Sunday, June 15, 2014

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Director: Ari Folman


This animated film tells the true story of a former Israeli soldier who seeks out past military comrades with whom he served during the notorious massacres in Beirut in the mid 1980s. He is attempting to recover memories that he has lost from that time period, having only fragmented, confused chunks of these moments lingering in his mind. As he speaks to different soldiers who were also present, his memories start to return, which may or may not be such a desirable thing.

What Did I Think?

A pretty amazing film, though one whose true power really shows itself in the final two or three minutes.

If you read the summary, then you know not to expect anything uplifting here, and I didn't. However, Waltz with Bashir is certainly not a 90-minute slog through graphic brutality of war. The stories are very personal, sometimes very poetic, first-hand accounts of Israeli soldiers who were part of missions to find and kill supposed terrorists in Lebanon in the 1980s. Yes, there are battle scenes and tense, life-or-death moments depicted, some of which are starkly disturbing. Still, the film routinely brings things back to a personal, human level, so that you don't lose sight of how the warfare affected individuals, both physically and psychologically.

The animation is wonderful. Using a blend of traditional hand drawn figures and digital techniques to obtain ultra-smooth movements, many of the scenes are hypnotic in their simple beauty. The bright colors convey a sense of the natural Mediterranean beauty of the area, which makes the pallid browns, blacks, and greys of the battle scenes that much uglier.

A great example of one of the running contradictions
through the film - the dazzling use of color illustrating
both the casual cool of the soldier in the foreground, with
a fighter jet dropping bombs in the background.
Of course, this raises the question: why should we animate something as serious as war? Does a drawn and painted rendition of such horrors somehow cheapen them? The answer to this may be a matter of taste, but I was of two minds about it. Yes, the animation has far less shock value than would actual video of soldiers being brutally gunned down and blown up. Yes, there is a certain stylizing that that may come off as an oddly artificial veneer pasted over something that should only be given in its rawest form.

But this is the genius of the film, or any graphic representation of very real horrors. It allows a relatively soft landing into realms where most of us have never been and hope to never find ourselves. Instead of being immediately repulsed by detailed, realistic, and graphically unadulterated images, the illustrations allow us to dwell on the ideas and ideologies behind the brutality.  It also allows the depiction of some of the dream-like descriptions given by the soldiers as they detail their own bizarre and sometimes surreal mental states.

And then, the movie lets you have it. During the final 15 minutes, several former Israeli soldiers recount an absolutely brutal revenge massacre exacted by Christian Lebanese soldiers against Muslim citizens of their own country in Beirut. For most of the retelling, the visuals are of the same animated variety that the entire film has been in. However, during the final three minutes, the images shockingly become live video taken on the scene in 1985. No longer do we have the buffer of illustrations to save us from the sight of mutilated men, women, and children lying among the rubble. It is then that we have basically experienced exactly what the protagonist (and director of the film) has been searching for - a final recollection of exactly what he has been blocking away from his mind for so many years.

Obviously, this is not a "fun" film to watch. But it is a necessary film to watch for those of us who have never seen war first-hand, in order to gain some understanding of the insanity of it and how it might impact someone's psyche. I highly recommend it, just as I recommend knowing what you're in for.