Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Another post about "Waltz with Bashir"

This is my most considered response to this film, written for well-known cultural journal Frank's APA.

This was an Israeli-made animated film. It mixes documentary and fiction by being an investigation of the director's own experiences in the Lebanon war of 1982, experiences he is unable to remember. He travels around talking to other people who were in the Israeli army back then, asking them if they remember meeting him in Lebanon and getting them to recount their stories in the hope that it will jog his memory. So you get animated people saying "Well, I don't remember meeting you, though that's not to say I didn't", and then stuff depicting their experiences while invading Lebanon.

The animation style is in some respects reminiscent of that interpolated rotoscoping chap that Richard Linklater used in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. By that I mean that a lot of it, particularly the interviews, looks like they filmed actual interviews and then turned them into animation. At other times, or sometimes even at the same time, the film tends towards the kind of clair ligne style that comics fans always namecheck when something looks a bit like Tintin art. So you get the idea. I reckon that anyone with an interest in animation would find the film fascinating, even if they were not that pushed about its subject matter.

The subject matter, though, is one that leaps out at the viewer. This is not a film based on tricksy and clever stylistic tricks but rather one where style is there to serve the substance. The clear line art is good for suggesting a certain emotional flatness on the part of the interviewees (and, at times, on the part of the director himself, when he appears), indicative of a mental state that is actively suppressing memories of unpleasant events.

And the events are pretty unpleasant. If you are broadly familiar with the events of Israel's 1982 Lebanon invasion then you probably know where the film is going. If you do not, read on. War is an unpleasant business, and many of the people the director talks to have seen or done terrible things. There are a lot of striking scenes in this regard, but one memorable incident concerns a fellow who was able to disassociate himself from all the killing going on around him by somehow seeing it as something he was seeing in a film but not in real life - until his unit reached some stables in Beirut, where crippled and dying horses were crawling around in agony.

The Bashir fellow in the title is one Bashir Gemayel, leader of Lebanon's Phalange militia and an ally of Israel. After invading Lebanon, Israel was able to secure Gemayel's election to the country's presidency, but he was killed in a car bomb before he could take office. Israeli troops then moved into Muslim West Beirut, surrounding the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and sending in angry Phalangists to look for terrorists. As we now know, the Phalangists took a rather broad view of what constituted a terrorist, exterminating something like two thousand Palestinians. At the end of the film, the director remembers what he did in Lebanon. He was with the Israeli soldiers who surrounded the camps, who prevented Palestinians from fleeing them, and who saw the massacres taking place. He himself fired flares over the camps at night so that the Phalange could continue their work around the clock.

You can kind of see why you might try to expunge that from your memory. To ram the point home, film cuts from drawn animation of scattered bodies and Palestinian women screaming as they look for their loved ones after the massacres ended, to actual news footage of corpses and the same screaming women. It is an emotional sledgehammer, reminding the viewer that the nice arty film being viewed is one that covers real, terrible events. I cannot speak for other people, but I was almost in a state of shock when I left the cinema, and even writing about it now I find a sense of horror welling up in me.

Previous Waltz with Bashir action

Waltz with Bashir context

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