Animation on Beirut bids for top Cannes prize

Repressed memories, the horrors of war and Israel’s dubious role in a notorious Beirut refugee camp massacre are the themes of the Cannes film festival’s first ever fully-animated documentary.

Waltz With Bashir, said Screen magazine in one of the first reviews, “could easily turn out to be one of the most powerful statements of this Cannes and will leave its mark forever on the ethics of war films in general”.

Ari Folman’s anti-war movie, in the running for the Palme d’Or top prize, is premiered here as Israel celebrates its 60th year of existence and its neighbour Lebanon hits yet another political crisis pushing it to the brink of civil war.

Opening with thumping rock music as snarling dogs hurtle through city streets, the highly personal tale recounts the director’s quest to fill the holes in his memory of his stint as a 19-year-old conscript in Israel’s army.

He was baffled by why he couldn’t remember much of his role in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, and the 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israeli-backed Christian milita in the West Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

So Folman, a longtime documentary filmmaker in Israel, tracks down nine people who were either with him at the time or were involved in the events, and then slowly pieces together his own actions.

He then wrote a narrative script and got artists to transform the interviews into animation.

“There was no other way to do it,” he told reporters here. “Otherwise it would have been pictures of middle-aged men going on about stories that happened 20 years ago.”

The result is a visually and emotionally gripping tale that brings to life harrowing and sometimes surreal memories of death, guilt and regret.

In the final 50 seconds it ditches animation in favour of gruesome newsreel footage showing massacre victims’ bodies piled up in couryards and alleyways and wailing mourners wandering among the carnage.

These images, when first shown after the massacre, caused outrage and protests across the world, including in Israel.

Folman said he decided to use the newsreel because he didn’t want viewers coming out thinking they had seen a “cool, animated movie with cool drawings and music”.

“Thousands were killed. Sometimes you have to get it in the face.
The massacre happened and you have to see it,” he said.

The wider context of Israel’s war in Lebanon is not dealt with in the film, but Folman’s movie is a clear indictment of the country’s military and political conduct.

When the Christian militia moved into the refugee camps, vowing to weed out “terrorists,” Israeli forces were positioned—among them Ari Folman—on the edges of the camps, taking no action whatsoever to stop what was clearly a prolonged massacre of civilians.

Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s defence minister, was informed of what was going on but did nothing to stop it.

Waltz With Bashir reveals no new information about the Sabra and Shatila massacres, but its powerful anti-war statement is likely to go down well with the Cannes Palme d’Or jury led by Sean Penn, a fierce critic of the United States war in Iraq.

Another anti-war documentary, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, took the top prize here in 2004.

The fact that the jury this year includes Marjane Satrapi, whose animated autobiography Persepolis scooped a prize last year at Cannes, cannot harm Folman’s chances of the coveted Palme on May 25. - Reuters

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