The idea seems simple enough—animate that which you cannot film. And indeed, since a film made after the fact—the fact of Waltz with Bashir being the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon, and a massacre in Beirut—cannot possibly show what happened in the past, and nor, possibly, would one want to, for director Ari Folman to animate his documentary story seems natural.
Embracing the form, he takes this idea one step further. Beginning in the troubled dream of Folman's friend, whose experience in the war haunts him, the filmmaker realizes that he cannot remember what he was doing the day of the massacre. Soon from his friend's nightmare springs its own surreal dream in Folman, who thinks he remembers glimpsing the massacre by flare-light. Unsure what actually happened to him during that day, Folman animates dreams, remembrances, and hallucinations. He animates what might have happened, and what it feels like happened.
Pure documentary is given up to an ungainly, often cheap seeming but nevertheless greatly expressive animation style that is somewhere between the rotoscoping of Richard Linklater's recent films and cheap Flash-like television animation. Whether intended or not, the animation's inability to fully express the facial expressions of Folman's interviewees—friends and fellow soldiers, whose talking head interviews are also animated—it does express the mood and feeling of events—real or not—with a shocking lyricism. In its mixture of crudity and poetry, it also—and here seems the main purpose of the film—captures in its awkward form the very problems of representation. Again, as if the most natural thing in the world, the film animates wrong memories, knowing distortions, warped impressions, and reflections, with a style that itself is as limited and unable to represent reality as these recollections.
Folman has captured a rare thing, and something almost exclusively relegated to fictional cinema: the emotions and personal feeling of memory. Folman's personal quest to determine his own roll in Beirut—which culminates in the film's most affecting and startling use of mediated remembrance: live action, harsh video footage of the massacre—structures the film, but that story's urgency pales in comparison to the supreme, earnest evocation of the way of remembered events can be colored by psychological and personal reflection and trauma.