Thursday, October 29, 2009

Musing Pictures: Waltz with Bashir

I have occasionally explored the challenges of historical depiction in this blog, particularly in the context of depictions of the Holocaust on screen. "Waltz with Bashir", the Israeli contender for last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, addresses these challenges openly.
To remind you: historical depictions on film, especially 're-enacted history', are never the same as the experience itself. As a re-teller of history, a filmmaker must decide between historical accuracy and emotional impact.
We have seen how "Schindler's List" depicts a fictionalized version of a Holocaust that really happened, with an emphasis on transcending the history to achieve an emotional impact for those who were not there to feel it directly. We have also seen how "Inglourious Basterds" represents a fictionalized version of the Holocaust that did not happen, freely transforming fiction in to emotional memory.

"Waltz with Bashir" takes yet another approach. The narrative that the film presents is not only a historical narrative, but it is woven out of memories of the people who were there. The film is structured and presented like a documentary. There are interviews with various people who experienced first-hand Israel's war in Lebanon in the early '80s. There is footage from the field. There are sections that would be called 're-enactments' had this been a History Channel special. But this is different in a profound way. In "Waltz with Bashir", the interviews are animated. They are cartoons, roughly sketched impressions of the people whose experiences the film recalls from the depths of memory. Perhaps more significantly, the glimpses we are provided of the war itself are interwoven animations of both direct recollections of the war and remembered dreams and visions. The film opens with what turns out to be a dream sequence, recalled by a friend of the filmmaker's, twenty years after the war. We see the dream, then the conversation in which it comes up. At one point, someone points out that dreams and visions are real - they may not be literal, but they carry truths within them that history books do not.

So, the film treats the ravaged memories of war with as much or more seriousness as the sanitized records of history. Although the film revolves around the filmmaker's search for his own memories, and for the truth behind them, the ultimate lesson is that the most painful memories themselves can be suppressed, and the only key to unlocking their secrets is to treat them as a part of the history itself.

Ultimately, "Waltz with Bashir" is an ode to subjective memory. In a world of objective documents, films and photographs that 'prove' events, a film that could have visually differentiated between historical fact and imagined dream represents them on equal footing. Dreams, memories and history share a format. We can not sort them out because they are all equally a part of the events they describe.


For a convenient list of Israeli films, visit

1 comment:

Eran Shorr said...

The movie also questions whether the Israelis acted as Nazis. This is discussed in