Friday, February 27, 2009

Jim Quilty reviews "Waltz with Bashir"

"Waltz with Bashir"
Originally uploaded by tsweden
The estimable Jim Quilty reviews Waltz with Bashir in today's Daily Star. Here's the link. I post it in full here because (a) I always admire the work of Quilty and (b) Daily Star "free" links become "pay" links in a few days.

Here's just one of the pithy insights: In Folman's narrative, occupation does not make good people do bad things; rather it makes good people watch bad people (aka "the Lebanese") do bad things.

Read on:

What's all the fuss about 'Waltz with Bashir"?
Folman's documentary fudges questions about Israel's involvement in Sabra-Shatilla massacres
By Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff
Friday, February 27, 2009

BEIRUT: Every year, Lebanon's southern neighbor submits a film to the foreign-language competition of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Oscar Awards. For the second time in as many years, the Oscar nominee of the Zionist Aberration has been set in Lebanon. Twice in two years, members of the international media have heard the call, speculating, tremulously, whether this would be Israel's year.

In 2007-8, the Sturm und Drang coalesced around Joseph Cedar's "Beaufort," which follows the final days of an occupation-fatigued squad of Israeli soldiers during their final tour at Israel's base at the Crusader-era castle. "Beaufort" didn't win any Oscars. In 2008-9, the sound and fury has centered on Ari Folman's "Waltz with Bashir," again signifying nothing.

For those too preoccupied by things of substance to follow this media melodrama, "Waltz with Bashir" purports to reconstruct the events surrounding the 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacres. Perhaps the most infamous episode in that vaudeville of inhumanity called Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War, its story is recollected by several Israeli Army veterans of the 1982 Lebanon invasion. Many of the ex-soldiers (including Folman) speak for themselves. Others, presumably actors, channel some characters' remarks.

The film's visual language churned up excitement among some critics. Rather than having the camera focus on middle-aged vets recollecting things, Folman's film - memories and the odd fantasy sequence or three - is illustrated with animation.

Fiddling around with disjunctions between sight and sound is one of the mainstays of brainy auteurs, so Folman's conceit has been regarded in certain circles as unassailably cool. Anyway, as Marjane Satrapi demonstrated with the 2007 film adaptation of "Persepolis," graphic novel-style animation can be pressed into the service of serious narrative, bringing fame to the filmmaker in the process.

"Waltz with Bashir" opens with a sequence of a vicious black dog charging down a cartoon street, joining a pack of 25 other vicious black dogs as they gather below the window of Boaz Rein, the Israeli Army vet who's recollecting this recurring nightmare to Folman. Cartoon versions of the two men sit in a cartoon bar.

Because his commander knew him incapable of shooting people, Rein explains, his squad commander during the Lebanon invasion always dispatched him to shoot any dogs that might give away the squad's location. He iced 26 canines this way.

Cartooning aside, this scene - and the post-traumatic stress element of the plot - is highly reminiscent of Adrian Lyne's post-Vietnam tour de force from 1990, "Jacob's Ladder."

Folman's character says he remembers nothing about his stint in the Lebanon war. The filmmaker's voiceover then remarks that this conversation took place in the summer of 2006, and that it provoked his first flashback of Israel's 1982 Lebanon war: He and two other soldiers are swimming in the Mediterranean, until they're drawn to the ruckus created by some flares being fired on shore, in Beirut.

He visits a friend - not a shrink, appropriately enough, but a lawyer - who informs him that there is such a thing as "dynamic memory." It has been clinically demonstrated, he claims, that when shown a fake image and told that it belongs to their personal history, 80 percent of people remember the event as if it happened to them. If they're asked a second time, the other 20 percent accept it as real too.

"Waltz with Bashir" purports to be the fruit of Folman's efforts to uncover what he was doing during the Sabra-Shatila massacres. A documentary with a therapeutic flavor, it depicts the filmmaker seeking out fellow Lebanon war veterans, only to find that, like himself and Rein, they suffer variations on a theme of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Adding to the film's medicated patina are the narrator's visits to see veteran Carmi Cnaan, one of the two soldiers alongside him in his Sabra-Shatila flashback. He has migrated to Amsterdam and made himself rich with a falafel franchise. During their lengthy exchanges, Cnaan and Folman smoke pot unremittingly, though, in one of the film's several lapses in verisimilitude, neither man's speech betrays the telltale signs of THC consumption.

Therapist Zahava Solomon adds further psychoanalytic grist to Folman's rhetorical mill, informing him that many Lebanon veterans survived the experience with "dissociative events" - that is pretending they were witnessing something without actually being part of it.

Having hammered home the point that Israeli veterans were, and are, wounded by their time in Lebanon, the film turns to one veteran after another as he recollects some traumatic Lebanon experience. In the process, the animation winks at various respected war films to which it wants to do homage.

Israeli soldiers are seen surfing (a-la "Apocalypse Now"). The eponymous waltz - which sees Frenkel dance with his 50-caliber machine gun during a fire fight with Beirut's invisible defenders, while a huge poster of Lebanese Forces militia founder Bashir Gemayel looks on - appropriates the close order drill-cum-floor show choreographed for Elia Suleiman's "Divine Intervention" in 2002.

As cartoon Folman wends his way closer to reconstructing what he did during the Sabra-Shatila massacre, his informants make a special effort to pin all the blame on the Israelis' Lebanese allies in the Phalange militia. Cnaan remarks that, based on the atrocities he saw the Phalange perpetrate, it was no surprise to him that the Christian militiamen committed this massacre.

In a remarkable example of defense-attorney psychoanalysis, Folman's lawyer friend suggests Folman's confused feelings of guilt are rooted in Israel's founding trauma, the Nazi Holocaust. "You look back at the Sabra-Shatila massacres," he opines, "and you see the one your parents witnessed. You recall this camp and you see another camp: Auschwitz."

It turns out Folman's role in the massacres was to lob flares over the camp during the several nights the Lebanese militiamen took to go about their work. "Unwillingly," the lawyer continues, "you assumed the role of the Nazi. You didn't carry out the massacre but you fired the flares."

Some journalistic responses to this film have praised it as a remarkable grapple with culpability, a cathartic film contemplation of war, on par with that of "Apocalypse Now," but superior for its documentary basis. It is particularly brave, these critics suggest, for being forged in the summer of 2006, when Israel's military, already engaged in Gaza, returned to Lebanon for 34 days - though its 2006 pirouette on Lebanese soil was far more proscribed than it was in 1982.

The degree of Israeli involvement in Sabra-Shatila that Folman's film acknowledges is in no way remarkable. That Israel provided flare cover and body bags for this operation - on top of whatever materiel and training they'd already donated to the Phalange and their allies - is a matter of public record.

Folman fudges the more pertinent question of direct Israeli involvement. One witness refers to the "men in Israeli uniforms" among the militiamen gathering around the entrance of the camp before the slaughter.

As if to seal any doubt about Israeli culpability, one of Folman's informants recollects that the slaughter was stopped by Israeli Brigadier Amos, who personally drove to the camp gates and forbade the Phalangists taking any more Palestinians to the sport stadium for execution.

As with "Beaufort," then, "Bashir" leaves you with the impression that Israeli soldiers are nice kids, scared shitless - contrary to the brutality evinced on television news footage. If the facts of the human condition that the film depicts do evoke pity and fear from the audience, it's not because your estimation of these boys has diminished. In Folman's narrative, occupation does not make good people do bad things; rather it makes good people watch bad people (aka "the Lebanese") do bad things.

There is something laughably predictable in the orientalism embedded in Cnaan's analysis of the Phalange: "There was something erotic about the Phalangists' relationship with Bashir," he observes sagely. "Avenging his death was, for them, like taking revenge for the killing of a wife."

Worse, "Waltz with Bashir" asks the audience to feel as much sympathy for those that made the Sabra-Shatila massacre possible as you do for the victims themselves. There is something perverse in this.

"Waltz with Bashir" won't screen in Beirut. It may be found among the pirates.


Anonymous said...

Quilty either can't read subtitles or went to the bathroom during the scene with the "lawyer." The WHOLE POINT of the scene (and the later scene with the same character) was that he WAS a shrink and he said if he didn't expect to woken up by patients he would have been a lawyer.
No real film critic would make a mistake like this--Estimable? Unheard of is more like--
S o who the fuck is Jim Quilty?

AoK said...

check out my article on waltz with bashir: From real to subconscious to dreams to hallucinations at