Key: Ari Folman digs up his wartime past to truthfully remember a violent, guilt youth that he has repressed into a cartoonish fantasy.
As both filmmaker and protagonist of Waltz with Bashir, Folman is fighting against his own brain’s defense mechanisms. As a character, he cannot remember the most significant events of the 1982 Lebanon War, only a fantasy version. Likewise, as a filmmaker, he presents the story of his involvement in the war as a work of animation, even though it is non-fiction with real interviews and real stories. As Folman’s friends and the psychological experts he meets explain, his fantasies are a form of repression — he only remembers this cartoonish version of events because the real version is far too painful (especially as an Israeli citizen with a national and familial memory of the Holocaust).
By presenting the story as a literal cartoon, filmmaker Folman puts the audience through the same mental jumping jacks: This isn’t really a story of wartime atrocities, it’s a cartoon. He doubles down on this by incorporating original music into the film and letting it break the story into a music video and little fantasy vignettes with only thematic relation to the larger film.
When Folman recalls his wartime furlough (which, he explains, he can always remember perfectly), it is clear why the film looks the way it does, with video game-esque shooting scenes and guns turned into air guitars. As he walks the city, he is surrounded by 80s era pop culture stimulation: Loud music, dozens of televisions, actual music videos and arcade games that replicate the experience of war in a fun, lighthearted way.
The film changes as it goes along, though, and inches more and more towards the documentary that it is. Early on, Waltz with Bashir is all cartoon: Wind-swept dramatic shots out of a noir, action movie-esque set pieces, ethereal lighting, dramatic conversations that hide real interviews. As Folman gets closer to remembering his past, however, the film starts to become more documentary: First he speaks to his interviewees casually, then he speaks to a professor in her office and a lower third appears, but things are still conversational, then, finally, the speakers are placed against a blank wall, telling their stories as if directly to a camera. At last, at the end of the film, Folman has an awakening and the form abruptly shifts and real, non-animated footage of the war appears onscreen. The audience sees women screaming and children lying dead in the streets, just as Folman saw in 1982; Any illusion of a light-hearted, musical cartoon is gone and what is left is the horrifying truth of war.
Folman could have simply told the same story through interviews and B-roll but, as discussed in Crafting Truth, the form of the film is a careful rhetorical decision. Folman makes his argument – war is traumatically violent and veterans can sometimes repress it into a cartoon – by putting the audience through a literal version of that argument. Like Folman struggling against his own defense mechanisms, the audience is set up to be shocked by the ending, by the realization that all the music and animation was covering up something very bad and very real.