Sunday, 23 November 2008

waltz with bashir (w&d ari folman)

Hot on the heels of Hunger comes Waltz With Bashir, another piece dealing with near-forgotten episode from the eighties. Oddly both pieces summoned up similar memories of being in the library of Freddies, as the house I lived in was somewhat comically named. The library was primarily used as a snooker room, but the papers were also laid out there, and 1982 was around the year when I first began to take a regular interest in the wider world. The massacre of Sabra and Chatila affected me. I cut out a picture from the paper, not dissimilar to the images at the end of Folman's film, and kept it in a yellow hardback book I had been given for Christmas (selected essays of Bernard Levin). 

Folman's film is about many things, and I'd hope he'd recognise the purpose of my introductory flannel. Like McQueen's film, he is looking at the way history is constructed, which also means the way in which we choose to either remember or forget that which has gone before. The film explores his own memories of being in Beirut as an Israeli soldier at the time of the massacre. As such it is also a film about memory - including one diverting sequence where a psychologist explains the human tendency to construct, even invent memories, noting that memory is an active, ongoing project for each individual. Folman, whose autobiographical story the film tells, has blocked out any recollection of being in Beirut, and the film narrates his mission to recover his memory, thereby erasing a collective amnesia on his country's part about the role it played in this war crime.

Any news we receive about Israel nowadays is tied up in its role in the geopolitical struggle that country was always heir to, and how it is conducting that struggle. In the midst of this maelstrom, its hard not to feel that Jewish culture, such a key component of European culture, gets forgotten. Folman's film reminds us of a heritage which its easy to feel has been lost since Judaism found a home. Folman's mission is a humane, rational enquiry. He talks to his psychologist, who makes the connection between the death camps of Beirut and the camps of the Holocaust, and the implicit Nazification of Israeli foreign policy at that time. These are bold points, made with a light touch, as pretty images float across the screen.

Which, of course, is Waltz With Bashir's USP. How does a factual essay about war crimes; Jewish identity; and memory, get a mainstream release? It does it by making itself as an animation. Folman's drawings are witty, pretty, striking and thought-provoking. The animation allows him to recreate a city in the midst of civil war, and describe the invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli army. It also allows him to include several fantasy and dream sequences. The poetry of the images buys him space for the more banal documentary talking heads images (which nonetheless exude a quirky fascination in comic strip form). After Persepolis, I was somewhat wary of the notion of an animated political film, but Waltz With Bashir uses the medium to remarkable effect, not least because of the quality of the animation itself. But more than this, the choice to make the film in an animated form allows the director to clandestinely smuggle issues into the cinema which he wouldn't be able to do any other way.

Waltz With Bashir is a brave film. Art cannot redeem the mistakes of the past, (and the film's sudden shift of tone at the end might be a nod to the limits of the power of artistry), but it can contribute to an understanding of what has gone before. Furthermore, it is also part of the discourse of history, and by refusing to let his personal amnesia lie, Folman might have gone some way towards helping his collective nation recognise the responsibility it bears for its part with regard to Sabra and Chatila, a responsibility it would normally prefer to be clouded in the fog of long-lost memory.

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