Thursday, June 6, 2013

Waltz With Bashir

So unreliable are our memories. Experts in the field of neurology have reported on the fallacies of utilizing positive identification of criminals in a line-up, as an example. The mind is very adept at filling in details, bridging the gaps. We confirm/reiterate remembrances so many times over that they become our reality; we are certain we were there, what things smelled like. I have memories of early childhood of which I cannot be sure were not merely dreams. Was I really on that subway platform with my father when I was 4?  Even as we are watching something unfold, we may not be seeing it as it really is. Then all our biases serve to cloud an already sketchy recall.

Revisiting movies unseen for many years are (usually) good tests for this. We may sware that we remember a specific scene, played a certain way, only to discover something quite different (barring those pesky edited for television versions, of course).

Memories can be also compromised by extreme stress. The mind can block a traumatic event. Selective amnesia, it's called.  In the 2008 feature WALTZ WITH BASHIR, writer/director Ari Folman, who served in the Israeli army as a teen, attempts to sort his recurrent dreams/nightmares of his participation in the Lebanon War twenty plus years earlier. His film is a sort-of documentary, but like other such films is hugely subjective, which this time is entirely the point. A distinguishing factor - WALTZ is animated. It's a good choice for many reasons. It portrays a sort of surreality which suits the ambiguity of memories.

Folman talks out his visions with friends, psychologists, TV reporters, people who were also in Beirut in 1982 when the Sabra and Shatila massacre occurred. Thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese Shia were murdered in refugee camps by right-wing Lebanese Phalangist militia, supposedly in response to the assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. It would be learned that Palestinians were not responsible for Bashir's death. In his thoughts, Folman returns again and again to the sea, floating on crests under a moonlit night with fellow soldiers. A peaceful image, but there was fire on the shore. Is this where Ari really was? Why is he nagged otherwise?

Each friend and expert Folman seeks offer little consolation. But is that what the director desires? No,  he's after closure, reconciliation. The psychologist listens patiently and explains those black holes of memory, the panaceas created over time. Defense mechanisms? Others recount wild tales of parties on gunships. The reporter describes soldiers "waltzing" in the street, firing ammunition in the air. Each meeting brings Folman closer, closer to that night. Was a flare fired near that camp? Did Folman participate in the massacre in some fashion?

WALTZ WITH BASHIR is not simply one and one-half hours of psychotherapy. At times it does feel that way, other times a detective story. There are some effective uses of classical and period pop music. The striking animation is a combination of classic, comic-book style and Adobe Flash cuttouts. I am very picky about animation and the wrong style would've likely stymied my initial intrigue. This would've been a shame, as there is a potent story here.

There is something so perfect about the ways the eyes of each character are sketched, similar even to those of Peanuts characters. Old time newspaper comic-style. Hard outlines. Sometimes, the movement in BASHIR seems rotoscoped, traced over live action; it is not. The style is arresting, an effect similar to that of PERSEPOLIS, yet so very different.

In the film's final, devastating minutes, Ari Folman's uncertainty melts and the picture becomes crystal clear, as if the near sighted suddenly noticed the clarity of faraway images as he slips on a pair of corrective lenses. A holocaust.  Reminiscent of an earlier one. His parents were survivors. Now, he has blood on his own hands. The animation gives way to real footage of the aftermath of the massacre. As perfect a transition as could possibly be.

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