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  • Waltz with Bashir (2008): Trauma and Representation in the Animated Documentary
  • Joseph A. Kraemer (bio)

A movie so unusual that it overflows any box in which you try to contain it.

—Anthony Lane, New Yorker, 5 January 2009

Ari Folman has definitively moved the frontier between fiction and documentary.

—Philippe Azoury, Liberation, May 2008

It’s a shattering war film, full of guilt and shock, and finding a new medium for expressing and exploring familiar themes.

—Jason Solomons, Observer, 18 May 2008

Could easily turn out to be one of the most powerful statements of this Cannes and will leave its mark forever on the ethics of war films in general.

—Dan Fainaru, Screen Daily, 15 May 2008

thus ran some of the glowing reviews published following director Ari Folman’s triumphant premiere of his animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (2008) at the Festival de Cannes, where it was greeted with a strong standing ovation. Next came a series of important film festival nominations and awards, including Best Picture at the International Documentary Association Awards, Best Animated Feature by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globe Awards, the latter of which is typically a category devoted to fiction. The contradictory status of these awards—some for fiction, some for documentary—reflected the hybrid nature of this emerging subgenre of the animated documentary and the growing acceptance within the industry of willful blurring of once-strict borders between genres and techniques. It seemed as though the international film community had embraced Folman’s film for its unique blending of modes of representation, simultaneously reconfiguring the ethics of the nonfiction film and heralding an important new discourse for the animated genre. But such a lauded film deserves closer attention for how exactly it navigates these complicated politics of representation and ethics, especially in reference to the traumatic experience of war.

Often billed as the first feature-length animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir actually follows an extensive history of short and feature-length nonfiction animations dating almost as far back as the invention of the motion picture camera itself. The most notable of its early predecessors is The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) by Winsor McCay, considered to be one of the earliest animated documentaries, if not the first. Functioning as a short newsreel, much like its early documentary contemporary The March of Time, the short film was intended as a way to depict an historical event—the 1915 German U-boat attack on a transatlantic passenger ship, which resulted in a huge number of American casualties—that took place without being documented photographically (DelGaudio 189). In the absence of any archival footage capturing the tragedy as it unfolded, McCay’s [End Page 57] hand-drawn images offer the most realistic, alternative depiction of the event.

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Figure 1.

A signed original cel from Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) depicting the boat being evacuated as it sinks into the Atlantic Ocean.

In his linear, step-by-step retelling of the ship’s final moments prior to its sinking, McCay crafted a dramatic call to arms for the American people against this German aggression. The intention is clearly one of propaganda, with emotional moments drawn for maximum emotional impact, including the life rafts being lowered into the water just as a second torpedo strikes the ship and, most chilling of all, a woman holding her child as she sinks beneath the water’s surface and drowns. “The babe that clung to his mother’s breast cried out to the world—TO AVENGE the most violent cruelty that was ever perpetrated upon an unsuspecting and innocent people”: this is just one of many titles interspersed between the animated sequences that drove the impassioned depiction forward. Etched in a stunning black-and-white graphic style notable for its detailed, realistic depiction of the violent events, the film has the effect of filling the viewer with the strongest visceral sense of the catastrophe without the aid of a single frame of photographically captured reality.

Although Winsor McCay’s focus may have been on one singular event in time—one...


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pp. 57-68
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