War Scorn

Waltz With Bashir looks back at one filmmaker's combat experience.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Jan. 21, 2009

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Art animates life: Ari Folman's documentary was filmed using Flash techiniques.

There's something deeply disconcerting about Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, a sense that the film is keeping its distance from you. The story it tells is compelling, at times even harrowing. But with so many stylistic standpoints and told with such a flat lack of affect, the movie remains elusive.

Director Folman stars, detailing his personal attempt to come to terms with atrocities he witnessed during Israel's 1982 war in Lebanon. The journey begins over drinks with his old friend Boaz, when the latter admits to being haunted by dreams of all the dogs he shot in combat--evocatively rendered hell hounds of the past coming to collect on the present. Folman, oddly enough, claims to have no memories at all of his wartime experiences, save for a single recurring image of emerging stark naked from the water near the Sabra and Shitila refugee camps where countless Palestinians were massacred.

The unique visual signature of Waltz With Bashir is both striking and off-putting. The animation resembles the Rotoscoping used in Waking Life, Chicago 10 and about a thousand annoying television commercials. But Waltz was created with Flash, 3-D and traditional animation techniques, with certain scenes looking more like a website than a movie. Some events have been dramatized, while others are simply told to the camera in straight documentary talking-head format. It's a fluid, slippery thing that seems to be discovering itself as you watch it.

Folman tracks down his old army buddies and begins to ask them about the camps. He also speaks with psychologists and historians and slowly recovers his recollections of the war. I'm sure repressed memories are common among soldiers, but there's something hokey and unconvincing about the way Folman employs it here as a cliffhanger.

Much as if this were Seven Pounds or I've Loved You So Long, the carnage at the camps is only hinted at obliquely, deliberately misleading the viewer for far too much of the running time.

There's much to discuss regarding the central event, during which Israeli soldiers stood idly by (or worse) while a Christian Phalangist militia went on a tear through the Palestinian refugee camps, slaughtering hundreds, or maybe thousands, as retribution for the assassination of Lebanese President-Elect Bashir Gaymel two days earlier.

But Folman plays hide and seek with the chain of events, leading us to believe that he and his fellow soldiers did more than just observe. It's not just too coy, but the timing of the final revelation also shortchanges the most important question in the film: When does observation become complicity?

I guess it's not fair to criticize the acting in a documentary when everybody's playing themselves, but then again this isn't any normal documentary. Folman's restaging of conversations with old friends is stiff and awkward.

He's much better served by the straightforward interviews, particularly one with an oddball vet who considers patchouli not just a scent, but a lifestyle choice. Yet even then, the strange animation creates a disconnect, providing another layer of interference between the filmmaker's journey and the viewer when there are already too many impediments.

Folman fares infinitely better with the war footage, as every soldier's story is treated to a trippy visualization with an often absurdist bent, and some very sly use of inappropriate rock music. (You may never hear PIL's "This Is Not a Love Song" the same way again.)

The aloof quality of the film gnaws away at you, and not even a final flourish of sickening, real-life photography from the camps in 1982 can quite bridge the gap. Waltz With Bashir is almost there, but not quite.

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1. Barry said... on Jan 25, 2009 at 08:54PM

“You've got it, but you don't get it. Folman seeks to distance the audience from the immediacy of the horror through tricks of film making, just as his characters have through tricks of memory. It's a very uncomfortable film on many levels, but to call it hokey and coy illustrates your own need to find the narrative truth of the story. After severe trauma there is no narrative truth, there is only the truth we can live with and that is a slippery thing. Conveying that in a sensory way is the films genius. The final scene answers your question: observation is complicity whether it is in the camps of Poland, Germany or Lebanon. ”

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2. Tim Enright said... on Feb 21, 2009 at 03:08AM

“The film is disturbing in that the primary concern is helping the author deal with his horrifying memories of where he was complicit with these crimes against humanity. There is no mention of the Israeli Defence Force, Israeli government and Ariel Sharon's significant involvement in the massacre of 2000 men, women & children. Ultimately he doesn't take responsibility for his actions but seeks to find a palliative for his conscience and justify his actions. The best cure for his conscience is to take responsibility for his actions and face up to the evil prepetrated by the IDF and Israeli government. 2 of 12 points by Norwegian peace studies professor Johann Galtung laying out 12 points of concern where journalism often goes wrong when dealing with violence, noted its not a journalistic film. 1.Decontextualising violence: focusing on violence as "irrational" or presenting it as endemic, without looking at the reasons for unresolved conflicts and polarisation, and ignoring the historical causes for grievances - thus making events seem unknoweably "complex." 4. Armageddon: presenting violence as inevitable, omitting the alternatives. ”

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3. Bobby Bermea said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 06:28PM

“Sean,

I know everybody's entitled to their opinion but you're an imbecile. This movie is stunning.

Tim,

I don't know that violence is inevitable but War is bigger than an individual. It has become a force of nature. We don't create war. We are swallowed up by it. Historical causes are justifiably seen as immaterial only because they are always there. There's always a 'new' reason for one people to attempt to wipe out another. That's why I love this movie. I think you're right and I could see it being a controversial aethetic choice: the line between victim and perpetrator is blurred. Everybody is a victim. Jews of course, have been victims as well of atrocities. Black people, as well, have been perpetrators of atrocities. I don't think the violence is decontextualized. I think the context is greater than you want to make it. Because we keep making the context so tiny, we keep shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to making a new choice because we can't see the forest for the trees.”

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