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Non-Review Review: Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir garnered quite a bit of attention on its release – winning all sorts of awards and even receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film (though it didn’t get a nomination for Best Animated Film – because, didn’t you know, animation is for kids?). An animated film from Israel, it’s a very interesting look at the Lebanese War, and what we tend to remember and – more importantly – what we tend to forget in hindsight.

Tanks for the memories...

This isn’t a film about war. It is a film featuring war, and set during war – offering any number of chilling perspectives upon war. But it isn’t about war. It’s about memory and those things we choose to forget. Memory is – as the film suggests – a highly flexible filter, prone to distortion and liable to be skewed. The film even hints that sequences in the present day are subject to distortion – notice the fairground in the background through the window of the therapist’s kitchen, for example, or the fact that the stylised images seem just as choreographed and cliché as the flase memories.

Following the director as he attempts to piece together what actually happened during his service, the movie is in fact autobiographical – though it offers depictions of various versions of events given by the people he encounters on his journey. He visits with several former service men who each give their own versions of events. At each stage the film manipulates a stylish version of the account (often later allowing reality to break through the illusion), drawing upon that particular individual’s memories of events. The movie flirts with the notion that there may not necessarily be any objective truth, that everything is perspective. As such, animation is really the perfect medium for the story – bending and stretching the recognisable images of buildings and people in a way that simply isn’t possible in real life. Ultimately the movie does cave to harsh reality (its final images are actual footage of the atrocities), as if to suggest that some things must be objectively accepted and can not be allowed to be distorted or brushed aside.

The movie manages to hit the right notes, never seeming particularly fake – it’s the small things which have the biggest impact – the suffering of horses amid a city that has been reduced to a graveyard, for example, or the smell of a particularly strong aftershave. These are ideas which seem absurd when written down like this or under examination, but which we all know to be true from experience. It is amazing how the little things can really get to us, while the big things go by practically unnoticed. Though maybe we are so focused on blocking out the big things that the little things can creep through our defenses.

The movie isn’t just about individual memories and the loss of perspective. The film suggests that the danger doesn’t come from the lies our subconscious feeds us in order to survive – it comes from the gaps we allow to grow in our own cultural memory. Somewhat reasonably, given the movie’s source material, several commentators allude to the Holocaust and the obvious links to the incidents in Lebanon – right down to the trucks and camps. While the individual soldiers don’t necessarily feel the need to challenge their own recollections, the director’s subconscious is seemingly driven by the faint memory of that atrocity. The use of that example does not seem heavy-handed, instead seeming logical and fair.

History is cyclical. The abused become abusers. Statistically speaking, victimised children often go on to visit the violence upon their own children. The image of Israelis – many of them the children of survivors of the camps – simply standing by while loyalists engage in ethnic cleansing is a potent one. The therapist correctly observes that there is no major moral difference between firing flares and directly enabling the purge or simply doing nothing and indirectly enabling the massacre. That’s why we can’t allow these horrors to fade from our mind – to forget is to allow them to happen again and again.

Unlike many such films, Waltz with Bashir lacks the historical revisionism liable to creep in around the edges. It avoids this temptation by ignoring many conventions of the ‘war film’. The characters don’t really ‘live’ in the flashbacks, they are merely ciphers and filters – they don’t call each other by name, they don’t talk about their sweethearts or what they plan to do when they get home. They just are – they exist, like facts. There’s no one character who serves as an audience surrogate, as a stand-in through whom we can follow everything that happened – we trade perspectives, but only in the pursuit of absolute truth. The movie is frequently described as a documentary and – to some extent – that’s a fair category to place the film in. There’s no story or plot or characterisation at play here.

This may cause problems for audiences who are used to such things and it lends an almost sterile atmosphere to the events it portrays, but it’s hard to imagine the film working any other way. The audience isn’t really supposed to empathise with any particular individual or side, the film wants an honest reaction to what happened – it doesn’t seek to manipulate the viewer, allowing them to form their own opinion of events. At its most basic, the film is a disjointed series of recollections about events during the war – almost like an anthology. Some of these sequences work better than others and there are occasionally tonal shifts which leave the viewer unsure exactly how they should react. Some sequences (driving a tank or the logistical difficulties (and collateral damage) incurred in the attempt to catch a lone red car) would almost be funny were they not so damn tragic – but maybe that’s a fair commentary to make on a lot of war stories.

This disjointed style is choice which shrewedly reflects the story’s fractured narrative, but it leaves the movie feeling a little bit like two different movies: the stories of the soldiers and the events leading up to (and during) the massacre. Both are fantastic, but there’s a very noticeable shift between the two.

The animation is amazing. There’s been some discussion about whether the movie was rotoscoped (like A Scanner Darkly, for example), but apparently it wasn’t – this is entirely original animation. Most of the time it looks wonderful – and some of the images are stunningly effective (such as the opening sequence or the recurring dream of the three soldiers adrift), but there are a few moments when the movie seems a little like an above average flash animation. These moments are few and far between, and there is real beauty to found here. A terrible beauty (some of the images are just harrowing), but a beauty nonetheless.

Waltz With Bashir is a great movie, and one of the most interesting an complex and harrowing explorations of the frailty of human and social memory – and just how delicate it can be. Well worth a look.

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