Stark anti- war cry

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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