Animation has been a viable component of documentaries for nearly a century, starting with Windsor McCay's 1918 animated re-creation of the sinking of the Lusitania three years earlier (no film footage available!), through all those high-school sex-ed films you had to endure, up through segments of Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine." Recent PBS documentaries have featured animation, including a re-creation of the Sixties' "Chicago 10" trial.
For a real treat, see Annie Leonard's "The Story of Stuff" -- "a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns." It's the most engaging environmental film you'll ever see, and it's just a woman talking in front of black-and-white cartoon drawings.
Next month brings us the much heralded Israeli film, "Waltz With Bashir," about the 1982 Lebanon war and massacre. A hit on the festival circuit, it purports to be the first feature-length animated documentary. Despite its gritty subject matter, it is a strong Oscar contender for Best Animated Film, along with the likes of "Wall-E" and "Kung Fu Panda."
Here's the synopsis:
One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari Folman about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by 26 vicious dogs. Every night, the same number of beasts. The two men conclude that there’s a connection to their Israeli Army mission in the first Lebanon War of the early Eighties. Ari is surprised that he can’t remember a thing anymore about that period of his life. Intrigued by this riddle, he decides to meet and interview old friends and comrades around the world. He needs to discover the truth about that time and about himself. As Ari delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, his memory begins to creep up in surreal images …
Folman has explained that he eschewed the traditional documentary approach -- of having now middle-aged men talk into a camera, telling stories from 20 years ago, mixed with archival footage -- because it couldn't accurately capture the imagery of his nightmares. Filmgoers seem to agree.
However, the film is not entirely animated. In the final minute, we see real footage of the massacre's aftermath in all its horror. As the director explained: " I don't want you to go out of the theater and think, 'Yes, this is a cool animated film: nice drawings, good music.' In order to put the whole film in proportion, those 50 seconds were essential to me," he said.
Sometimes reality simply cannot be trumped.