Sunday, October 25, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

Finally got around to watching Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir last night. It's an animated documentary that attempts to clarify what film critic Jonathan Murray rightly pegged as Folman's, "at first apparently insurmountable, personal confusion as to his physical and moral proximity to the massacre of defenseless Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut."

So probably not your typical Saturday night popcorn film. The subject matter is harrowing, fraught with the anguished, often nightmarish, memories of Israeli veterans. In an interview from this past spring in Cineaste magazine, Folman said he was "interested in the memory of the (Sabra and Shatila refugee) massacre as seen by the common soldier." Hoping to accomplish that, he interviewed on camera a series of one on one conversations with several fellow veterans/friends on a sound stage, the raw footage and dialogue from which he then used to storyboard the documentary and animate it.

There was something initially off-putting about Waltz with Bashir's use of Flash for its animation. I thought it lacked fluidity. It's a cut-out style of animation similar to what you see on South Park or those Terry Gilliam made for Monty Python's Flying Circus. According to the film's art director, David Polonsky, the possibility of animating the film entirely in computer generated imagery or in the more classical cel animation style was never even a possibility given the film's limited budget. In a great interview with Polonsky about the film's animation process, he says:

The characters were sketched and scanned in Photoshop, then copied into Flash and dismembered into hundreds of tiny pieces to allow for complicated movement, while the backgrounds were Photoshop that were exposed to after-effects, and then the whole film was given a thick layer of after-effects. And there was a little bit of 3-D (CGI).

For the first few minutes I found Flash's lack of character fluidity, the stiffness and puppetlike demeanor it gave to the film's many animated narrator's distracting, especially given the gravity of the subject matter. But as the documentary progressed I was won over by how ingeniously Polonsky and his small team of animators worked with those limitations, creating an animated film strikingly of itself.

The breaking up (or dismemberment, to be more exact) of those character sketches into "hundreds of tiny pieces" that were then animated with Flash is perfectly befitting of the film's preoccupations with the fluidity of memories, dreams, fantasies and the subconscious. It gives everything a protean, dreamlike quality.

Adding the the formal innovation was the decision by Polonsky to take photographs of the actual environments (buildings, tanks, cars, roads) the veterans in the film are describing and adding them in as background details. It creates a highly effective visual incongruity, with the hyper-realism of the environmental photographs (given a touch of after-effects), mingling with the Flash rendered character sketches of the veteran's recollections.

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