Thursday, March 5, 2009

Waltz With Bashir (Volume One, Issue One)

Overall Grade: A-

At once relentlessly depressing and strangely numb, director Ari Folman’s animated documentary (for lack of a better categorization – this movie defies it) about the first Lebanon War is a difficult experience to digest. Waltz With Bashir is the tale of Folman’s own investigation into the role he as a soldier in the war, particularly during the Falangist massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. For such an important event in his life, he remembers disturbingly little and sets out on a quest interviewing fellow ex-soldiers in hopes of resuscitating his repressed memories. To his chagrin they remember almost as little as he can, a testament to how effective our mental rose-colored sunglasses can be at blocking out “the bad.”

What Folman does find out comes in scattershot surreal stories that resemble nightmares more than they do actual events: soldiers firing nonstop from their tank for hours on end in the dead of night, a Falangist camp decorated with the preserved organs of Palestinians, a Lebanese child firing grenades in the middle of a serene orchard, etc. The creepy Richard Linklater-esque animation captures the nightmarish atmosphere better than any camera could. The fantastical imagery keeps us at an emotional distance, lulling us slowly into Folman’s world at an almost relaxed pace until the full scale of death and devastation becomes clear. Only at the very end does the animation give way to live footage, stunning Folman and us with the “realization” that none of these renderings were nightmares but in fact frighteningly real events.

When evaluating political documentaries like this, it is important to set aside the good intent of the filmmaker and look at the film objectively. Just because a documentary shedding light on Darfur is the only film of its type does not automatically make it a good documentary. Intent does not override quality, and making a legitimately effective and focused documentary about a complex humanitarian disaster such as this is no easy task. Folman has defied these odds, his work on Waltz is utterly impeccable. The visuals, particularly of Folman’s reoccurring beach nightmare, are exquisite and haunting. The unorthodox animation adds additional creepiness to the interviews, not less. Most importantly of all however, the story stays focused on Folman’s emotional journey. Many documentaries such as this get bogged down in peripheral detail and political intrigue, here we never lose sight of the human element. Every section is centered around that specific soldier’s tale and remains deeply personal throughout. A few make side-mentions of Ariel Sharon, the Lebanese Prime Minister, others, and leadership errors they made, but it never slips into tangent territory.

The deeply personal nature of the soldiers’ experiences and how sharply the film focuses on them has the side effect of eliminating much of the “bigger picture” and associated facts. We are never told why Israel is at war with Lebanon, who exactly they are fighting apart from generic “terrorists,” what the scope of the conflict is, etc. For this reason, Waltz can be easily misinterpreted as an anti-Israel work full of distortions (the hardly-subtle Holocaust analogy being the most provocative to people who would think this.) In other documentaries the dearth of information might be a fatal flaw. In Waltz however, it is a benefit. A deep and detailed objective analysis of the conflict is not the point here. This film is an examination of how individual people deal with trauma. It is a psychological piece more than it is a historical one and in that respect Folman succeeds resoundingly. Waltz With Bashir is at the very least a heartfelt mourning on the horrors of war. When it’s at its best, it is a disturbing tale of humanity’s worst natures executed in a way rarely if ever before seen in world cinema, certainly never before by Israeli cinema.

(repost from "70 Faces," USC Jewish student magazine, linky coming soon)

No comments:

Post a Comment