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Saturday, March 23, 2013

21st Century Essentials: Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Director: Ari Folman
Country: Israel

We’ve long since moved beyond the notion that documentaries are dry, didactic, uncinematic – movies that are “good for you” rather than movies that you can genuinely enjoy watching; but if proof is still needed, then Waltz with Bashir is a film that can end the debate once and for all. A provocative film that challenges and transcends the limitations of the documentary form, telling a story that exists almost entirely within the realm of memory (and many of them hazy), Waltz with Bashir is a surreal and poignant exploration of the lasting effects of warfare. It is also one of the most visually stunning films of the last decade.

The film takes as its subject the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre during the Lebanon War, events that seem to be blocked from the memory of director Ari Folman. He’s profoundly troubled by his failure to recollect the details of supposedly life-altering events and begins trying to piece his memory back together by visiting old friends who also fought in the war and asking them what they remember. More than anything, the impression the film creates is of young men largely ill-equipped for the reality of war, treating it as a romantic adventure when they first set out (at one point Folman recalls heading out to the front and fantasizing about his own death and how it would haunt the girlfriend who just broke up with him), uncertain what to do (more than once the soldiers are depicted shooting at nothing in particular, simply because soldiers are supposed to shoot) and often panicking the moment they come under fire. When confronted by the harshest of realities – the genocide of civilians – many of them are broken by it, unable to reconcile their humanity and their history to their inaction in the face of such brutality.

Although the film is an act of remembering – or trying to remember – Folman foregrounds the ultimate unreliability of memory. Using animation as his storytelling medium, Folman is able to free himself of the confines of hard fact and footage based documentary practice (though he does also make use of more traditional tropes, such as talking head interviews and news footage) in order to better explore the nature of memory, mixing in dreams and fantasies to stand alongside actual recollections. It’s an incredibly effective way to tell this particular story, which depends very much on the idea that while a memory might be very real to the person relating it, it isn’t necessarily 100% accurate to the way that events actually unfolded – a person may unconsciously add elements to a memory that didn’t exist in reality, or a person may omit an event, or the participation of another person in that event, from their memory entirely.

Waltz with Bashir is a strong film on a purely narrative level, particularly at its conclusion when animation gives way to news footage in an absolutely wrenching sequence, but it is also a very visually stunning and innovative film. Bridgit Folman Film Gang created the animation, which manages the seemingly impossible task of giving the film both a dream-like, impressionistic quality, as well as a strong sense of realism. Waltz with Bashir is a masterful film on every level, one which is entertaining and profoundly moving, and a truly unique viewing experience.

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