The Jigsaw Called Past

A Paradox Of Memory

We always have that “one foreign film” to top it all, don’t we? Continuing the tradition of extraordinary films like The Lives of Others (2006)4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), this year we have an Israeli flick Waltz with Bashir. Already a winner of the Golden Globe for the best foreign film of the year, the film is all set to make it big at the Academy Awards late next month. Director Folman dedicated the Golden Globe to all the babies that were born during the production of the film and desired that when they watched the film in the future, they should think of the film as an ancient video game. And indeed, Waltz with Bashir is a sincere attempt to come to terms with the mistakes of the past.

Waltz with Bashir takes place 20 years after the “purging” operations of the Israeli army in Lebanon. Ron is one of the soldiers in the war who is leading a peaceful life as a filmmaker now. One gloomy night, after he hears about the strange dream that haunts his friend, Ron decides to dig up his past. This takes him to various places across the globe as he gradually recovers his memories of the fateful war. There is considerable romance in the events of the war, with Apocalypse Now – like celebrations of destruction. Men come, men go; No one recognizes the other completely, but each one has a story to tell. Each one has a version of the war. We are presented many POVs as Ron continues inquiring his role in the war. He isn’t happy about what he is discovering. But the thirst for truth keeps him going.

Waltz with Bashir presents a great paradox now. One that all of us carry with us in one form or the other. One that uniquely characterizes the human intelligence. A paradox of memory. When you want to forget something, your mind does not let you. It keeps coming back to haunt you until you confront it for good. And when you want to remember something desperately, the same memory starts playing tricks with you. It cooks up some mutated form of the past combining elements of truth and fantasy. Ron seems happy with his filmmaking business until the inevitable shadow called past catches up with him. He realizes the need to remember. But no one lets him – neither his own mind nor his friends’. Early on, Ron’s psychologist friend tells him of a memory experiment where people were found to accept small deviations from reality as reality itself. Similarly, everyone seems to have settled into some form of comfortable reality in order to barely escape from the horrors of the past and yet remember their years in the war. Unwilling to strike a balance between the need to document and the need to forget, Ron decides that he has to know what happened and not speculate.

It is but natural to be reminded of the previous year’s fantastic film Persepolis, for both employ animation to address issues of very high importance. Persepolis, using its childlike animation effectively along with its monochrome, presented one girl’s quest for identity and her abstraction of the ever-changing world. Marjane’s fantasies of a fairy-tale childhood are slowly corrupt by the knowledge of the harsh realities of the war-torn world. The ever-unsafe world prevents her from carrying on with her illusions of undisturbed happiness. Waltz with Bashir, on the other hand, is an account of one man’s struggle to recollect the past. It sort of reverses the structure of Persepolis and presents us a man who attempts to recall reality exactly as it happened. Ron does not want to concoct a “safe version” of reality that remains tough enough to reflect truth but comfortable enough to be complacent about what happened. In essence, Waltz with Bashir asks us to confront reality– without any pretense and escapism – and get over with it once and for all. And this, in my opinion, is the film’s greatest success.

One can’t entirely say that the film does not take sides. True, it is told from an Israeli point of view and yet comments on the atrocities done towards the Palestine refugees in Lebanon, but the Lebanese evangelists won’t be happy with the depiction of the massacre. However, this can not be considered a blatant caricaturing of them. Waltz with Bashir takes just a single event from the war – the refugee camp massacres at Sabra and Shatila – and questions the appropriateness of that event alone. Yes, it does take a stand there and it does condemn the way things unfolded on that dreadful day. But that’s about it. It does not extrapolate the incident to judge the present political policies of either country or even question the motives of the war that it depicts. It is as if the film isolates the lone event in order to denote the sheer enormity of it all and to show how such unwarranted acts of violence have a deep impact on the psyche of an individual and of a nation.

I can’t complain on the technical grounds either. The animated characters are deliberately out of sync with their environment, which gives the film a kind of surrealism that is in tone with Ron’s recurring dream. The dubbing is spontaneous with even mistakes finding their way into the film. The narrative proceeds non-linearly never once going over the head. But these are just the secondary reasons that make the film stand apart. In an age which is plagued by over-sensitivity towards issues such as racism, communalism and war, films such as Waltz with Bashir (and the surprise winner Gran Torino (2008) appeal for an acceptance of these issues as it is and to deal with them without much fuss. And that is a reason enough for me to cast my vote for Waltz with Bashir.