Saturday, February 14, 2009

Misty Watercolor Memories: Waltz With Bashir

As a soldier in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Boaz Rein-Buskila made 26 kills, and he can remember each one of them. In the opening of Waltz With Bashir, a genre-spanning film by documentarian Ari Folman, Boaz sits down with his friend and fellow war veteran and describes a nightmare that has haunted him for years – a vision in which his victims come to his apartment building at night with saliva dripping from their teeth and a desire to kill flashing in their eyes. That Boaz’s victims want revenge is obvious, but they don’t say so. Because they can’t say so. Because they are dogs. On orders, Boaz picked them off with a sniper rifle so that their barking wouldn’t alert the enemy to approaching night raids by the Israeli army. That was more than 20 years ago. Now, Boaz’s brain is the thing that’s howling.

If this is the traumatic aftermath of killing animals in wartime, what must it feel like to live with the memory of taking human life? Or what must it feel like to know that you stood by as innocents were murdered around you? These are the questions answered by Waltz With Bashir, which effectively depicts warfare as an exercise in which both sides come away defeated. The losers lose their lives. The victors lose their peace of mind. Both fates are genuinely tragic, though not equally so. Focusing specifically on the Sabra and Shatila massacres, in which Israeli forces effectively enabled (via inaction) the slaughter of thousands of Palestinian refugees by Christian Phalangists, Waltz demonstrates how the unconscionable has a way with catching up with our consciences. Most soldiers head off to war thinking that danger will be found in what they will do. Waltz demonstrates that what a soldier simply sees can be damaging enough.

The film is animated. It’s also a documentary of sorts. Waltz’s dialogue comes from Folman’s recorded conversations with the real men involved (except in two cases in which actors provide voice-over based on the transcripts). If this seems like an unusual approach, it is only slightly. Essentially, Waltz is a docudrama, like Road To Guantanamo, with animated reenactments instead of the familiar live-action versions. In actuality, Waltz isn’t that far removed from neoclassical documentaries – like Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure – that dabble in staged reenactments. In terms of storytelling and reportage, dramatization is dramatization. The most significant difference here isn’t in the approach but in the results – our reactions. There’s no confusion here, no blurring of the lines. Waltz isn’t out to document “what really happened.” Instead it portrays how these events are remembered by the men who were there and have since tried to forget. It’s a different kind of fact-finding exercise, but a legitimate one just the same.

The animation approach frequently liberates Waltz in its efforts to realize emotional truth. One of its stunning reoccurring images shows three soldiers who have been skinny-dipping in the sea emerging from the water to take in the spectacle of mortar-fired flares illuminating the black sky over Beirut. In the soldiers’ thin frames and smooth features we can detect their emotional vulnerability, their childlike naivetĂ© and their alien-ness amidst a cold, rigid war zone. In another scene the omnipresence of fear and chaos in war is evoked by the sight of a tank rumbling through the night as its soldiers fire endlessly into the darkness at an enemy that only might be there – an exaggerated depiction that marries the psychedelic imagination of Hunter S Thompson with the artistic wit and political commentary of Gary Trudeau. Such scenes eliminate any doubt that utilizing animation to tell this story is anything less than an inspired course of action. Thus, a puzzlement of Waltz’s approach is that it’s so conservative with its inspiration.

Despite its capability for alluring visuals, Waltz is something of a tease. The flashbacks to the war are often dazzling, but the depictions of the here-and-now are unsurprisingly simplistic: two characters sitting in a room chatting, sharing memories, their limbs rising and falling deliberately, as if pulled by strings. The illustrations themselves, which combine the palette and gloss of the rotoscoped A Skanner Darkly with the simplicity of Persepolis, aren’t the problem. It’s a slick look. But when Folman is interviewing his former war buddies, there isn’t much to see. Though the animation elucidates the emotion of the war zone, it comes up short in instances when we must grasp the feelings of these older men by reading the expressions of their inky eyes. Talking-head interviews have no business in a film like this, but Waltz has plenty of them. It’s a victim of its own success. After showing us what’s possible, Waltz maddens in the too many instances in which it settles for less.

Still, the film’s most interesting decision is its final one. (Spoilers ahead.) After approximately 88 minutes of nonstop animation, Folman surprises us by cutting to two-or-so minutes of actual newsreel footage that takes us to the closing credits, images of Palestinian women and children screaming as they walk through the refugee camps and confront the carnage. The effect of this footage is as profound as it is clear. Folman is underlining that though some details might be misremembered and thus misimagined here, the atrocities that inspired this cinematic memoir are factual and shouldn’t be denied. I suspect this message targets first and foremost any Israelis who have attempted to shirk responsibility for inaction in Beirut while still wondering aloud how non-Nazi Germans could turn a blind eye to the Holocaust during World War II. That said, it’s a message with universal applicability.

Morally, the use of this archival footage as a final stab toward social consciousness is commendable. Artistically, it’s a mixed bag. Does it work? Absolutely. But it leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. That these final few minutes are amongst the most gut-wrenching in the entire picture suggests that perhaps Folman does us a disservice by failing to utilize such footage sooner and more often. The animated sequences of Waltz certainly convey the elusiveness and deceptiveness of memory, thereby teaching us a valuable and sobering lesson about the interminableness of the horrors of war. Trouble is, perhaps it does so at the cost of failing to depict the horrors of this war as effectively as a traditional documentary might have. It’s worth pondering: If the exception of the art is more powerful than its rule, what does that say about the rule?


Fox said...

This movie still hasn't opened here, but I plan on seeing it when it does. I may be wrong, but I don't remember an animated documentary existing before this... am I right? I know you say it's more of a docudrama, but I'm interested in how in an animated form it can color my perception (no pun intended).

Anyways, this sounds like a film that could continue our doc. discussion. But I hope it's not like Road to Guantanamo. I felt that that movie dangerously blurred the lines with its reeanactments, not to mention showing the softest version of a Taliban infested Afghanistan that I have ever seen.

Fletch said...

Excellent piece, Jason.


I think it's six of one, half dozen of the other for Folman, and it's a win-lose either way. If he had used actual footage earlier in the film, the importance of the final shots would have been lessened, even if they might have served the purpose of driving home the message a bit more. As it stands, I like that both he and the uninformed viewer (like myself) were both a bit unsure of what the massacre entailed until the final bell rang. It made for a loud thud, which in the end, gives the film more impact and a unique quality most docs can't claim.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: Yeah, I thought of our discussion when I was writing this review. I don't think that "Road" should blur the lines, because it's obvious (or should be) that only the talking-head interviews are "real." But I can understand how the simple-minded could get confused. On that note, there's no line-blurring with "Bashir" because the same simple-minded people won't be able to comprehend that the animated movie is in any way truthful. Follow me? By virtue of the animation, the film draws an unmistakable line between representation of "truth" and absolute "truth."

Fletch: (CONTINUED SPOILER ALERT) I agree. Though I do feel strongly that "Bashir" would be much improved with less portrayal of two guys sitting in a room chatting, I'm ambivalent about the ending. As you imply, it's the surprise implementation of that last image that gives it so much power. On the other hand, the power of that image does have a way of undermining the process, as if an admission that animation alone couldn't carry enough emotion. A good film to ponder.

Daniel said...

You guys are sure sensitive to mentioning spoilers for a movie based on an actual event!

Wow, what an excellent review of this movie - much better and more thoughtful than many others I've seen. I think you really get to the heart of well the animation works or fails here. I didn't think about it, but not being able to see their actual eyes really does take away from the emotion of it.

For me, the real horror, as you know, is the reality that so many more soldiers our age will be suffering like this in a couple of decades.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ha! Good point, Daniel. I hadn't thought about that. And yet, obviously we're protecting how things are revealed in this film, rather than what things are revealed.

After writing my review, I was surprised at how freely critics mentioned that final scene. For me, the surprise was a significant element of its power.

Anyway, yeah, it's sad to think of all the men and women who will be trying so hard to forget in the coming years.

The horror. The horror.