February 11, 2009

300 Words About: Waltz With Bashir

The horror of remembering the sins of the past...

In reviewing the underrated Stop-Loss just about a year ago, I asked the question,”… are we going to be ready when the real effects of the war start here? When hundreds of thousands of veterans are going through the same unexaggerated struggles as these characters?” The answer, I still believe, is no.

But what I failed to consider until I saw Waltz with Bashir is that a number of these veterans may not even remember their experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other undisclosed places. No harm, no foul? Not quite, but an interesting phenomenon to consider. With Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman has turned the stereotype of the war-traumatized soldier on its head, introducing us to himself in one of the most personal films of the year (alongside another powerful documentary, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father).

Having passively observed as a 19 year-old Israeli soldier the brutal massacre of two refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, Folman found himself simply unable to remember the incident when another veteran described a recurring nightmare to him one night at a bar. Upset and eventually unsettled by his own foggy visions of the past, Folman set out to find those who fought by his side with hope that they would shed light on what really happened.

Animated but not rotoscoped, the result is an often hypnotizing blend of interviews and reenactments that illustrates a troubling history not only in Beirut, but also in the minds of so many Israeli soldiers. What must it be like to realize you've been a part of something so reprehensible? Though I'm sure Israeli war veterans don't comprise much of the Academy, it struck a nerve with enough voters to earn a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, even if it was overlooked for Best Animated Film (dogs and robots and pandas go down a little easier for the kids, you know) and Best Documentary Feature (the animation likely distracted from the reality for many voters).

If it isn't obvious enough, Folman readily admits Waltz with Bashir is "a very anti-war statement. I was trying to say that wars are really useless and a waste of life for so many people for the sake of nothing." That much is clear - what's not is just how many American soldiers will be making the same film in 30 years.


  1. Powerful review, particularly the last thought. I hadn't yet considered that notion, but the connection between Waltz and Stop-Loss (which I'd like to think I appreciated rightfully) is saddening and, in a lot of ways, maddening. The circular effect of war-inflicted psychological drama is so tragic.

    I do agree that the film was overlooked in the animation category, too – the animation here is utterly beautiful, layered, and uniquely (as in, invented) brought to life. It's never surprising to see how the Academy sections off films into their particular "fields." It could have been a nominee for animation, documentary, or foreign feature, and you get the sense they settled on what category might be its most "winnable."

  2. Great points, T.S., thanks. Glad you were moved by Stop-Loss, too (well not "glad", but...you know what I mean). I feel like I've been pretty preachy about this issue over the last year, but it's just something that I don't feel is getting nearly enough attention. 2008 saw the highest suicide rate in the military ever - doesn't that trouble anybody else?

    If things continue the way they are, with troops from Iraq coming home and new ones and old ones going back to Afghanistan, mental health in America is going to be a major issue for my generation. This isn't a political statement and makes no difference why, if, or how you support the war. Fact is, vets are on the way and we can't play dumb when the check comes due in multiple ways.

    Anyway, regarding the Oscars - I'm almost more surprised this didn't get a doc nomination than I am that it was beaten out by Bolt. It seems like this would fall in line with how the voters have nominated documentaries in recent years (6 of the last 10 have been about war, including last year's "Operation Homecoming", which I didn't see but sounds very similar to Bashir).

    It just seems like Best Foreign Film is an odd placement, but no doubt it will still walk away with a statue.

  3. I'm not so sure that The Class won't take it. Which would indeed be a shame, if Bashir, um, waltzed away with nothing. I, too, think it should have been a Doc nominee.

    I think time will show, despite its success and awards, that Bashir has been underrated overall this year. I attribute this mostly to its dreamlike atmosphere and subtle handling of the material. It's not until the last minutes that the impact of Ari's actions really hits you (especially if you went in unaware of what the particulars of the Massacre were, as I did), but the film has a lingering effect. That combined with its excellent visuals and soundtrack ought to gain it many an admirer over the next few years.

  4. A short review that really packs a wallop! I found the film disjointed and redundant, yet my opinion is in the extreme minority, and most would no doubt look at me as if I had two heads if I related these sentiments in person. I'll admit the animation was textured and unique though. One of your finest in the 300 series and there's not one single padded word. At the end of this film one does see the sincerity and urgency, and yes, you make a very valid point there is your final sentence.

    I was very happy to see the DEAR ZACHARY link included.

  5. You know I wrote your first sentence in my head, Fletch, before dismissing it for some reason. I think The Class really does have a shot, and I hope to judge for myself this weekend. It shouldn't be discounted that it won at Cannes or Toronto or some major festival last year, either.

    I agree that it will probably looked back on and celebrated - actually in a similar way to Waking Life, another trippy animated film that received little attention.

    And the soundtrack, well it just reminded me of Persepolis over and over again. That's not necessarily bad or good, just an observation.

    Thanks very much, Sam. I'd never look at you as if you have two heads. In fact I'm usually much more surprised when people like movies that I thought were terrible (The Happening), and not when people think movies I liked were terrible (like this).

    And you may not have been in that much of a minority considering how the Academy voting went, especially since early word was that this was going to be up for multiple categories.

  6. Nice job with this. I need to write my own review here sometime soon. I shudder at what I think will be the ugly reality of your last sentence. Sad. So very sad.

  7. Thanks, Jason, I'll really look forward to your thoughts on it, especially in light of your write-ups on Iwo Jima and Flags/Fathers.

    Sad is an understatement, I think - maddening may be more appropriate.


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