Another Movie Guy?: "Waltz With Bashir," etc.

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

Memory is an organic thing – it can fill gaps or completely block out trauma. Two people can have full opportunity to observe the same event, and yet recall it in an entirely different ways. The fluid qualities of memory are at the center of Waltz with Bashir, the new documentary about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. With his unusual format and stunning visuals, writer/director Ari Folman tells his story in an oblique way. You would think that an animated documentary is a contradiction in terms, but as the story unfolds, Folman justifies his format and provides considerable insight into his subject.

Folman has a late-night drink with a friend, who talks of his ongoing nightmare. Twenty-six dogs chase the friend, demanding vengeance. It turns out that in the Lebanese war, the friend could not kill a man. The squad made the friend kill exactly 26 dogs (their barks warned the sleeping enemy). Upon hearing the nightmare, Folman has a startling dream about the 1982 massacre – one that never occurred before. Folman is shaken by the vision. He talks with fellow soldiers, journalists, and psychologists. The movie chronicles Folman’s attempt to understand how such a brutal episode escaped from memory, and why the vision, dormant for years, was jump-started by a friend’s dream.  Along the way, he manages to vaguely construct the massacre, and get accounts from other soldiers who have similarly subjective memories.

Watching the movie, it occurred that an animated documentary is the only way to tell this story. When a soldier hallucinates, for example, the imagery is so bizarre that the objective syntax of traditional documentaries does not apply. Some images, particularly those that involve wounded animals, are simply too harrowing for realism – such horrors merit a stylized vision. This is not to say that movie is totally dreary. The dog sequence has energy that would feel at home in an action movie. There are even scenes of levity, as when Folman juxtaposes war with 80s rock. Even the horrific scenes have an odd beauty – the muted yellows of Folman’s vision are particularly striking. The movie’s style is well-matched by its substance. Interviewees speak in a confiding, matter-of-fact tone. They do not add flourishes to their stories. Folman does that for them. Everything eventually converges upon the movie’s final moments, which are both devastating and poignant.

I’ve recently had issues with subjective memory. It may be an apple-and-oranges comparison, but as a recent juror on a first degree murder trial, I was confronted with unreliable witnesses. I was forced to question the accuracy of supposedly truthful men. Without such an experience, I would not empathize with the subjective memory that both Folman and others experience. As a psychological study, Waltz with Bashir is fascinating. As a study of the Lebanese war, it is important.  I doubt you’ll find another documentary so electric and moving.

Here are other humanizing stories about the modern Middle East conflict:

Walk on Water. With possibly Grosse Pointe Blank as an exception, this is probably the most heartwarming movie you’ll see about an assassin. Eyal works for Mossad, and his new mission is to kill an aging Nazi war criminal “before God can get to him.” His cover? Work as a tour guide for the war criminal’s grandchildren, Axel and Pia, who are close in age to Eyal. Of course these three become fast friends, and Eyal’s hidden motive is revealed to the grandchildren. This material could have easily been too melodramatic, but director Eytan Fox goes for understated performances. What prevents Walk on Water from greatness is it consistently forces the audience to reevaluate stereotypes. Look, the German is more disgusted by Nazis than an Israeli! And over there, a hit man finds pity on an aging war criminal! Such obvious developments make it abundantly clear that the writer focuses more on message than on story. Even with an all too neat ending, you probably wouldn’t regret putting this one on your queue.

The Band’s Visit. Released early last year, The Band’s Visit is similar in plot to Walk on Water, but completely different in tone. Eight Egyptian musicians are meant for an Arab Cultural Center in an Israeli town, but through a simple mistake, they end up in a small desert town with “no culture at all.” A bus will come for the band the next day, leaving the Egyptian men to politely converse (in English) with the Israeli locals. Characters of note are Band leader, whose stern demeanor hides old wounds, and a storekeeper, whose tough exterior hides tenderness. Unlike Walk on Water, a movie that focuses on melodrama and thrills, The Band’s Visit is a gentle human comedy. Some scenes, such as when an impatient man eagerly awaits a phone call, are surprisingly funny.  Movies like this are easy to overlook. Little happens, the development is subtle, and there are no big speeches. With relatively plausible characters and moments of authentic drama, The Band’s Visit is far more compelling than most movies about the region.

Paradise Now. It is difficult for me to fathom how one decides to become a suicide bomber. Paradise Now, a somber drama about two men who decide to blow themselves up, does not have easy answers. Not for my Western eyes, anyway. Said and Khaled are two Palestinian mechanics who are recruited by a terrorist group, and are given orders for suicide attack in Israel. Director Hany Abu-Assad follows these men as they record their statements and carry out their missions. Along their journey, complications big and small arise. Abu-Assad uses an understated technique, allowing the audience to dispassionately observe and decide what to believe. He uses an interesting technique to humanize the men – banal snafus undermine and delay the gravity of their emission. While decrying Israel on videotape, the camera stops working. It’s interesting how ordinary problems heighten the tension of such a situation. Paradise Now is not a feel-good movie by any metric, but it does humanize suicide bombers – a fact which created some controversy at the time of its release. One may take issue with its message, but here is an important story, one that quietly tells us that two terrorists might be capable of empathy.

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I aimlessly wander the Pacific Northwest.