Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Waltz With Bashir

(Vals im Bashir, Israeli, 2008)

Here’s a movie that was one of the major upsets of the 2009 Oscar ceremonies. It was considered a shoo-in to win for Best Foreign Film, but it lost out to a Japanese entry. I wonder why? Possibly the stodgy old Academy members just couldn’t get behind an animated movie as Best Foreign Film. Or possibly, since it is an Israeli film that doesn’t depict Israel in a good light, the large number of Jews in the Academy didn’t go for it. Which would be odd, as it has been generally lauded in Israel; most of the criticism it got objected that it went too easy on the Israeli Army and its leaders who, during the war in Lebanon and the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, looked the other way as “Christian” Phalangists slaughtered whole families, mostly women and children.

It wasn’t on the ballot for Best Animated Feature, and what would have been the point, anyway? WALL-E had a lock on that. I haven’t seen the Japanese film that won, but I’ll tell you something: Waltz With Bashirwas not only the best Foreign film of the year, I think it may very well be the best film of 2008, period. Better than Slumdog Millionaire, better than WALL-E, both films I loved madly. I say this not because I believe it is a perfect movie—it is sometimes a little slow, and I agree with some critics that it may not have brought its central message home as powerfully as it might have, nor with the focus it should have had. But these are very minor carps. What this movie does is so rare it is almost beyond price: It shows you something you’ve never seen before. An animated movie about war? (Let’s banish that word “cartoon” completely for this movie.) You’ve got to be kidding. And it’s basically a documentary, as well, another genre that wouldn’t seem to agree well with the animator’s pen. But the animation format allows the director to do things he could not have done with live action … or at least could not have afforded, even with a much larger budget than he had. This film is ravishingly beautiful, even as it is horrific. The colors are amazing. He often uses only one or two colors in a scene, and the effect is electrifying.

What happens, briefly: The director, Ari Folman, was a young man in the Army during the First Lebanon War. He knows he was near the massacre at the Palestinian camps, but he can’t recall what he did. He sets out on a voyage of discovery, visiting old friends he hasn’t seen in years, finding out what they remember. (These are all real people, who were filmed as they testified, and then drawn in a graphic novel style. No rotoscoping in this movie! the head animator emphasizes.) Then their experiences are shown, in both realistic and dream-like fashion. How much is true? How much is memory to be relied on? This incident was the first time the Israeli Army was seen by even the Western powers as something less than admirable, and Israelis are ashamed of it. It was condemned as genocide by the United Nations. (Which, to me, it clearly was not. Massacre, yes. Atrocity, yes. Genocide, no. And what do we make of the fact that the Christian Phalangists, who did the actual killing, were never accused of genocide, nor even condemned very harshly?)

That’s all I really care to say about all that. I prefer to see the movie as an exquisite work of art, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. A warning: Some scenes are hard to watch, but it would be wrong of you to look away from them. “Never Again” is a saying that applies to more than just the Holocaust.