03 February, 2009

Movie Review: Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Anyone who's ever said anything about the Israeli-Palestine conflict has had something to say about the cycle of violence--how Muslims killed Jews because they killed Muslims who had in turn killed Jews, and so on and so forth. Steven Spielberg did as good as job as any exploring this in 2005's Munich, and the theme has been explored at least as far back as Seneca's revenge cycles. Israeli director Ari Folman touches upon the subject in his animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, but the film is less about plotting the tortuous cycle and more about examining its long-term psychological effects on those directly involved.

In a coffee shop late one night, an old friend explains to Folman that he's been hounded by twenty-six stray dogs--exactly twenty-six--in his recurring nightmares for years. The scrappy, vicious dogs want to kill him as he hides in his apartment, one for each of the watchdogs he sniped during the Lebanese War two and a half decades ago. Too soft-hearted to shoot at combatants, he had been tasked with killing the dogs before they warned villagers of the approaching men. Twenty-six of them, each ingrained in his memory forever, haunting him for his crimes.

Why come to me now after all these years, Folman asks, I'm just a filmmaker. To which his friend explains that filmmakers know things, they understand ways of looking at subjects, exploring them to the fullest. What do you remember of Lebanon, his friend inquires, and Folman is surprised to realize that he remembers nothing, absolutely nothing of his time in a costly and violent war.

And so--not knowing anything--Folman sets out to understand his experience in the forgotten war, in the process exploring the innerworkings of the mind and the trauma inflicted upon all the young men involved. Consulting a psychiatrist friend, he's told that the mind remembers what it wants to remember, sometimes even what it's told to remember in false, implanted recollections. The mind's defense mechanisms are many, and it never goes where it's unable or unwilling to travel. You won't illuminate the dark recesses of your brain, the psychiatrist assures a worried Folman, until you're mentally capable of entering those shadows.

Clinging to one implausible flashback of floating naked in a river with bombshell fireworks falling from the night sky, Folman tracks down old friends, old roommates, old lieutenants, and war correspondents, hoping they can shed light on his own experiences while revealing their own mental blocks, regrets, and coping mechanisms. A nerdy, young scientist decides to add brawn to his brains by joining the army and proving his manhood, unaware that the other, more confident-looking young men on board his ship are just as insecure and skittish. He retreats into sleep as he always does when avoiding stress, and in his dreams a sea goddess comforts him while he dozedly watches his unit get annihilated. Upon waking and landing on shore, he and his trigger-happy companions, full of intense training and joie de vivre yet lacking in direct focus, open fire on the first moving target, a car with a family inside. The overkill is sickening.

One man joins the army as he would sign up to join a spring break vacation group. As upbeat punk tunes with lyrics about bombing cities play, the boy goes on his excursion through the countryside, taking photographs, eating potato chips, and at one point remarking on how invincible one feels when inside a tank. When he realizes that even tanks are not impenetrable, though, he sets out on the most dangerous, lonely, and regretful adventure of his life.

At another point fighting in the war is seen as an exercise in revenge against an ex-lover--my death sure will make her feel awful.

As Folman interviews more witnesses, both the atrocities--RPG-wielding ten-year-olds gunned down in orchards, comrades being shot in the middle of conversation--as well as the mental feats begin to accumulate. A young man temporarily hallucinates that he is in a better time and place. A man tasked with clearing dead bodies from a battlefield shuts off his mind and enters a routine, mechanical working mode. An adrenaline-pumped soldier performs the titular dance amongst a chaotic crossfire of bullets, his lust for life allowing him to emerge unscathed.

At first Folman remembers only the furloughs away from his duty, but as time progresses the fullness of his flashback unravels, revealing his own role in assisting the genocidal massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra-Shatila massacres. Ultimately the film explores the role of mental apathy in the destruction of our planet. How did normal German people allow their neighbors to be carted off to death camps? How could Jewish people, less than forty years later, participate in the same mindless killing, pleading collective ignorance when the outcome is obvious? How could any young person, still trying to understand himself and the world he lives in, wield a weapon and go to war?

The film assigns no blame, nor does it wallow in self-pity or attempt to explain the inexplicable. It asks viewers merely to open their eyes and keep an active mind, that only by maintaining a human mentality can we prevent ourselves from becoming killing machines.

With impressive, expressive animation (utilizing a variety of techniques), the movie achieves a dreary, hypnotic tone--characters walk slowly and robotically, settings fade seamlessly into each other, the sense of time is never quite stable, as in dreams; they speak with emotional detachment; the very effective score by Max Richter is haunting and subliminal. The film doesn't so much build as it chisels, boring into the skull and breaking past all the self-protective obstacles. The sudden revelation at the end is powerful and resonant, seeming to rise from the viewer's own darkest memories.

Waltz with Bashir
d/w: Ari Folman

It's unfortunate that "R-rated, foreign language, animated documentary" is such a hard sell in this country. It's only been released in 44 theaters, which means people will have a hard time even hearing about this powerful, beautiful movie.

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