An uncomfortable waltz with Bashir

February 19, 2009

I’m terrible at predicting Oscar winners. Last year, I ended up somewhere in the bottom of the pack in a friend’s pool because I was the only person on the planet banking on Viggo Mortensen’s winning Best Actor for Eastern Promises. I loved his performance, and I wasn’t going to let professional critics or conventional wisdom get in the way of my preferences.
This year, I haven’t yet been conscripted into any gambling schemes for Sunday’s ceremony. That’s a good thing, and not just because I still haven’t learned how to let strategy trump taste. The Israeli film Waltz with Bashir is up for Best Foreign Film, and betting either for or against it would leave me feeling uneasy.
Waltz with Bashir, director Ari Folman’s animated documentary about his experiences as a soldier in the Israeli army during the 1982 Lebanon War, is currently raking in a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The New York Times’s A. O. Scott, arguably the nation’s most respected film critic, called it “a work of astonishing aesthetic integrity and searing moral power.”
It’s safe to say that I’m in the minority in not liking it.
On the Metro ride back from the movie, an Israeli friend asked me what I thought. I said that I didn’t think that the film’s aesthetically pleasing, super-stylized animation was an appropriate choice for portraying a historical atrocity (the main memory that the director/narrator struggles to reconstruct is the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militants, in which the Israeli army was complicit).
My friend defended the film, arguing that animation was the only appropriate choice for a movie about the complications of reconstructing an event in one’s memory. Another friend thought it worked because the movie was, in her words, a commentary on Israeli consciousness, and “most Israelis probably feel like they’re living in a cartoon world.”
These are certainly valid arguments, and the fact that everyone, from my closest friends to nationally syndicated reviewers, loved this movie almost makes me want to change my mind. And, considering my own background—I’m Jewish and spent a year living in Israel as a young kid—maybe the fact that I disliked the movie proves that Folman achieved his goal of expressing a human need to repress and distort pieces of history, either personal or cultural, that are disturbing and shameful.
But I still think the medium distracted from the message in an irritatingly self-congratulatory way, and the documentary-style interview vignettes were narrated in a particularly Israeli strain of arrogant condescension that went right through me.
I saw Waltz with Bashir right after the end of the recent conflict in Gaza and couldn’t help conflating my issues with the two. I wanted to like the movie, but I didn’t. And because I’ve always been pro-Israel, I wanted to support the Israeli Defense Force’s actions in the Gaza conflict, but I couldn’t help worrying that the war was only making the situation worse by turning American and European opinion against Israel while failing to destroy Hamas. Whether it’s movies or politics, these are polarizing issues, and formulating a nuanced view can be immensely challenging.
Things took a turn for the better on at least one front last week, when Tzipi Livni of Israel’s centrist Kadima party, which supports unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories, eked out a narrow parliamentary victory over Benjamin Netanyanu of the conservative Likud Party and Avigdor Lieberman of the even more right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party—although Livni may not be able to assemble enough votes for a governing coalition.
As for the Oscar vote, we won’t know the verdict until Sunday. I may not have liked Waltz with Bashir, but that won’t stop me from rooting for the Israeli submission to take home the prize. For all my criticism of the film, I still find myself needing Israel to succeed.

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