Monday, 16 June 2014

So it goes… Waltz with Bashir (2008) Max Richter, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

In the Q&A session after the film’s screening, writer, director… subject matter extraordinaire Ari Folman explained the intimate connection between the music and the film: it has to be “love at first sight” otherwise no amount of effort can create the right blend.

For Folman Max Richter’s soulful compositions first provided him the back drop as he wrote this memoire/documentary in a hut not far from Galilee – a mixture of Richter’s haunting first two albums The Blue Notebooks and Memoryhouse. He contacted the composer by email once the script was completed and the two met up to discuss the film early in its production.

Normally, Folman says, the music is something you come too late in the film-making process and when you’re low on funds, but here it was different – there was no budget anyway – but he wanted the music to be an integral part of the production process as well as the narrative. After Richer had composed the score in two weeks, Folman’s animators worked with it as a backdrop and the film’s sentiment was infused through both.

This was a special screening of Waltz with Bashir with a mix of soundtrack and the score played live by the Philharmonia Orchestra as part of James Lavell’s Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. It was only the second time this has been done and the first time Folman had seen the film this way.

As always the mix was a potent one with Richter explaining the extra dimension as coming from our instinctive response to human communication – when you are face to face with a performer any connection is always deeper. The result made my first viewing of the film all the more affecting.

Walt with Bashir may lay claim to being the first animated documentary but as Folman says, he could think of no other way of telling such a story.  The animation serves to bring the viewer closer to the voices of the performers – in all but two cases, the actual participants in events – in much the same way as a radio play but it also adds to the sentimental tone: the distancing of events by protective memory ultimately peeled away in an horrific explosion of reality at the very end.

Folman is the main character, trying to piece together the events of his service in the Israeli army from a distance of over twenty years: mid-2000s looking back to 1982 when he was just 19.

The events in question have scarred him and all of his contemporaries. They dream about what happened in an abstract way and cannot bear to look directly at their recollections. There’s a confusion of sadness, shame and denial after the almost unimaginable events of their war, some of the interviewees seem almost matter of fact. How else to cope?

Folman starts a journey – tracking down as many as he can from his old platoon to get their help in jogging his memory – there are tales of the war in Lebanon, an adventure as they started out still in their teens but which became serious enough all too soon.

One recollection has them pinned down by sniper fire until one of the patrol grabs a machine gun, breaks cover and waltzes around (to Chopin's Waltz in C-sharp minor) firing in all directions, miraculously avoiding being hit. The backdrop shows numerous posters of Bashir Gemayel, the President of Lebanon, who was assassinated shortly after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

As the pieces come together for Folman the full horror of what he experienced in the Sabra and Shatila massacre is revealed. As he says, if only two people leave the theatre and Google the details of that event, it will have been worth it. Over 800 people died in the incident after Israeli command allowed a force of Christian Phalangists to enter a refugee camp after the assassination. Folman was one of a number of Israeli soldiers who encircled the camp, firing flares into the night to illuminate the ground…

As a psychiatrist friend of Folman suggests, one of the reasons he has suppressed the memory of the atrocity is because of the experiences of his parents in Auschwitz… how can genocide have been repeated?

But Waltz with Bashir isn’t judgemental per se it just shows things as they were remembered and lets those thoughts speak for themselves or cry out as in the harrowing closing montage…

It’s an extraordinary film and you genuinely couldn’t see it working better without the animation. Memory is selective and subject to the imagination as Folman’s friend outlines but we all have a responsibility to establish and maintain certain truths. And in this, the music and the images delivered powerfully well.

Waltz with Bashir is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from  Movie Mail.

More details of Max Richter's compositions are available on his official site. I'd particularly recommend The Blue Notebooks - an inventive mix of modern composition with electronica and Tilda Swinton.

Details of the Sabra and Shatila massacre can be found at Wikipedia, which has plenty of links to other sources.  The Independent's Robert Fisk was one of the first journalists on the scene and his 2012 article commemorating the massacre's 30th anniversary is here.

The morning after my newspaper carries images of field executions by insurgents in Iraq… as Kurt Vonnegut kept repeating after every death in Slaughterhouse Five: “so it goes, so it goes…”

Max Richter (left) and Ari Folman (right)
The Philharmonia await their cue...

No comments:

Post a Comment