Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review - Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir)

There are many different types of documentary, and there are many ways in which filmmakers subvert or manipulate the documentary form to get their point across. Some use reconstructions to better illustrate the stories being told, some wilfully use fictional elements to get closer to the essential truth of a subject, while many are less objective than they purport to be, with the director's own beliefs and prejudices often coming through in the picture's point of view. Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir is a particularly daring reinvention of standard documentary techniques, with the director using animation to explore his own memories of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which Lebanese Phalangist militia forces murdered thousands of civilians. Waltz with Bashir is, as far as I know, the world's first animated documentary, and as such, it's a curious viewing experience. Folman and his team of animators have utilised a style that conjures some supremely arresting images – be they recreations of war, or imaginative flights of fancy – but when this same approach is applied to the more mundane, talking-heads portion of the picture, Waltz with Bashir's shortcomings are quickly exposed.

The film starts in stirring fashion, with a horde of savage, snarling dogs racing through the moonlit streets to a pulsing soundtrack. These are the dogs that regularly haunt the dreams of a man who Ari Folman served with during the war, representing the 26 dogs he shot in that period, and when he calls Folman to discuss these traumatic recollections, the director realises he has repressed his own memories of that time, pushing them into some deep corner of his subconscious. This conversation, we are told, was the starting point for Waltz with Bashir, the spark that prompted Folman to go on a journey of rediscovery, interviewing friends and fellow soldiers in the hope that their reminiscences would help trigger his own memory. The thing is, we watch this conversation take place in a bar, with an animated Folman and his friend discussing it over a late-night drink, and I couldn't help wondering if this was just a scripted segment of the film, to help kick the narrative along. Folman's film has a tendency to throw up niggling little questions like that, and these instances caused me to question the value of the film's aesthetic, which often seemed to be interfering with my involvement, and causing me to question what I see.

Take the interview segments, for example. These should be the most powerful scenes in Waltz with Bashir, as a number of contributors sit in front of the camera and simply relay their first-hand accounts, but Folman's decision to animate this aspect of the film completely nullifies their effect. The film's animation of people slightly resembles the technique we saw in Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly (Waltz with Bashir wasn't rotoscoped, however. Footage was shot and then animated separately), but these visuals lack the refinement needed to express subtle emotions. The people's faces are flattened out, their movements are oddly stiff, and as well as it stripping any sense of weight from their words, there's also something undeniably disquieting about the fact that their testimonies have been processed through an intermediary before we get to hear them. These portions of Waltz with Bashir would have been so much more involving and emotionally rich if they had been presented just as they had been shot, but the appallingly ill-suited animation saps all life from them.

Conversely, the animation is also Waltz with Bashir's greatest asset. Parts of the film are beautiful and striking, notably the oft-repeated shot of a young Folman and other soldiers rising out of the sea as the sky is illuminated by flares, and in sequences such as this, the bold colours and simplistic nature of the visual scheme creates some haunting images. Often, they contribute towards vivid recreations of Folman's war experience, from timewasting on the beach to watching a fellow soldier collapse after being struck by an unseen sniper, and Folman introduces an unexpected note of bawdy humour into the film, when an officer watches a cheesy porn film. The film's most memorable use of its aesthetic occurs in its more fantastical sequences, though; such as Folman wandering in a daze through an abandoned Beirut airport, the giant blue woman who mysteriously appears at sea to rescue him from a blazing boat, or the sight of an Israeli soldier "dancing" amid gunfire, in a sequence that gives the film its title.

These are great individual moments, but I'm not sure they really cohere with the sketchy narrative line Folman has chosen to pursue. As he drifts from one unilluminating interview to the next, he explores both his own role in the war and the unreliable nature of memory itself, but these explorations fail to really unearth anything particularly insightful on either subject, and Waltz with Bashir too often feels like a contrived and shallow piece of navel-gazing on the director's part. The film is slack, vague and disappointingly dull, and it never seems to get to grips with its central subject in a sufficient manner, although one sequence does successfully ram home the horror of the massacre Folman skirts around. Late in the film, the director inserts a piece of archive footage that shows the aftermath of the massacre, and we see bloody bodies lying in the streets, while inconsolable local women wail and weep in front of the camera as they mourn their loss – and at this moment, for the first time in the picture, I started to feel something. It is telling that it took the insertion of original, unadulterated news footage to finally probe deep enough to touch my emotions, and this is the ultimate paradox of Waltz with Bashir. So much care has been lavished on its visual style, as it attempts to tell us a powerful story in a unique way, but the film only does justice to that story when Folman strips away all of the layers, removing the obstacles that prevented our complete engagement, and simply allowing us to stare directly into an open wound.