The genre-busting animated documentary Waltz With Bashir was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, but last week it lost to the Japanese film Okuribito (Departures). Who knows? Maybe Yojiro Takita’s drama really is that good, but the impact of this stinging entry from Israel is unique.
The title refers to the 1982 assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the handsome, highly charismatic 34-year-old newly elected president of Lebanon. A Christian, he was counted on to make the country into an ally of Israel in the Middle East, but his death once again plunged the region into bloodshed and chaos. The film’s writer-director, Ari Folman, was an Israeli soldier at the time, and he was stationed in Lebanon three weeks after the assassination, when Gemayel’s vengeful Christian followers – with the tacit approval of Israeli Army officials – stormed the Beirut neighborhood of Sabra and the adjacent refugee camp of Shatila, where many Palestinians were living after fleeing the war. The resulting massacre left hundreds (some say thousands) dead, most of them unarmed civilians. Folman apparently doesn’t remember this as the story begins, but he goes around interviewing the soldiers who served with him in an attempt to recover his memory. Some of them don’t want to appear on camera, so Folman, who after his service turned to filmmaking and TV (creating the original version of the HBO show In Treatment, among others), decides to record their words and render them on celluloid through animation.
The whole concept of an animated documentary raises all sorts of questions that are fascinating to film theorists like me. You don’t have to be a theorist, though, to appreciate the visceral power of the movie’s harrowing opening sequence, depicting a recurring nightmare suffered by one of Ari’s friends, in which he’s chased through the streets by a pack of savage dogs. Different teams of animators worked on different parts of this movie, yet the result feels very much like a single mind’s product. The realism of Beirut’s bustling streets and funky nightclubs gives way effortlessly to surreal interludes like one soldier’s vision of being rescued by clinging to a gigantic naked woman rising up from the sea. Some of the stranger stuff here is played for cheeky humor; when Ari catches up to one of his old army buddies now living in the Netherlands, he shows their conversation taking place on a couch in the middle of a field of tulips. Yet the horrors of war do come through in some unexpected ways – one soldier’s unit starts taking sniper fire in the street, and he can’t help but notice the apartment dwellers indifferently watching the soldiers as they try to take cover.
Waltz With Bashir builds toward a single climax that comes at the very end, when it switches from animation to live-action news footage of the massacre’s aftermath. The change is undeniably jarring, and it has provoked some controversy. I do wish Folman had shown himself trying to come to terms with what he saw, though I understand his reaction that he has no words for his experience. What’s certain is that this original and at times beautiful film has a ferocity and devastating power that few others can match. I wonder if there’s anything like that in Okuribito.