"Waltz with Bashir": the Art Director’s Cut at War

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with David Polonsky, James Der Derian, Amy Kravitz and Keith Brown about “Waltz with Bashir” (31 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

David Polonsky:

Waltz with Bashir” is the Israeli war film that broke through to everything but an Oscar. It’s the “documentary cartoon” that uses the visual language of comic books to pry open the grotesque sealed memory of war.

Even as Israeli Defense Forces were smashing Gaza last December, the movie got high marks in Israel and around the world for resurfacing IDF complicity in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla camps in the “despised” war in Lebanon back in 1982.

Waltz with Bashir” recapitulates one soldier’s nightmares of the long-ago war to implant fresh nightmares in the audience. It’s an experiment with animation, of all things, to break the spell of war-without-end.

With the art director of “Waltz with Bashir,” David Polonsky, visiting Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, we’re talking about animation as a guess, a stab at simulation, of how memory works; and about story-telling as an “intervention” against the chronic continuity of official violence.

James Der Derian of the Brown faculty is the author of Virtuous War in which he extends the “military industrial” complex to include its partners in media and entertainment. He leads the conversation here in praise of animation as an artistic link between reality and the subconscious.

On the one hand, the defamiliarization of animation allows you initially to take some distance from the story. But at some point (I think it has to do with the way that the brain visually assimilates information) the filter or the rational distancing fell by the wayside. I felt like it was almost directly accessing a part of the brain, because after all, the brain, through evolution, processes visual images first in a primal way and then the images go up to the language center, which is actually a much smaller part of our brain.

Watching “Waltz With Bashir,” you almost got into some primal, visual — I am going to call it — the truth center. So I found the film much more disturbing and harder to understand in a kind of removed, intellectual way, than if it had been a straight frame that I am more familiar with, which is documentary film or Hollywood war blockbusters. I think that is why it came back into our nightmares.

We all know what Marx said about the unconsciousness of the past: that it weighs on us like a nightmare. That somehow triggered all kinds of past memories about war in my own family history. So I think it was remarkable how the film was able to achieve that kind of new channeling of a part of the brain that is not normally a part of film watching, film spectating. 

James Der Derian in Open Source conversation with David Polonsky at the Watson Institute, April 15, 2009.

David Polonsky take his artistic bows gracefully, but he is rueful about the frustration of a larger project here. I’d asked him if he and producer Ari Folman had thought of “Waltz with Bashir” as a sort of “intervention” in a pathological condition.

Yes, of course. Nobody involved in the work was thinking for a moment that this film will stop war in any place. But, yeah, it is expression. It is art. It is the need of the self to express itself. It’s not made to achieve a certain outcome but it is there to say: I’m here and I can’t stand it anymore.

CL: How did you and Ari Folman feel at the time of Gaza, December ’08, not just the massacre but the fact that the war seemed to be hugely popular in Israel?

DP: Deeply depressed. It is very unnerving and it is very hard to remain optimistic. The sense was that we lost the last strongholds of rationality — that everybody’s, well, insane. Again if there is some kind of hope, it is in chaos. It is in the fact that this is not the result of any kind of rational thinking. And when it is not rational it can change in a moment. Because if it doesn’t change in a moment, it was rational, and the end would not come in my lifetime. And I am not prepared for that.

David Polonsky in Open Source conversation with James Der Derian et al. at the Watson Institute, April 15, 2009.

Thanks and thumbs-up to the other guest movie reviewers here: Amy Kravitz of RISD for her wisdom on film animation, and Keith Brown of the Watson Institute for his anthropological eye.

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