Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Waltz with Bashir

Obviously, one could dismiss the general appearance of the film as a clear gimmick; something to attract an audience. The film would have been no less powerful or engrossing had it been presented as a series of traditional 'talking-head' sequences recorded onto film or DV. However, in presenting the film as a work of animation, the director, Ari Folman, is able to better express the purely sensory notion of memory abstracted by time. These moments of recollection, or reflection, which occur around the narrative, like the ripples in the ocean during the character's initial dream, are embellished by the general sense of horror that alters the perspective of those experiencing periods of great conflict, and distorted by the back-and-forth unravelling of the 'Chinese whispers' style narrative; where the search for the truth of "what really happened?", becomes an investigation into the past.

It is, first and foremost, a personal film about this character, this 'avatar' for the director, and the various stories within stories that grow and transform the understanding of events as he interviews those that knew him twenty years ago; who experienced the conflict, and can therefore better explain the holes in his memory, or why he's blocked out those intangible recollections to begin with. Therefore, the film, at its most immediate level, is a detective story by way of the documentary. However, through the power and pull of these image that are both primitive and beyond anything else we've ever witnessed (at least in terms of conventional cinema), the experience is transformed into something beyond mystery; beyond documentary. The film becomes an experience, like the dream itself, where the actual process of viewing the film - these images - is as life changing for the audience as it is for the central character.

Waltz with Bashir directed by Ari Folman, 2008:

It is a film that goes beyond the trite categorisations of the "war film", and yet, at the same time, it is one of the great "war films" ever produced. Great in the same way that Jean-Luc Godard's Notre musique (Our Music, 2004) is great; in the sense that it dispenses with the usual nonsense of a film like Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Rambo (2008), etc, where the filmmakers portray the horror of war by presenting the battle as something visceral, explosive or exhilarating. These are films where the audience already knows who the villain is, and where the good die heroes. Instead, Waltz with Bashir creates its narrative from the recollections of real people with real experiences. Drama and anti-war commentary created, not through spectacle, but through the memory of events.

Rambo directed by Sylvester Stallone, 2008:

Notre musique directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 2004:

These experiences define the film and make our own experiences with it entirely unforgettable. I'm thinking specifically of three scenes.

1) The young solder having to swim to safety after his tank is ambushed and his friends are killed. He sees the lights in the distance and swims towards them, not sure what to expect, too tired to care. When he reaches the beach, he finds the same squad that abandoned him during the initial attack. Whereas before he felt animosity towards these comrades for leaving him out in the open, he now feels an incredible sense of regret for leaving his own fallen brothers and attempting to find safety. Propelled by that memory of his mother (a memory within a memory) that will break the heart of any viewer who is a first-born son, or, as in my case, an only child.

2) The ambush in the plantation, where the soldier with the RPG that is cut down in an explosion of sniper fire, turns out to be a young boy, not even a teenager.

3) The experience of the war correspondent who initially saw the war as filtered through his camera's lens; transforming the horror and the bloodshed into moments of great poetry and heroism. However, when he arrives at a scene where a group of horses have been maimed and murdered, the filter can no longer work, and he's suddenly overwhelmed by the unbelievable monstrosity of this conflict; the destruction of such incredible beauty.

Waltz with Bashir directed by Ari Folman, 2008:

It is obvious throughout that this is a film of staggering contradictions; where moments of poetry are transformed or distorted by images of unforgiving brutality; or where images of unforgiving brutality are transformed or distorted by moments of incredible poetry. The dream itself is unforgettable; Folman and two other soldiers float in the ocean, watching the city of Beirut, lit by an ethereal yellow glow. There's a touch of Lars von Trier's The Element of Crime (1984) about these images; not simply in the emphasis on the water or the superficial murkiness of the colour scheme (that shared vision of the post-world-war devastation), but in the abstraction of reality; a slowing down of time, distorting it, so that we're seeing these events as if looking down at our own lifeless body. Sparks of light reflect in the ripples as the three men emerge from the water, naked, entranced by the strange show of light. It is only at the end of the film that we discover the true horror behind this beauty; the light of a thousand flares shot into the night sky to better aid the soldiers in their massacre of these civilians.

The Element of Crime directed by Lars von Trier, 1984:

Waltz with Bashir directed by Ari Folman, 2008:

I'm not going to pretend that I understood the entire political background of this film. Many of these events took place before I was born, in a country I've never visited. However, the real genius of Folman's film is in its perfect evocation of a time and place - specifically Israel, in the early 1980s - presented, not as it actual was, but as the director remembers it, or experienced it. The music and fashions are recognisable of the period, but juxtaposed against the tangible sense of how the experience of war has transformed the world around it, meaning that even the most ordinary or commonplace of activities have associations to the bloodshed and confusion.

There are images of war found in everything; in video arcades, in pop songs: Enola Gay, by OMD; This is Not a Love Song, by PiL. The hazy movements of an attractive girl at the discothèque have the same surreal expression of force and exuberance as the bodies of the soldiers as they're riddled with bullets. These associations, of memory/experience, like something approaching post-traumatic stress disorder for this character attempting to readjust or come to terms with what he witnessed two decades before, are unknowable to those of us that have never experienced a war first-hand, but they hit us on an emotional level that is absolutely immediate.

Some may attempt to define the film beyond such vague appraisals, demanding a definitive explanation as to what it says, whose side is it on, how much of this commentary we can accept as fact... but all of this is beside the point. Waltz With Bashir is a film that exists on several levels: as a film about memory; as an investigation into the past; as a political satire; as a character study; as a work of historical fiction; as a sensory experience; as a nightmare on film; as a affirmation of peace; as a reminder of the unsung loss. Above all else, however, Waltz With Bashir is challenging, personal, thought-provoking cinema that transcends boundaries, defies classification. It is both an experience, and a necessary, purging rite.