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Nouveau Cinema: Waltz with Bashir

Thursday 16 October, 7 p.m., and Friday 17 October, 3:15 p.m. at Ex-Centris

Israeli director Ari Folman describes his new film, Waltz with Bashir, as an “animated documentary.” The film unfolds with Ari, the director’s animated surrogate, interviewing subjects in the style of a documentary while their stories unfold in stylized animated sequences. With a tightly crafted sense of rising tension and visuals that are alternately shocking and stunning, Folman weaves together interviews, historical facts, dreams, fantasies, anecdotes, explosions, and blaring eighties music into a surreal nightmare meditation on the 1982 Lebanese Civil War.

After talking to an old war buddy, Ari realizes he doesn’t remember anything about his experiences as an Israeli soldier in the Lebanese War. That night, he has a flashback to his most troubling experience: the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. However, his flashback is not a realistic reenactment, but a vivid hallucination in which he and two others emerge naked from the sea and walk toward Beirut. The bombed-out high-rise hotels are illuminated by slowly falling aerial flares, casting the entire dream in eerie shades of black and yellow. He wanders into the city and is engulfed by a crowd of shrieking, wailing women and children – and then it ends.

Ari seeks out fellow soldiers he thinks might remember his experiences and the massacre. What follows are scripted exchanges and talking-head narration that relay emotional explorations and experiences from the war. As Ari gathers these recollections, he starts to recover his own past.

The film probes the horror of modern urban war: how war feels, impacts the psyche and, most importantly, how war is remembered. It does this by immersing its viewers in complete moments, then jerking the tone out from under them. There is the exhilaration and horror of Israeli artillery missing a speeding car and hitting anonymous apartment blocks set to ragged punk rock, or the terrible beauty of a rocket-propelled grenade arcing slowly through an orchard set to a gentle waltz – all rendered with breathtaking animation.

Folman plunges us into a surreal consumer apocalypse. As Public Image Limited’s “This is Not a Love Song,” blares away, Ari walks through his home city, the people, shopping and eating, a blur around him, kids shooting video game guns: modern life is as busy as usual. A week later, attacking Beirut, Ari wanders through the airport, hallucinating shops full of Coca-Cola and Bulgari, and departing Air France and British Airways flights to Paris and London. But the planes are smoking hulks, and the only movement in the stores is an automatic door opening and closing like a postmortal spasm. Lines of Mercedes are run over by tanks, posters for politicians and products cover every battlefield. Rockets come raining down from the windows of luxury hotels, and Lebanese families watch street battles like movies from their balconies.

The stories in the first two thirds of the film are insular, personal, and focused. The innocent victims are seen only obliquely as the soldiers frantically fire into the dark of the countryside or into the chaos of the city, riddling a family’s car with bullets. As Ari finds people closer to the massacre, his hallucinations turn into devastating memories that humanize the victims in a way he can’t ignore. The story of the actual massacre is pieced together from these fragmented, confused viewpoints, and the detachment and disorganization of the soldiers portrayed earlier directly affects how the massacre plays out. Finally, one of the interviewees, news reporter Ron Ben-Yishai, goes into the refugee camps and gives us all the gory details.

Folman, in the course of the film, gives us a new memory of the war and the massacre. Waltz with Bashir doesn’t hit you over the head with its political message, but hides it behind ambiguity until the end when the politics of memory and war become very real. The last frames of the film are the only ones that aren’t animated. This video footage violently rips away any semblance of safety the audience might feel in the film’s style, and completely changes your ideas about everything that came before.

-Sam Neylon