Friday, 16 October 2009

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Waltz with Bashir is a film so powerful that it will stick with you for ever. The searing visual style combined with the disturbing subject matter cannot fail to make a serious impact. The film's opening image, a ferociously sinister black dog charging towards the audience gives a perfect indication of the type of experience to expect. What makes the film even more disturbing is the fact that it is all based on the actual experience of director Ari Folman, and the comrades he served with as a young soldier during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war. As he discovers more about their collective past it becomes clear that all share some experience of the Shabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian Phalangist troops.

The black dog mentioned above, and another 25 similarly ferocious beasts appear in a recurrent nightmare that plagues Folman’s friend Boaz, and it is his recollection of this dream to Folman that starts him on the journey to discover the meaning behind the only image he can recall of the entire war. Unlike Folman, Boaz can explain exactly why he is plagued by 26 black dogs every night: realising that Boaz was not capable of killing people, his squad gave him the task of shooting all the dogs each time they entered enemy villages so that Palestinian militants would not be alerted to their presence by the dogs’ barking. He killed 26 dogs while in Lebanon, hence he is haunted in his dreams by the exact same number.

Folman on the other hand remembers nothing of the entire war but for one image; of himself and two other soldiers emerging naked out of the sea in downtown Beirut, the night sky illuminated by fire. This is one of the film's most beautiful and hypnotic scenes and proof that animation can be at least, if not more, powerful than conventional film. To attempt to make sense of this image, and perhaps recover the memories he has lost, Folman tracks down the people he served with, starting with those he can recognize in his nightmare.

Recollections of Folman's comrades drive the film's narrative and provide a terrifying account of the war from a naive young soldier’s perspective. An attack in an orchard by a child wielding a rocket-propelled grenade, being stranded on the beach as the sole survivor of an ambush and washing the pools of blood from the floor of an armoured personnel carrier used to transport the wounded are all striking examples of the horrors of war. Folman’s comrades' memories are of course all animated, but all the accounts are real interviews, which are turned into animations through the technique of rotoscoping.

This unique visual style, first given wide exposure in Richard Linklater's impressive A Scanner Darkly, is probably what will attract most people to the film. It serves to make Waltz With Bashir one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen. There are moments which are truly beautiful, for example when flares burst in the sky and the camera draws back through the eerily illuminated rooftops of Beirut. Light and shadow are used with strong effect throughout and give the film a haunting attraction.

This animation style suits the film perfectly as it conveys the fluidity and often dreamlike nature of the characters' recollections and makes the film feel like a journey through a vivid nightmare. Nothing Forman is told is the whole truth, merely how it is remembered, and indeed a large amount of the film is made up of hallucinations, for example when Forman arrives in Beirut international airport he sees himself scanning the departure board for flights to London, Paris and New York and peruses the duty-free shops. He then realises that the departure board hasn't changed for months and all the shops are in fact burnt-out shells.

While the cartoon style of the film works perfectly for moments like these, at other times, such as the scene with Forman on the beach playing his rifle like a guitar while tanks and planes and soldiers shoot by in fast motion behind him, looks great but detracts from the film's power. The film is not without humour, indeed at times it is hilarious, but these music-video style sections seem a little patronizing and not in keeping with the rest of the film.

However, this brave choice of style is ultimately successful, especially in the final scene, where it brings to life Forman’s psychologist's metaphor for the recollection of traumatic experiences. She describes the concept to Forman, as the affected person initially viewing past events through an 'imaginary camera', disengaging themselves from the action and letting themselves become merely as an observer. Upon proper exploration of these memories the camera becomes 'real' and the people can see themselves at the heart of events. Forman finally discovers where he was during the massacre and for him the 'imaginary camera' becomes real, and the film changes from animation to starkly real news footage of the massacre. This is clever device and brings home the fact that, despite the animation style, the events here are completely real.

This highly powerful and moving final scene concludes what is a strong and moving film throughout. Waltz With Bashir is an accomplished animated film, dealing with a complex and sensitive issue in an original and grown-up manner. It goes beyond merely exploring the Israel-Lebanon war and offers an interesting meditation on memory, morality and collective guilt. Not to be missed.

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