WALTZ WITH BASHIR
1. There are two stories going on in Waltz With Bashir, and the problem is that the film thinks there is only one. It picks the wrong one. The main story involves a filmmaker/artist Ari Folman, a former Israeli soldier who “witnessed” the horrific Sabra and Shatila massacre during the Lebanese Civil War in 1982 but has blocked his remembrances. He spends most of the film asking friends and associates to retell their stories of the time so that they might jog his memory. And by most, I mean most; we see a lot of Folman talking and smoking with friends, looking wistfully out a window, musing on his life and past. I’m sure this is all very interesting for Ari Folman, but if there were anyone other than Ari Folman directing the film, we would spend a lot less time watching the middle-aged man come to terms with his childhood while smoking joints. Of course, then the movie would be 25 minutes.
2. The real story is about the massacre itself, the labrythnine politics that surrounded it and the confusion that resulted, leaving its ultimate blame and cause lost to history. Folman eventually discovers that he was in fact there … but not really. He shot off some flares, which might have helped the perpetuators carry out their crimes, but maybe not, no one’s really sure. And Folman’s not really sure either, because he wasn’t really there. This is fine: I’m glad Folman didn’t have to witness the atrocities, and I’m glad he discovers that he has no palpable blame. But then I don’t understand why he’s the one who gets to make a movie about it all. The real story is not his story.
3. Indicative of the problem with Folman making this movie? The most fascinating person in the film is Ron Ben-Yishai, an Israeli journalist who witnessed the aftermath of the massacre and had been covering the conflict for years before and after. Folman has implied in interviews that he was somewhat less interested in Ben-Yishai’s account, because, “he was telling his story a thousand times; and he wrote it in a book 22 years ago; so it’s like push a button and he tells the story.” Well, yes: That’s because he was there, reporting on it. He doesn’t care about Ari Folman’s story: Who the hell is Ari Folman? This was a massive tragedy, horrible, epic, and this movie thinks it’s a window into an old soldier’s therapy. This makes the film’s final shots, which cut from the dreamy animation of the rest of the film to real-life documentary footage of the dead bodies left behind, particularly galling. If the whole movie were about that massacre, he would have earned those shots. But it’s not. He didn’t even see it. Again, this is not his story. He doesn’t get to show such revolting images at the end of film; it’s manipulative at best and exploitive at worst. Frankly: He’s got a lot of nerve.
4. I haven’t even mentioned the animation yet, because as hypnotic as it is, it’s just distracting from the film’s clear problems. Sure, it’s well-done, and Folman has a sumptuous, surrealist eye. But so what? Without the animation, this movie would not only be unwatchable, it would completely lack any reason to exist. You can say Folman is trying to being poetic by visualizing the terrors of war through hazy, hypnotic animation. That’s fine. But how is that supposed to bring us close to this tragedy? It’s distancing, distracting and completely off-topic. Why did Folman chose this method? A: He’s good at it, but, more to the point: B: Without he’d have nothing to show. His technique is to “interview” someone, then animate their story the way he thinks it should be told. This is often gorgeous, and the film’s full of individual frames that could be mounted in museums. But this is not a movie.
5. I suppose the film is worth seeing just for the visuals and the soundtrack; in five minute segments, it’s captivating. But those are bells-and-whistles meant to divert your attention that from the film’s complete lack of a story, or perspective, or understanding. When it’s over, what do you end up thinking? You end up thinking, “Man, Ari Folman’s got a great visual style and clearly has some issues from his life to work on. Hope he gets that figured out. Meanwhile, I’d love it if someone could make a movie about the massacre, and about the chaos of the region, with this much skill and power … that didn’t have the bearded guy smack in the middle of it, talking about a girl he loved when he was 20, musing on his dreams.”