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Waltz With Basir:

A Lebanon War Story

The frontiers between documentary films and documentary comics are blurring in provocative ways and shifting in both directions. Marjane Satrapi went from solo graphic novelist to co-director with a team of artists as her Persepolis memoir of her childhood and adolescence leapt from silent, still panels to aural, moving animation. Now comes the Israeli animated film Waltz With Bashir, directed by Ari Folman and based on his military experiences and suppressed trauma in Lebanon. Art director David Polonsky, who contributed to the Tel Aviv-based Actus anthologies, is in London and is speaking on 10 November, 2008, about the process of designing an autbiographical documentary film and its advantages over regular live-action as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival at the ICA. Meantime, the movie is being adapted into a graphic novel from Metropolitan Books (US) and Atlantic Books (UK), completing the circle from its graphic roots and the input of comic artists like Tomer and Asaf Hanuka.

Yesterday I was chairing Scenes of a Graphic Nature, an exciting panel discussion about the connections and contrasts between non-fiction movies and comics. Joining me were British-based comics creators John Hicklenton, who is reinterpreting Here’s Johnny, his powerful first-person film about his courageous and sometimes surreal battle with multiple sclerosis, into an intensely personal graphic novel. You can view a preview of Here’s Johnny at Animal Monday. Also taking part were Rutu Modan from Israeli collective Actus and living now in Sheffield, whose Exit Wounds was one of the greatest graphic novels of 2007 and won the Eisner Award for Best New Album, plus Woodrow Phoenix whose Rumble Strip deals head-on with the collisions between cars and our everyday lives and deaths.

Image from the forthcoming Here’s Johnny
graphic novel by John Hicklenton

Among the others chiming in over the transatlantic ether via the magic of the internet were three American innovators in graphic non-fiction. Controversial newspaper cartoonist Ted Rall has recorded his impressions of the Afghanistan War in To Afghanistan And Back and returned to uncover the turmoil of the region in The Silk Road To Ruin. Dan Goldman, of Shooting War fame, is feverishly completing his docu-comic with Michael Crowley on the Presidential election entitled 08: A Graphic Diary Of The Campaign Trail and out from Crown in January 09. David Axe, a war correspondent who "goes to war so you don’t have to",  wrote the riveting War Fix for artist Steve Olexa from NBM and also works with cartoonist Matt Bors, adapting his reporting into online comic strips. They’re expanding War Is Boring into a book collection due next year.

From the different challenges and rewards of film-making and comic-making, the veracity and fictionalisaton of all autobiography to the hybridisation of comics and film, how they are being made, distributed and reinvented, there was plenty of food for thought and discussion. The 90-minute panel was filmed itself, so it will be online in the next month or so on the Sheffield DocFest’s site. To wrap up, here’s my take on Waltz With Bashir, which has several preview screeings on now and opens here November 21, 2008.

You’d have to be made of granite not to be moved by Waltz With Bashir. From the first frame it explodes with the overwhelming energy of unleashed hounds snarling and roaring through a city, like an invading army or a black tide of anger, regret or perhaps guilt, only to end up baying for blood from the street below their human target.

Waking from another nightmare, Israeli director Ari Folman feels compelled to unlock its meaning. Visiting psychiatrist friends, he’s urged to reconnect to former army buddies. Each one Folman meets transports him and us inside their fractured, surreal recollections of their time as young men in the Israeli army.

Folman’s choice of the fantastical properties of animation, rather than live action, perfectly suits his autobiographical psychodrama as he sets about recovering painful memories of his military service in Lebanon, buried deep but rising to the surface again. He gradually pieces together what he witnessed in Beirut in 1982 of the massacre of an estimated 3,000 Palestinian refugees by the "Phalangists" Christian militia, fueled by revenge for the assassination by unknown hands of their recently elected charismatic leader Bashir Gemayel.

Art director and illustrator David Polonsky’s style of animation is striking and stark, close to the grittiness, chiaroscuro contrast and bold flat colouring of DC Vertigo graphic novels. It’s no coincidence, as Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, of Bipolar fame, are among the artists behind the scenes and a graphic novel is released of the movie in December from Metropolitan Books.

Human movements seem occasionally unnatural and computerised, certain passages repeat largely unchanged, but there are some riveting sequences, such as the nude giantess from the sea who cradles one soldier to safety as his ship is blown up, or the soldiers wading naked onto the beach in the golden glow of rocket flares overhead. Like those flares, illuminating dark places, Folman’s probings into the past gradually shed light on what he saw. He needs to confront what transfixed him, what he can’t see before waking. When he does, it is at this climactic point, that (spoiler alert) the animation is abruptly replaced by archive film footage of what was before his eyes, the wailing wives, mothers and grandmothers fleeing the killings.

Finally, however, Folman goes no further. He gives us no inkling of how this revelation affects him, whether he feels complicit in these horrors, or who should be blamed, aside from an anecdote about Defence Minister Sharon’s blasé attitude and slow response to the horrific news. It’s here that for me the film falls short in its reticence, its reluctance to follow through.

It works undeniably as a general indictment of war, especially from the ordinary solider’s perspective, but ultimately, leaving the words screamed by those Palestinian refugee victims unsubtitled only underlines that their cries of injustice are still not being heard. Unlike the sympathetic but removed Folman, they were there, they lived it, they survived it and they can never bury their awful memories.

Posted: November 10, 2008

The review of Waltz With Basir originally appeared in Electric Sheep Magazine, devoted to offering a deviant view of cinema.


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Article Links

Waltz With Bashir
David Polonsky
Tomer Hanuka
Asaf Hanuka
Alternative Comics
Metropolitain Books
Atlantic Books

More Waltz With Bashir Reviews:
The Times
The Guardian
The Village Voice
LA Times
The Jewish Journal

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Ari Folman
David Polonsky
Historical Comics
Political Comics
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Featured Books

Waltz With Bashir:
A Lebanon War Story

by Ari Folman
& David Polonsky
(Metropolitan Books
& Atlantic Books)

The Placebo Man
by Tomer Hanuka
(Alternative Comics)

Pizzeria Kamikaze
by Etgar Keret
& Asaf Hanuka
(Alternative Comics)

Exit Wounds
by Rutu Modan
(Drawn & Quarterly)

Rumble Strip
by Woodrow Phoenix
(Myriad Editions)

To Afghanistan And Back
by Ted Rall

The Silk Road To Ruin
by Ted Rall

08: A Graphic Diary Of The
Campaign Trail

by Dan Goldman
& Michael Crowley

War Fix
by David Axe
& Steve Olexa