Jordan Hiller is up to his top 3 of the Bangitout Top 25 Essential Jewish Movies…..and with
#3 Waltz with Bashir
It takes a man to fess up and reveal contrition when he does something wrong, right? Admit what you did and say you're sorry is one of the first bona fide rules of life we are ever taught, and if I recall correctly, that lesson was not stamped with an expiration date. Yet when we reach adulthood we are introduced to a surprisingly deceptive new word which sounds like a complimentary description but isn’t (because after all, words are merely as effective as their usage). The term is apologist.
An apologist, according to its dictionary definition is “a person who defends, in speech or writing, a faith, doctrine, idea, or action.” Still sounds pretty commendable. However, an apologist, as the expression is wielded, describes someone who may very well have done something wrong, or more likely someone who represents a mass of people who committed a group misdeed, whose quasi-apology or admission of guilt leaves a bad taste. It could also be interpreted as someone who is a chronic excuse-maker to the detriment of his or her constituency. But finally and in reality, it is someone who is supposed to be above apologizing because per some force or occurrence, the apologist is required to be perfect, and an apology represents a glaring symbol of wrongdoing and a distressing chink in the armor, which ruins a self-mandated façade of invincibility.
So who would be the ideal subject to be deemed this disgraceful apologist? Naturally, those with much to lose by admitting wrong. Which makes Israel a prime candidate.
Who could lose more than Israel – a country and nation surrounded by enemies, held to an impossible standard throughout the globe – by their showing any semblance of weakness or impropriety? There are literally millions upon millions of people on a daily basis lusting for Israel’s demise and failure. If that tiny democracy’s glass panes begin to crack and splinter, how far behind is the massive push to shatter and take down the whole thing? So we understand the toughness, the sometimes cold indifference, the unwillingness to back away from any position, even an unreasonable and perhaps heartless one. In a region where blinking is interpreted as a coward’s tell, a dangerous precedent, and a signal of a possibly fatal wound, Israel, one could argue, cannot afford to say it's sorry. Sorry is the blood in the water that beckons the grinning, circling predators.
But a country is merely an assemblage of citizens. And citizens are human and therefore fallible. A country must preserve self and rise above. A human is inclined to make mistakes and fall short. Israel may be God’s chosen land, but it is not a God. Human beings need – for themselves and for the greater world community – to admit what they did was wrong and say they're sorry. Hence, the perpetual Israeli sociological and psychological nightmare.
Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, in a spectacularly innovative way, brings to light this ongoing debacle which affects a vast portion of the Israeli population. In the case of the film, our protagonist (Mr. Folman) is a former soldier looking back on the1982 (First) Lebanon War, where the IDF invaded Southern Lebanon for various political and strategic reasons, and Folman’s memories are deranged, hazy, and elusive, particularly in relation to a massacre by Christian Phalangists of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians. So he begins to speak with old comrades and fellow soldiers who went through the experience with him. The investigation proves both eye opening and frustrating as the pieces come into focus but still don't exactly fit together. The details of the war are essentially irrelevant as military combat and occupations all contain interchangeable parts which only vary in degrees of misery, chaos, danger, and inhumanity. To that end, another challenging question Folman must confront is whether his past is even a puzzle worth completing. The big picture may be more terrifying than the discomfort of not knowing.
Folman delivers a brilliant motion picture and perhaps even invented a remarkable new art form in the process. Using animation and a variation of the rotoscope technique Richard Linklater utilized in Waking Life (though much more artistically and beautifully), Folman constructs what was once described by him as an animated documentary. He later commented that this concise description backfired, as studios either wanted a pure animated feature or a pure documentary; not a peculiar, jarringly surreal hybrid. In either case, Waltz With Bashir is a film that defies simple explanation or labels. It is its own original briah. Sure, the interviews with actual former soldiers who served and participated in the Lebanon incursion could have been filmed in standard documentary style, but the magnificently imagined flashbacks, tripped out musical sequences, anecdotal recreations, and mind bending visions, as they pour and pop from the screen in vibrant, hypnotic waves; they separate this movie and set it free to navigate another dimension of film-going euphoria.
Somehow, the wild dreaminess of the animation combined with the rawness of the interviews (and the sensitive subject matter), along with the darkly imagined depictions of war, Waltz With Bashir does what many films have done before; that is convinces us that war is hell, but it does so in way that is frightening and engaging in an entirely new way.
Besides the phenomenal artistic and narrative achievement of Folman’s movie, the outlying issue the film raises is one often heard and discussed. Can Israel fight its wars, exist as a confident and secure nation, while at the same time maintaining a “Jewish” code of morality. Are Israelis ever permitted to acknowledge guilt or shame over their actions without either compromising the integrity of the nation or risk being dubbed apologists? Which is the lesser evil? Can the men and women killing and dying for the country and muddling through war after war emerge sane after all they are required to see and do? Can we indeed grant them the solace of confession? Can a country without an inch to give ever apologize?
As is usually the case with Israel, there are many unworkable questions and no genuinely practical answers. The struggle simply to exist continues. In that sense, there is nothing profound or groundbreaking about the material introduced by Waltz With Bashir. What can be called apologist Israeli movies are a dime a dozen nowadays. However, Mr. Folman imparts the important core dynamic with such visionary authority that it feels like the argument is being made for the first time.