Sunday, September 28, 2008

NYFF: Waltz with Bashir

War is Hell, but context is important. In the case of Waltz with Bashir, screening at the New York Film Festival October 1st and 2nd, in advance of a December 25th theatrical opening (trailer here), one might assume the Israeli audience is only too familiar with the context surrounding events chronicled in the film. However, international audiences primed on anti-Israeli propaganda might interpret it as confirmation of the narratives they have constantly been fed. The Israeli Consulate is pushing Bashir hard, promoting its NYFF screenings in two emails, during the relatively short time I have been on their list. Having seen the film it seems a bit odd they would work so hard to promote an often unflattering portrayal of the Israeli military.

This review will be expanded when Bashir opens theatrically, but in brief, it is an animated pseudo-documentary illustrating writer-director-producer Ari Folman’s efforts to awaken suppressed memories from his military service in Lebanon. Much of what he has forgotten involves the deaths at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. In retribution for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese president-elect, Christian militia attacked the camps. Perhaps initially looking for PLO terrorists who had indeed been harbored there, events quickly deteriorated. While not directly involved, the Israeli military is thought to have had a pretty good idea of what was happening as it went down.

In Bashir, these events haunt Folman and his comrades. Of course, we see the Sabra and Shatila massacres in graphic detail, including the only non-animated archival footage included in the film. What we do not see is the Gemayel assassination or the constant bombardments and terrorist attacks the PLO staged from Lebanon, which precipitated 1982 invasion in the first place. These are only perfunctorily referenced through dialogue.

Still, of recent anti-war films (broadly defined, not conflict-specific), Bashir is probably the best. Admittedly, the bar has been set pretty low, but Folman and director of animation Yoni Goodman have created some striking visuals. The opening sequences involving the dogs that haunt a fellow Beirut veteran’s dreams are powerful stuff, forming a most compelling case against the dehumanization of war. Folman also gets surprising mileage from structuring the story as a psychological investigation.

Bashir has been well received in Israel, where it recently won their equivalent of the Academy Award for best picture, making its selection assured as their official selection for the Academy’s best foreign language film. Its Oscar campaign should be interesting to watch, given recent history. Last year, France unsuccessfully submitted the animated Persepolis for best foreign language picture, but did snag a best animated nomination. Israel’s original best foreign language selection, The Band’s Visit, was disqualified for having too much English content, but its replacement, Beaufort, another revisionist Beirut drama, beat out Persepolis and other highly touted releases for a foreign language nomination. Though technically well made, Bashir lacks the heart of either Band or Persepolis, but it may well find an appreciative audience at the Academy.