dream both point towards and obscure his recollections. And what happens at the very end is stark and shocking: the animation turns real, into news footage of the aftermath of the massacre. Folman’s images defer to the reality (such as it is) of video. It’s as if the whole film has been driving towards this. The conversations, the investigation, all depicted in Folman’s animated reconstructions, are his story, but at the end, the story is no longer his. It is of the Palestinians caught in the massacre. We see them wailing and screaming at the camera, as it pans past ruins and bodies: “Look at this! You have to see this!” Folman becomes silent and merely points towards the horror that is the ultimate reason for the film, and the source of its final images.

Unless the documentary narrator is a virtuoso of the on-camera persona like Nick Broomfield, there is a risk that the teller overwhelms the tale. In this case, Folman’s sudden change of style allows his voice and ruminations to dominate most of the film, but when it matters, not to overshadow the motivating event in it.

In some ways, to have Persepolis and WALL-E and Waltz with Bashir in the same awards category seems a bit arbitrary. Do we have a category for black-and-white movies? Or movies shot with hand-held cameras? The distinctions of genre here seem to function as artifacts of the kinds of movies that animated films mostly once were. WALL-E probably is most aligned to that tradition, and it does a great job of it. But the other two, one an autobiography and the other a documentary, show us that animated films can be, just as much as any other kind of film, honest and real and significant, and that they are these things in part because they are animated.

[thanks to Juju H for the translations from Arabic]