Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

Dir. Ari Folman

The most important line in Ari Folman's 2008 film Waltz with Bashir is also its thesis. When speaking to Folman about the nature of memory, a friend tells him “Memory is dynamic.” Waltz with Bashir is a meeting of historic documentary and subjective/selective cognizance. It is a dramatic retelling of the 1982 Lebanese War told through a series of animated vignettes via individual flashbacks told by and to Folman as he journeys backwards through time to relive a part of his life that has been closed to him for over 20 years. When I say closed I mean that the basis of the film's narrative is that Folman is incapable of remembering his time spent as an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldier occupying Lebanon, in particular his armies seige of Beirut. While the film attempts to back this dilemma up psychologically (an interview with a post traumatic stress doctor brings about and wistfully defines this neurosis as “dissociative memory”) it inevitably succumbs to its own terribly powerful story, leaving the reasons for it being told in the shadows of colossal human destruction and genocide. The intent is hardly sinister since Folman, as a means of communicating with a non-Middle Eastern audience, relies on emotive relations over a systematic understanding. Still, Waltz with Bashir is fecund with impressive visuals and sublime meditations on individual humanity in the face of war.

Folman's dreamlike film begins quite literally: in a dream. This dream which is being told to Folman, an ex-IDF soldier turned filmmaker, by an old friend releases a war-torn memory in Folman which triggers an almost instinctual desire to discover where the vision extends from. He begins seeking out various former fellow combatants and tells them about his dream and how he can't remember anything about the war. These becomes the pieces by which Folman's own story is told. The problem then becomes dissociating what is real from what has become real over the years; reality by association. Folman adopts the memories of the men and women he speaks to as his own and then, by an inexplicable magic known nominally as psychology, he begins to remember parts of the war. His visions are impressively concrete, given that their content usually involves close range death and mayhem. They are rendered immaculately by the team of artists who utilize flash, classic and 3D animation to bring to life, with impressive dedication to detail, the near hallucinatory visualization of war. Waltz with Bashir's vision of carnage and destruction contains originality bordering on Apocalypse Now's stimulating spectacle, but falls short of that “anti-war” film's impeccable restructuring of war as a personal journey. In that sense Waltz with Bashir feels more like a vicarious day trip rather than a cataclysmic deportation.

The problem is not how the film looks but rather how it moves which is choppy and fragmentary. While dubbed a documentary, the film eschews education of mass audiences in favor of sublimation of feelings as facts. Save the tantamount example of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, which in of itself exercises the use of raw stock footage of the weeping wives and mothers of murdered men, women and children, the entirety of Waltz with Bashir is presented in away where the viewer is lead to believe that what they are seeing is based on fact, but finds itself so twisted in its own self proclaimed idiosyncrasies that the viewer is hard pressed to discern a meaning. Was Waltz with Bashir meant to portray the total inglorious war or the mutilated personal war? It unfortunately settles for inconclusion and vagueness, where further development could have provided a much clearer vision.

As an artifact of history Waltz with Bashir is an original piece of cinema. Though somewhat rudimentary in its narrative presence, and at times distracting in its visual one, the film does manage to pose an important intrinsic question. That question is one of distance. Who can see more clearly the destruction of war? Those from afar, who are in no danger and can easily fall prey to apathy (see: Israel's party atmosphere in the 80s, in the midst of a foreign war) or those who are too close to make out the epic hugeness of the damage they themselves have caused? A fleeting reference is made to the Holocaust during the film, when Folman realizes that he may have very launched the flares under which thousands of Palestinians were brutally executed. I gathered that this reference was meant to signify an idea of implausible and totally irrational deniability, like the Nazis who claimed not to realize that the gas chambers in the concentration camps where they were stationed were used to kill Jews by the millions. War has always been an act which we as humans have been incapable of, and unwilling to see in its entirety, because we know that it signifies a total fall from grace. Where Waltz with Bashir succeeds is in confronting the totally inhuman aspect of war, and shouldering the responsibility of the deaths Folman and others caused. By the conclusion, the film is no longer a documentary but rather an exercise in cleansing. Though wrought with imperfections of voice and structure, Waltz with Bashir is a progressive work of personality coping with impassable history.

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