Monday, December 29, 2008

Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)

Although WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Ari Folman, Il/De/Fr, 2008) has been almost unanimously acclaimed for its innovative character, this animation movie, also almost unanimously categorized as a "documentary," actually is a very classical piece of what Sigmund Freud once called Trauerarbeit ("mourning work"). The film is an attempt to recuperate its maker's lost memories of his role as an Israeli soldier in the 1982 Lebanon war which ended in the massacres of Palestinian refugees carried out by the Christian Phalangist militiamen who were allowed by the Israeli Defense Forces to enter the camps Sabra and Shatila. In the film Folman visits former fellow soldiers, a war correspondent who witnessed the invasion of Beirut and the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, a befriended shrink and the unavoidable psychologist and trauma expert to find out where he was himself during this episode and what he had done.

Folman's friend Ori Sivan, who acts as his personal shrink, makes the obvious and alsmost inevitable reference to the WWII Nazi camps, when he explains to Folman that his awoken interest in the tragedy of the Palestinian refugee camps goes back to the history of the sufferings inflicted on his parents by the Nazis in Auschwitz, of which he must have heard as a child. And, of course, the Israeli policies towards the Palestinians have often been compared to those of the Nazis towards the Jews. However, the ground for this comparison is not a role change from former victim into hangman, but rather in what Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in their groundbreaking 1967 book called Germany's postwar Unfähigkeit zu trauern ("inability to mourn"). And more significant than the suggested comparison and its concomitant role switch between the tragic events in both the Nazi and the Palestinian refugee camps is this "displacement" which by pointing to one traumatic event continues the repression of another. And here WALTZ WITH BASHIR enters grounds that are familiar from "the New German Cinema" (Fassbinder, Wenders, Schlöndorff, Von Trotta a.o.) and American Vietnam war movies like APOCALYPS NOW (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1979), THE DEER HUNTER (Michael Cimino, USA, 1978) , HAMBURGER HILL, (John Irvin, USA, 1987) PLATOON (Oliver Stone, USA, 1986), the RAMBO sequels (USA, 1982, 1985, 1986). As WALTZ WITH BASHIR, these films too are phantasmatic rather than historical or biographical journeys into the German and American unconsciousness that serve to build up a screen against rather than to reveal and face some painful historical facts (such as the humiliating American defeat by an adversary that was by all accounts deemed inferior to the American military).

This is exactly the film's strategem: if it seems to lift a tip of the veal in the final live-action video images of desperately crying and screaming Palestinian women who have been eventually allowed to re-enter the camps only to find the mutilated corpses of their husbands and children scattered over the ruins of what were their homes only a few hours ago, it is only to conceal that this film is definitely not about the Palestinians and their suffering or about what really occurred in the camps under the very eyes of and probably with the consent of the Israeli Defense Forces. This film is all about the "mourning work" itself, which is also a way to avoid the confrontation with the events that caused the trauma in the first place.

The film states this quite openly. Folman's personal shrink Ori Sivan tells him about a psychological experiment in which subjects were presented with pictures from their own family album plus one concocted montage picture which showed them as kids in a kind of a theme park. No less than 80% of the respondents recognized the picture and told the experimenters that they remembered that happy day, whereas a significant number of the 20% who didn't recognize the picture later reported that they did recollect that particular outing. The psychologist and trauma expert explains the phenomenon of "dissociative personality" which means that in stressful or traumatizing moments a person may "dissociate" herself from his or her personality and experience the event as a neutral, impassible observer. As if these lessons in the capacity of the human mind to dissociate itself from traumatizing events and to fill gaps in memory creatively with images and stories appropriated from whatever available source are not enough, Folman's former fellow soldier and friend Carmi Cna'an, who now lives a wealthy life in the Netherlands, is only seen smoking joints, and booz, porn and rock music pop up constantly during the film. And when Folman asks him if it is allright for him to make drawings in the snow with his sun, Cna'an says that drawing is okay, as long as Folman doesn't film. Drawing, the basic technique on which animation is based, assumes the function of protecting a childish and pure ("snow white") innocence against the harsh and more earthly realities of history, that can be revealed in their raw appearances only by film, as indeed happens in the last part of the film.

The animation, then, is the screen set up in this film between the consciousness of filmmaker Folman - and the spectator - on the one hand and his experiences during the Lebanon war. It is also a screen between the memories of the interviewees and their emotions that become dissociated from their stories, since the interviewees are literally turned into cartoonesque figures whose blank faces and rather flat voices become screens offered to the spectators for projecting their feelings and emotions onto.

And of course, the animation film is a perfect medium for blending myth and reality, fiction and truth, figments of imagination and authentic memories. And as human memory is capable of adopting images and stories from others to fill gaps in memory or to reconstruct past episodes, WALTZ WITH BASHIR freely borrows its imagery from all kinds of cultural clichés (e.g., the pot smoking friend from Holland, porn as a German specialty) and war movies. During the scene in which the Israeli soldiers are chilling out on the Lebanon beach while waiting for orders to move to Beirut, one cannot help but expecting Robert Duvall to show up and bark: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," as he did in APOCALYPS NOW, just as the image of Folman's friend who raises in the midst of snipers' fire and starts to dance franticly while emptying his machine gun reminds one of similar images of frenzied GI's dancing and shooting on the rhytms and sounds of Jimi Hendrix in films like PLATOON (Oliver Stone, USA, 1986). Apart from being an animation, there is actually very little in this movie that had not already figured in one way or another in numerous other movies about the aftermath of WWII, the Vietnam War, or the Middle East conflict (e.g. Volker Schlöndorff's DIE FÄLSCHUNG (Fr/BRD, 1981)). Which makes one wonder what makes this film more a documentary than, say, APOCALYPS NOW or PLATOON?

WALTZ WITH BASHIR has more in common with the American Vietnam movies than the theme of (not) coming to terms with a traumatic past. The most remarkable correspondence is the almost complete absence of images of the enemy the American and Israeli armies are fighting against respectively. In the American Vietnam movies all one gets to see from the Vietcong warriors are shades and silhouettes (and in RAMBO - FIRST BLOOD (Ted Kotcheff, USA, 1982), the Vietcong were even replaced by Russian officers, the Soviets being a more worthy and fearsome opponent than the humble Vietnamese). In WALTZ WITH BASHIR, the only Lebanese and Palestians that get an appearance in the film, are (old) women and children, but hardly any able-bodied adult. In the American war movies, this absence constituted the cover that made it possible to depict the war and the American defeat as the result of a mythical internal, inner-American conflict between a bellicose and ruthless soul (say, John Wayne and the GREEN BERETS (John Wayne & Ray Kellog, USA, 1968)) and its compassionate and honorable counterpart that both live in America's "breast," as enacted in PLATOON in the conflict between the "mean" Sgt. Bob Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the "good" Sgt. Elias Grodin (William Dafoe). In these American Vietnam movies the war theater gets transformed into a stage for soul searching into the American mind at war with itself. In WALTZ WITH BASHIR, too, the absence of the historical adversary functions as a screen that must allow the filmmaker to do a bit of personal soul searching while avoiding the more painful issues of why and how and for whom he was fighting against whom.

The film literally keeps the burning question of what happened in the Palestinian refugee camps and what the responsibility of the Israeli army - and of Folman himself - was in the massacre safely at bay. The events are being told from the perspective of the Israeli military who had taken position just outside the camps from where they could not see what happened inside after the Phalangist militiamen had entered. Moreover, the images of the massacre's episode are almost all "taken" from a long distance during the night while the camps are lit only by alarm lights fired by the Israeli army (to make things easier for the Phalangists?).

At the very end of the animated part of the film, there is a sudden change of perspective, though. In one long shot the camera follows the Palestinian women who were allowed to re-enter the camp after the massacre, and tracking those women while they discover the bodies of their beloved ones, the camera moves on to end on a close-up of Folman, who no longer stands behind the camera or outside the camp as an impassible or powerless observer, but instead faces the camera, in full military gear, and in the middle of the camp, as if caught in the act. And as if to stress this touché par le réel, the film immediately switches to the live action images of the desperate women crying over the mutilated corpses of their husbands and children.

But is this really a resolution to the problem that launched Folman's quest? The end seems to suggest that one cannot for ever go on with soul searching and protracting the process of "mourning work" and that at some point one has to face the "real." However, the Folman who seems to realize that he is fully implicated in the horror of the massacre is also still fully part of the animation film, which raises questions about the status of this "memory": isn't it rather a kind of a guilt-ridden fantasmatic identification with the perpetrators of the massacre?

It is worth remembering that Forman's strongest feelings when he went to war were pain and anger with his girlfriend who had dumped him the week before, and that Cna'an went into the war to prove his still unconsumed virility: could it not be that the massacre of the Palestinian men and children is a sort of imaginary revenge on the women who had forsaken these two Israeli warriors? After all, didn't Folman's friend the shrink suggest that there was "another story" behind his anger about the Lebanese war? And do not Folman and Cna'an repeatedly emerge naked from the sea on the beach of Beirut to put on their Israeli military gear and go to war in the nightmare that started to haunt Folman after his encounter with his former fellow soldier Boaz.

According to Folman's psychiater friend Sivan the sea symbolizes "emotions," but these emotions are heavily eroticized by another dream image in the film, when Cna'an rests on the naked belly of a giant woman who carries him swimming through the sea, away from the war theater in Beirut, back into the safe "waters" of the motherly womb? After all, in Freudian psychoanalysis, the sea is a classical symbol of the womb. The images of the naked young men emerging from the sea and walking onto the beach where they put on their very virile uniforms and pick up their fallic rifles, represent a rather classical image of a kind of a rite of passage: innocent kids who are forced to leave the safe waters of childish innocence and now have to prepare themselves to face the harsh world of adults. Indeed, as earlier in the film the snow served as the screen that at the same time covers the frozen and unwelcoming soil and as the screen onto which to "draw", the animated images of the Lebanese war seem to serve as a "screen" memory that cover up another traumatic experience that in itself has not very much to do with the war. The film, that is, seems to "draw" what Freud called a "screen" memory.
Lost love, unconsumed virility, unfulfilled longing and love for the virgin/mother: the film is more about pueril and adolescent desires, anger and frustration than the war exploits of these young men. Or rather, the historical war theater is here transformed into a stage for the acting out of these frustrations. And it looks as if the Palestinian women have become the imaginary targets of Folman's rage.

And finally, do the TV-images of the results of the massacre actually "match" Folman's gaze, or are they just new resources to tap on in order to fill the gaps of his memory? And if these images somehow represent the "real," what sense are we to make of them? Or isn't that possible (yet), and is Folman about to begin a new round in his infinite search for consoling memories? What is missing, is precisely the story that links the animation movie with the live action images, the register of the "symbolic" that makes it possible to establish a bearable relationship between the "imaginary" (the animation part) and the "real" (the live action part), and that allows the adolescent to enter adulthood.

All this makes this film utterly unsatisfying. The animation turns out to be nothing but a decoy that distracts from the very classical nature of this quest for (personal) comfort and reassurance, long after the American Vietnam movies had proved that one doesn't need animation to create a mixture of fantasy and history, of myth and melancholy, of mourning and self pity, of self-delusion and denial. Because that is, in the end, what this is probably all about: the animation is just a new package to wrap a content that is already close to, if not passed, its expiration date.

Animation is a mode that is usually preserved for children's films or adolescents' computer games. In this film it is the symptom of a profound immaturity and incapacity on the part of the filmmaker to come to terms with the tragedy of the Lebanese war as an adult should: not by using personal frustrations such as the loss of a love as a screen to cover up less flattering parts of his biography, but by trying to understand his historical and political responsibility as a conscript and a citizen of a state that is at war, with its neighbors but probably most of all with itself and its own past.

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