Friday, 6 March 2009

Waltz with Bashir

Lowdown: An examination of the effects the war in Lebanon had on Israeli psyche.
Back in 1982, Israel waged war in Lebanon against the PLO and the Syrian forces supporting them. Today it is acknowledged the purpose of that war has been to place the local pro-Israeli Christian leader, Bashir Gemayel, at Lebanon’s helm. However, Gemayel was assassinated through a car bomb a day after his new job placement.
I have distinct childhood memories from that war, which is more than the hero of Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli film from 2008, can boast. It’s a guy who knows he took part in the war, but through chatting with a friend who recalls his current war related nightmares in a contemporary Israeli pub he realizes his mind is completely blank about his war time endeavors. He knows recovering his memories of significant importance because there must be a good reason for forgetting, so he sets out to interview a collection of people who were involved in the war (some of which directly with him): they recount their wartime adventures to him, and as he listens his own memories start coming back to him.
That is, essentially, what the hour and a half of waltzing with Bashir is all about: It’s a collection of interviews with some five or so characters, intertwined with recollections of our hero. The trick to the film is the how, and in there Waltz with Bashir plays a trick of constantly mixing surrealism with reality to one degree or another. Up until the film's end it’s hard to say what is real and what isn’t. For example, some of the interviewees are famous real life characters, such as the military news reporter Ron Ben-Yishai; and while some of Ben-Yishai’s stories sound authentic, others – like the one where he’s calmly walking through crossfire on a crowded street – do not sound highly plausible.
The main credit for Waltz with Bashir’s surrealistic aura has to go to its animation. Yes, despite its serious adult nature and the total absence of comedy, Waltz with Bashir is an animated film. The trick is with the type of animation it utilizes, which is a far cry from the cute Disney stuff we’re normally conditioned to accept as animation. I do have to say, though, that I have a problem with Waltz with Bashir’s almost psychedelic type of animation: sure, it is smart, but it’s also annoying.
Overall, I cannot be said to have connected with Waltz with Bashir. Sure, the attempt to investigate what took place with the Israeli soul, so to speak, as a result of the war is worthy; but the way it was done is not the way I would choose. I would prefer less surrealism and more realism myself, although it can be argued this has been done before and that on a low budget it’s hard to recreate war scenes, Private Ryan style. Still, I found myself quite bored watching Waltz with Bashir; given that I have more personal involvement in its plot than most people on earth, I have doubts how much people who do not know what took place in Lebanon back then would be able to appreciate the film’s events.
Or maybe they would because the film would work on them. After all, Waltz with Bashir was a candidate in this year’s Academy Awards for best foreign film. Not that I think too highly of these awards, but the film does seem to have an undeniable effect on many Israelis who have watched it. To quote from an Israeli sports blog I frequent regularly, Waltz with Bashir is deemed a good way to export the Israeli state of mind to the world because it demonstrates Israelis as people who contemplate what they have done rather than just brutal killers. Personally, I would have preferred Israelis to stop engaging unnecessary and often inhumane wars in the first place; then they wouldn’t need films like Waltz with Bashir to clean their conscious up.
Memorable scene: Waltz with Bashir slowly builds up towards its finishing line, when you finally realize what the purpose of all the surreal torment you had to endure for an hour and half is. I won’t disclose what it is as I don’t want to ruin the film, but I will say that in my case I didn’t deem the punch line to be worth the path it took to get there.
Overall: Waltz with Bashir missed me. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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