Saturday, February 14, 2009

waltz with bashir

i saw "waltz with bashir" last friday night (with IGG). it defies easy categorization. the critical consensus seems to be that it's an "animated documentary." it is 100% animated, but it's not a documentary in the conventional sense. in it, the director (who appears on screen in animated form and is for all intents and purposes the film's protagonist) has repressed all memory of his time as an Israeli soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War. a recurring dream spurs him to finally get to the bottom of what happened through a series of interviews with his old army buddies. insofar as each interview moves the director (and the viewer) closer to the truth, the film is less a documentary than a detective story.

and i defy you to show me a documentary (or feature film for that matter) that casts quite the aesthetic spell as "waltz with bashir." the stories of the director's old army buddies (who range from an ascetic martial arts instructor to a pot-loving falafel magnate) are recreated and lent a dreamlike quality by hallucinatory, gold-tinted animation and a gorgeous electronic score. there are some moments of real, mouth-agape beauty. one worth mentioning is the director's recurring dream, a vision of entranced young soldiers wading through the sea under a beirut sky illuminated by golden tracers. it's one of the most singular things i've ever seen on film.

i don't think it's a "spoiler" of any sort to say that the source of the palpable dread and surreality permeating "waltz with bashir" is not just the 1982 lebanon war, but, specifically, the sabra and shatila massacre. it took place during the lebanon war, and involved the murder of hundreds (some say thousands) of palestinian civilians by lebanese christians with, some claim, israel's tacit support and approval. i had never heard of the sabra and shatila massacre before seeing "waltz with bashir." i know a little bit about it now because i've been quasi-castigated by a couple different people for enjoying a film which, in their opinion, attempts to let israel "off the hook" for its complicity in the mass murder of innocent civilians. i don't see the film that way, and would encourage you not to dwell too long on whether it's intended as a sort of mea culpa on behalf of israel. as i said, this is not a documentary in the conventional, journalistic accounting sense. rather, it's the director's intensely personal story of his attempt to uncover and address his involvement as a young man in something unspeakably tragic. whatever your politics, i doubt you'll have ever seen anything like it.


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