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Waltz With Bashir *****

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Waltz With BashirWaltz With Bashir is a documentary of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict of the early 1980’s (specifically, the massacres of Sabra and Shatila). Its title refers to the dance of Frenkel, an officer, as he falls into a trance whilst shooting through a hail of gunfire at a contested crossroad. Bashir, whose assassination subsequently fuels the massacres committed by his followers, looks on from enormous posters and murals. As do the crowds who occupy the tower blocks that bear his image – “as if they were watching a movie”. The Lebanese enemy, unseen, fires both at the entrenched protagonist, Frenkel, and a third figure. Celebrated war correspondent Ben-Yishai strides through the scene, as if “invincible”, his cameraman cowering before him. This scene is constructed in animation and spoken recollection. All three men recall the event, but in different aspects. Shards of their subjective memories are reconstituted on screen. This is not a reconstruction, but it is a truthful imagining of an event which cannot be reconstructed – because it cannot be known other than through the imaginations of its participants. The scene is constructed as a truthful account, and a metaphor for the film. Participants in these events are also waltzing, and the audience watches from the balconies. The enemy remain silent (their bullets and “fizzing” rockets excepted) until their screams at the film’s conclusion.

Silence is, unfortunately, little used in the film. To me, this is why it arouses only one deeply affective aesthetic experience. Sound is used more sparingly in the film’s first half. So when we enter Folman’s hallucination, its exquisite score in strings, coupled with moving imagery and oneiric quality, trigger an eruption of emotion and amidst the tears, an acute sensual perception. When we see the suffering of the Arabic horses, the horror of the slaughterhouse, the beauty of the film’s animation before we become immune to it, no such experience emerges, for the lack of appropriate aural stimulus. It is perhaps my personal loss that images or sound can almost never excite apart as they do together.

Waltz With Bashir2After we hear the wailing of the bereaved, out of which follows deathly quiet, it is the complete aesthetic poverty of the horrific images of the mourning and dead which inhibits aesthetic experience. Such an experience is almost aroused by these aural qualities when coupled first with animated images of those mourners, and then thrust upon by the turn to film ‘of the world’. Yet this first shock does not afford the satisfaction of a true aesthetic experience. It is essential, nevertheless, to show real footage of the central event which, though not experienced by the film’s protagonist, has involved him inadvertently, and which haunts his dreams. Only Ben-Yishai saw first hand what Folman’s dream describes. It is plausible that the dream was inspired by this very footage, taken by Ben-Yishai’s crew and seen by Folman, his subconscious connecting it to his perceived role in the massacre. This point takes precedence over aesthetic experience, and in any case images, if not sounds, are wholly beautiful throughout the film. This beauty is temporally contextual, however, and it remains to be seen what remains when the novelty of rotoscopic and computer-generated animation subsides. And in some cases, the images are not primarily aesthetic, but stylistic. The Israeli soldier plays guitar on his rifle, as various weapons unload and pieces of violence unfold in time to the music; a macabre montage representing political statement and recalling imagery of war films past, visually arresting but not beautified.

The film privileges neither memory nor fantasy in the construction of events, and memory itself is understood as “dynamic”. The stance that reality and fantasy are equally important to human experience, that truth lies in the subjective experience between the two, and that historical fact is constituted in collective subjective experience, is articulated in both the film’s form and content. Waltz With Bashir is a film of the world, the cells of which have been shaded to create a world in itself, like that of a painting – and then interlaced with moving images from the computer-generated plain of Flash animation, itself inadvertently of the world. The distance between these worlds collapses in an instant by the turn to film of the world, and this collision has a violent affect for the audience. The footage is what forces recognition that the subjective experiences which precede it, which could only be expressed through such animation (a world, not of the world), were as much an expression of reality as the footage itself, and that a true account presents both, tied together inextricably. The footage is both what connects the subjective experiences of Folman (in his dream) and Ben-Yishai (in his memory) [aside from their connection through Folman’s interviewing him to reconstruct his memory, in film and in mind], what connects subjective experiences to events and the objective world, and what connects the film’s world to our world (more apparently than the ever-present rotoscopic images). Thus, subjective experiences are represented (in a manner acknowledging their validity as an expression of reality) by these filming and animation techniques; they are connected together by their editing into a narrative and presentation as a film, but also by shared experience and by footage of the world which represents one’s dream and another’s memory; and the result is as true an historical account as can be articulated.

Waltz With Bashir3It is in this last point that the use of film of the world constitutes a weakness – it is not instrumental to the connection of the subjective experience with reality (the animation is based on footage of the world, and the accounts are testimonial from the world); it is not the only, or the strongest, thing which ties together the subjective experiences; it is not required to provide a historically factual account, or present the truth of events. A true account need not present both footage and subjective experience, and they are not inextricable. Perhaps the footage needs to be present to make it obvious that it could justifiably be absent, given that it is no more true than the subjective experience, and its objectivity in recollection is alien to our human subjectivity (though the cameraman is showing us his subjective experience as it was then, it is recalled without distortion, as though we are looking through the lens then – an objective recollection, of a subjective experience). Truth lies in an a collective subjective recollection of subjective experience as much as in an objective recollection of subjective experience – this point is perhaps diluted by the insertion of real footage. But it can’t be faulted, if neither is more important. And the shock of the turn certainly does it for some people. In any case, this is how that stance is manifest in the film’s form and content.

There is much, much more to be said about the philosophy (phenomenology, epistemology, ontology) at work in Waltz With Bashir, but of course, even more about its politics. I’ll leave all that to someone better equipped! Suffice it to say, this is one of the most remarkable films of this decade.


Waltz With Bashir, Dir. & Writ. Ari Folman, Bridgit Folman Film Gang, Israel, 2008


Written by James P. Campbell

24/11/2008 at 12:10

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