[Our thanks to regular reader Agent Wax for sending in the following review from the Singapore Animation Nation Festival.]
In many ways, this is the hardest review I've ever sat down and committed myself to writing. I regret watching Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir. No, it's not because it was a waste of time. It wasn't because it was bad filmmaking. On the contrary, it is filmmaking at its finest. Waltz with Bashir is, at the very least, an astounding animated documentary with incredible originality and breathtaking impact, a film that must be watched by anyone with even a passing interest in world affairs or Middle Eastern History. It is doubly unfortunate then, that Folman had been taking lessons from Michael Moore in making 'documentaries'. While Waltz with Bashir occupies the upper end of the scale in terms of quality filmmaking, it incredibly dominates the lower end of the political propaganda spectrum with its insidiousness.
The unique animation style developed by Yoni Goodman had my eyes glued from the opening scene. The music worked brilliantly to deliver the atmosphere without resorting to melodrama. Superb voice-acting from the cast. So far so good, but the remaining aspects of the film failed to live up to the clarity of the audio and visuals. I realise that for Folman, this documentary may be semi-autobiographical. Thus there is all the more reason for him to guard against bias. In the end, the end result was a cleverly put together film which addresses the main topic in a roundabout manner, and then only in the final half of the film. For a 'documentary' on the massacre, the first part of the film was unnecessarily and pointlessly devoted to war stories depicting the IDF soldiers as flawed, scared humans. Obviously true, but the plot was lost for awhile with all the initial side-stories, and their inclusion took on a glaring unambiguity as the film progressed: The atrocities of war can be committed by the best of men under the spectres of terror and stress, and that these men should not be held responsible. While I agree to a certain extent that this is true under intense combat situations, we will see below that that is FAR from the case regarding the massacre.
The Deputy Head Mission of the Israeli Embassy attended the screening and gave an introduction on this film. She talked about the background and then mentioned in passing that the screening was made possible by the Israeli Embassy. That should have been my first warning. You see, I had read quite extensively on the Sabra and Shatilla Massacre even before I had heard of Folman's film. There is sufficient distortion of the facts in Waltz with Bashir to warrant my discomfort. Unlike Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai where myth is often inseparable from fact, the events described in Waltz with Bashir took place in 1982. Yes, the pools of blood stain the hands of the Maronite Christian Phalangists who initiated the slaughter of civilians. It was, however, Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Defense Minister, who practically invited the Phalangists into Sabra and Shatilla after the assassination of Bashir Gemayel while the IDF sealed the area off and provided logistical support (such as firing flares at night to assist in the massacre). The film is ambiguous about the passage of time during the massacre, but it appeared to suggest that the events happened in one night, and was stopped by the IDF at dawn the next day. This is complete distortion. The massacre occurred over THREE DAYS. Three days of IDF soldiers stationed less than 500 metres away, watching through binoculars as civilians were raped, murdered, and evicted from their homes. Folman's allusion that the IDF did not realize the nature of the massacre as anything beyond an anti-terror action does not hold water. While I will not go so far as to compare the IDF to the Nazis, it is undeniable that the higher ups at the IDF were well-aware of the massacre, and either sanctioned it unofficially, or just couldn't give a shit.
I had heard such good things about Waltz with Bashir. I so much wanted to love it. And I did, for awhile. While I applaud Folman for attempting to face up to the guilt of the Sabra and Shatilla Massacre, this film falls utterly short of making any commitment on the issue, instead choosing to weasel out of the grasp of responsibility which even Israel's own Kahan Commission had assigned to the IDF.
So do I recommend this film at all? This is a tough call. On the one hand, I acknowledge that this is an incredibly well-made work of art. On the other hand, the film is propaganda and not fit to be described as a 'documentary' any more than a Michael Moore film. In either case, Waltz with Bashir is certainly worth watching. It is an important film, arguably one of the most important in recent years, though not in the way the filmmakers would want you to think.
Review by Agent Wax
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