This essay examines Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli animated feature-length documentary directed by Ari Folman and released in May 2008. The film follows Folman as he comes to terms – with the help of interviewees – with a lack of memories of his time as a soldier in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in which Israel and its Lebanese partners fought the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and, later, Hezbollah. By the end in 1985, the war was largely regarded as Israel’s Vietnam. It was criticised as a ‘war of choice’ that lead to the rise of Hezbollah’s power in the small, fragile and diverse Mediterranean nation (Inbar, 1989). In Waltz with Bashir, the crucial gap in Folman’s memory is his specific role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of September 1982, when more than one thousand Palestinian refugees were killed by the Christian Phalangists with the implicit support of Israel. Waltz with Bashir (shortened to Waltz herein) was released at a time when many other popular Israeli films and television series related to the country’s wars were being produced. These cultural products ignited discussion about “the Israeli psyche” and highlighted “the personal and subjective experiences of soldiers and the post-traumatic effects of the war” (Harlap, 2013, p. 167).
I take my theoretical ques on animated documentary from Anabelle Honess Roe’s work and her argument that animated documentary, “broadens and deepens the range of what we can learn from documentaries” (2011, p. 217), and has, “the capacity to represent temporally, geographically and psychologically distal aspects of life beyond the reach of live action” (2013, p. 22). I propose that animation is suitable for expressing trauma in war and the traumatised subject’s ensuing, often deferred introspection. Benefitted by a unique animated style, Waltz confronts the latent memories and dilemmas of responsibility and complicity in war. Waltz remembers war, rather than records it and simultaneously documents its own documenting. It is driven by its protagonists’ subjectivity, in the sense that it diverges from historical grand narratives shaped by interviewed leaders and experts, which belong to what Bill Nichols (1991) calls the ‘discourses of sobriety’. By advocating animation’s place in documentary, this essay highlights the epistemological problems that develop when documentary attempts to or is unable to represent war-related emotional and psychological phenomena. What people think and feel, as with war, is not readily available for the camera to capture in an indexical image. Popular documentary’s orthodox privileging of indexical live-action photography is upset by the idea of an animated documentary.