Thursday, June 25, 2009

Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir is one of the most intriguing and original documentaries you could ever hope to see, made only more impressive by its avoidance of gimmickry. The harshest animated film since Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, it chronicles the 1982 Lebanon War through the eyes of a man who served in the IDF but cannot remember anything that happened. Through his interviews with other survivors and witnesses, he attempts to piece together not only what happened, but how and why.

The famous outcome of the war was the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, in which a Lebanese Christian militia slaughtered the inhabitants of Palestinian refugee camps following the assassination of their recently elected leader, Bashir Gemayel, who ran on a campaign of expelling the refugees and forging peace with Israel. What made the massacre even more sinister was the perceived support of the slaughter by the Israelis, who by that time controlled Beirut as well as the militia group.

Did Israel indeed tacitly support the killings? Did they wash their hands of it? Were they simply uninformed? These questions are secondary in Ari Forlman's mind as he travels around Israel interviewing old friends and compatriots for answers. Using animation allows the director to pay up the nightmares that trigger his and others' remembrances; the very first segment is the depiction of a nightmare of Forlman's friend, who dreams of Lebanese dogs running through the streets coming to kill him.

The talk unlocks some of Forlman's repressed memories, hence his sudden zeal to speak with others. The more people he interviews, the denser it all becomes and the murkier the question of responsibility. Structured like Kurosawa's great Rashomon, Bashir comes to no easy conclusions in Forlman's conversations with soldiers, a reporter who documented the massacre and this therapist. If anything, his attempts to piece together the truth only reveal the mind's capacity for self-deception and repression; while these other men can access their memories more readily, they slip so often between memory and dreams that animation, in retrospect, was the only way to film this.

Forlman had never worked with animation before this, but he spent two years with a team of drawers who used traditional animation combined with Adobe Flash cut-outs and 3-D animation in a manner similar to The Kid Stays in the Picture. The result is a look both completely real and dark and vividly surrealistic, complete with an unsettling minimalist score interspersed with more active music including classical and songs from artists like Public Image Ltd.

At the end of the film, the animation abruptly cuts out to newsreel footage of mourners and the dead, a reminder of the event's reality that is actually unnecessary. Waltz With Bashir paints such stark, affecting portraits through its interviews and style that it feels all too real even at its most fantastical. Some might fear that Forlman would do his best to soften Israel's image in this event, but he's not afraid to take them – and himself – to task: when he at last figures out what he did in the war, his psychologist pinpoints the revolting truth of it all. "Unwillingly, you took on the tole of the Nazi," he says with clinical precision, "You were there firing flares, but you didn't carry out the massacre."

And that's the tragedy of this any and other genocide: as much as we blame those doing the killing and those who allow it to happen, anyone who could step in but doesn't is as complicit as anyone else. Waltz With Bashir may seem like a cute trick at a first glance, but if there's any justice it will go down as one of the most devastating war films of all time.

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