Stark anti- war cry
HARD on the heels of Marjane Satrapi’s hugely impressive Persepolis , her animated autobiography about life in Iran, comes Israeli director Ari Folman’s even more impressive Waltz with Bashir , an almost agonisingly candid recollection of the horrific events that occurred during the 1982 Israeli incursion into Lebanon, climaxing with the massacre by Christian Phalangists of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps while Israeli troops, who policed the camps, stood by doing nothing.
Folman isn’t saying anything here that we don’t already know, but he’s saying it from a personal viewpoint; he was there, as a conscripted Israeli soldier, at the time the events occurred. He was there, yet until recently he succeeded in putting the horror out of his mind. It’s only when a fellow conscript, Boaz, tells him about his recurring nightmare, which involves a pack of wild dogs racing through the streets of the city, that Folman decides to dredge the painful memories back from his subconscious. Having made this decision, he decides to produce a documentary on the subject, and he interviews a number of his former comrades, including one who has been living in The Netherlands for the past 20 years. Out of these interviews a terrible truth emerges, confirmed by the newsreel footage of the refugee camp victims — women, children, elderly people — that ends the film.
If Folman had presented his material as he originally intended, in strict documentary form, I doubt that it would have the same impact that it has now, as an animated feature.
Having shot the interviews and other material, Folman and his team painstakingly drew and animated them, a reinvention that gives the material extraordinary power.
The film opens with the startling sequence of the pack of 26 dogs racing through the deserted streets as a man looks down on them from an apartment above. This is the recurring dream that has so distressed his friend, Boaz: a grim reminder of the 26 dogs he had killed as Israeli forces entered Beirut to stop them barking.
Folman’s journey back to the past, and his interviews with friends and former colleagues, soon trigger other potent memories. The uneasy jollity on the transport boat that carries the invading soldiers into Lebanese waters; the chaotic battles in which innocent civilians fall victim to wildly irresponsible gunfire; the amazing scene, remembered by Israeli war correspondent Ron Ben Ishai, in which soldier Shmuel Frankel prances down one of the city’s main boulevards shooting at everything in sight while posters of Christian Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel gaze down on the devastation. This is the sequence that gives the film its title, and it is the assassination of Gemayel that triggers the massacres in the camps while Israel’s thendefence minister Ariel Sharon, who is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Israeli armed forces and has orchestrated the Israeli operation in Lebanon, does nothing. ( Ishai recalls that he phoned Sharon at his home, and Folman depicts the future prime minister tucking into a meal of bacon and eggs).
All these scenes are given heightened power by the exceptional use of stark animation and a colour scheme that rarely deviates from dull browns and yellows.
After the film screened in Cannes this year, to an audience stunned by its audacity and power, I asked Israeli friends if it would be seen as a kind of provocation when screened on its home territory. I was assured it would not be, that these things are already known and that this shameful episode and the film’s indictment of Israel’s conduct at the time only reinforces opinions held by all except the far Right. Perhaps, then, Waltz with Bashir will shock foreign audiences more than Israeli audiences. Folman makes no attempt to explore the wider political context, which in any case was extremely complex, like most of Middle Eastern politics. His is a purely personal view of what happened, a vision dragged kicking and screaming from his own subconscious. Some moments are surreal ( the giant naked woman who floats on the sea), and some are horrifying. All are a reminder that war is evil and that it is the innocent who suffer. Waltz with Bashir is a personal cry from the heart and as a result it is one of the most significant and powerful of all anti- war movies. ELEVEN years ago, Austrian writer- director Michael Haneke made Funny Games, a controversial film in which he set out to deconstruct movie violence by means of a cold- blooded tale of two young killers who terrorise and mentally torture an ordinary couple and their son. The film, in German, played the world’s art- house cinemas and has been available on DVD, but it seems that Haneke was concerned that very few people in the country that produces most screen violence, the US, saw it. Hence, presumably, the decision by the auteur to produce an almost shotfor- shot remake in an American setting and with name actors ( though, interestingly, not Americans: the unfortunate couple is played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth).
Needless to say, the Americanised version didn’t do much more business in America than the foreign original, and now that it is, rather belatedly, arriving on Australian screens, you wonder why Haneke bothered. He made all his points the first time around, and the present film says nothing new.
Watts and Roth play Anna and George Farber, a well- to- do couple that, with their son, Georgie ( Devon Gearhart) arrives at the family’s summer house, which is located in a gated area beside a pristine lake. They notice two rather odd- looking young men ( Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet) at the home of their neighbours, and they register that the neighbours are behaving a little oddly.
Then the youths, whose names are Peter and Paul, arrive at their house to borrow eggs, and innocent events gradually become sinister as the ‘‘ games’’ begin. Very recently, The Strangers tackled an almost identical theme ( masked killers invade the isolated home of an attractive young couple) without attempting to explore Haneke’s concerns; but the comparison is interesting because, in the end, there’s little difference between the two films. It’s true that Haneke doesn’t actually show any violence taking place, and that his shocks are more subtle; but in the end both films play on the jangled nerves of the audience as the ‘‘ good’’ people with whom they identify suffer terrible fates, and for what reason? Neither film offers any kind of reason: it’s just a game, a movie, it isn’t real.
It goes without saying that Roth and Watts ( the latter credited as an executive producer) give fine performances as the terrified couple and that the film is meticulously made. But, in the end, it seems like an exercise that wasn’t really worth attempting; even with little- known German actors, the film worked better the first time, when the ideas were fresh.
Painful impact: Top and above, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon is reinvented with extraordinary power