Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"Waltz with Bashir": a filmmaker explores his own past, in animation, at a historical tragedy

The best foreign film for 2008 might very well go to the rotoscopic animated docudrama “Waltz with Bashir” (“Vals im Bashir”) from Israel, directed by Ari Forman. The official site for the film from Sony Pictures Classics is here.

The history is a now less remembered massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian Phalangists in Beirut in September 1982. The name of the event (as on Wikipedia) is the Sabra and Shatila massacre (or Sabra and Chatila massacre; Arabic: “مذبحة صبرا وشاتيلا‎ “ or “Maḏbaḥat Ṣabrā wa Shātīlā”), with the Wikipedia link here giving the history. The tragedy seems to have been triggered by the assassination of Bachir Gemayel.

But from a film world viewpoint, almost everything else about this movie is interesting, most of all the way the director tells the story of his own self “re-discovery” in the film. As it opens, he sits in a bar with a friend to tells him about a recurring nightmare about an attack by dogs (actually, the nightmare is shown first). Gradually, the filmmaker is drawn to reconstruct in his mind the event a quarter century before, when he was an Israeli soldier and might have been deeply involved in it himself. In a sense, the film is quasi-narcissistic in that the filmmaker makes his own life experience, or at least the history immediately surrounding his own life, a structured story, with real beginning, middle and end. Although the rotoscope is brutally effective (in the scenes with motion it almost has a 3-D effect, without glasses), I think it would have been possible to make a compelling film as conventional action.

Forman tracks done some of his own Army friends to reconstruct the event. It is as if one made a movie by tracking down people from earlier in his life and interviewing them in interesting settings. One of the settings here is the canal country in the Netherlands (you see it from the air when you land in Amsterdam), the flattest country in the world (visually striking for that reason), and we see it in winter with deep snow (unusual) and then summer. One of the soldiers says that he had “masculinity problems” that somehow got resolved on a “love boat” on its way to battle. Another one of them had a fascination with porn – itself leading to some rather interesting animation, showing, among other things, hairy men, but in encapsulation. There is a fascinating sequence of “water survival”, and some self-examination as to whether one has shown courage or cowardice.

The tragic massacre takes shape toward the end of the film. The film here draws a fascinating parallel: the Israeli soldiers are witnessing something comparable to the Holocaust in their own history, but are not sure what they can do about this, or whether they should. There is no clear way to fix blame. Yet, the end of the film is as horrific as possible, finally going to real footage of the results of the massacre.

The “Waltz” refers to the Chopin Waltz in c-sharp minor (the Minute Waltz is in D-flat), but there is other fascinating classical music: some Bach, and a lot of use of an f-sharp minor slow movement (in triple, “slow waltz” time) from a late Schubert piano sonata, “reorchestrated”. The original music, by Max Richter, has some unusual rhythm, where a half-beat is cut off, almost making the meter septuple.

The film leaves me wondering if the same approach would work for my own material. If I were to go back into several major episodes of my life and interview the appropriate people today and review records, a deeper story would emerge, and it would impart a nuanced, subtle moral meaning. The story would no longer be so much as just about me as it would provide a slice of history, almost in a special dimension. You could imagine it as like a model railroad where the round trip goes through time as much as space. The trick would be to make the other characters who intervene themselves interesting enough to sometimes cause a rooting interest.

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