Waltz with Bashir

For me, animation meant children’s films that you let them watch in order that they will leave you alone...” – respected Israeli war journalist Ron Ben-Yishai explains to the BBC that he was less than enthusiastic when Ari Folman approached him about contributing to the animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. Folman talked the 65 year old reporter around, fortunately – his segment, as the BBC article notes, is fairly brief, but as the first reporter to risk life and limb to enter the site of the refugee camp massacres his testimony is essential to the story; he’s now quite convinced by Folman’s animated efforts: ”The animation is adding a layer, a psychological layer of his trauma. In a normal documentary film you couldn’t have documented all these things – like the dreams…. Believe me, I have a lot of nightmares of this kind. After being in war situations… it comes to haunt you.”

Waltz With Bashir rabid dogs.jpg

Waltz With Bashir is a film I had been waiting to see for some time, following the good word of mouth it had been picking up on the international film festival circuit. An animated, feature-length documentary is a fairly unusual beast in the film world, and as someone who is fascinated by animation in its many forms I was intrigued. Ari Folman’s film looks back to the war in the Lebanon in 1982, seen through the memories, dreams and nightmares of former Israeli conscripts. The film opens with a pack of rabid dogs, barking, growling, running through the city streets, eyes glowing red, terrifying people, before arriving outside a building where they bark viciously at the inhabitant. The scene cuts to a bar and Folman is listening to his friend recount the dream of the dogs, which he has repeatedly, a mental echo of the war when he was forced to shoot dogs before their patrol could enter a village so the dogs couldn’t bark a warning (Shakespeare’s line “let slip the dogs of war” sprung to mind). When he asks Folman what bad dreams he has from the war Folman answers that his memory is mostly blank from that period. His friend’s troubled dreams spark the first glimmerings of memories and images from the war in Folman’s mind and so he sets out to talk to former comrades, slowly piecing together events surrounding their time in Lebanon, culminating in a horrific massacre of civilians in refugee camps.

Folman travels to meet old comrades, some fairly open about their war experiences, others quieter, more troubled; in between he talks to his therapist friend, troubled by his own missing memories and wondering what he saw or did that caused his mind to blank so much out. As anyone would be in such circumstances he wants to know but is also worried what he may learn about himself in the process. The film itself is mostly non-linear, made up of frequent flash backs as the former soldiers talk to Folman. But this is no straight ‘talking heads’ documentary – many of the men have only fragmented memories and images, often dreamlike or even hallucinatory. Folman himself is jarred into remembering a scene of himself and some comrades floating in the sea like drowned men; slowly they come to life and, quite naked, shamble slowly towards the war-torn shore, the scene lit by the eery light of flares. It reminded me of one of cinema’s strong visual scenes, Martin Sheen emerging from the dark waters in Apocalypse Now (and like Apocalypse Now there is much of Heart of Darkness about this film) crossed with a sort of D-Day landing but by undead, zombie soldiers, slowly shambling through the surf, across the beach and into the war zone.

And much of the film is seen in this manner; while some scenes are related and shown fairly literally (such as an ambush on a column of tanks) many are hazy, drawn from confused images in the memories of men who saw more than they wanted to and still see it frequently in their dreams, or composed entirely of fantasy images and hallucinations (one man on a boat heading to the war imagines a giant naked woman, who lifts him gently from the ship and swims away with him nestled child-like against her stomach as the ship and his comrades behind them explode into flame; another distances himself from events by pretending he is taking photos of it for an article). Its something a live action documentary simply couldn’t capture but the medium of animation is suited perfectly for; the animation takes us as close as we can be to the dreams and nightmares of those men, as well as showing how different minds react to the stress, how they interpret what they saw and endured, the strains, the stress, the guilt over actions forced on them or simple guilt for being alive when friends are dead. The film doesn’t try to excuse actions, nor does it seek to judge and condemn, it simply shows and shares those events and memories.

Waltz With Bashir naked giant woman dream sequence.jpg

(escape fantasy, sexual fantasy or simply the childlike urge to have a mother figure taking you away from harm – one of Folman’s friends recounts his vision of a giant, naked woman who carries him from the boat taking him to battle)

Popular music of the period features throughout, especially in scenes where the soldiers are given leave to visit home. A home life which now seems alien and bizarre – at the front they dream of being home, at home they feel strange, uncomfortable. Around them people are playing music, video games, enjoying everyday life, all familiar things which now seem so odd compared to what the soldier has been living. In this Folman scores again, showing us just a bit of the contrast the soldier (of any war) encounters when they come home and try to be ‘normal’ but wondering how everyday life can be so ordinary after what they have seen (its no surprise that many former soldiers have to deal with mental health and a myriad of other problems when they return to civilian life. A peace treaty might end a war politically, but it doesn’t end in the minds of many who had to prosecute it).

Its very powerful material, extremely emotional and often very, very uncomfortable to watch – but then, it should be. The last act leads up to the slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in refugee camps (spoiler warning, you may not want to read this last bit if you are going to see the film), the very event that Folman has been wondering about as he probes the gaps in his memory. The Israeli soldiers themselves are not directly involved, but they are ordered to encircle the camps while their Christian militia allies enter them, ostensibly looking for terrorists. They see women, old folks, children, being rounded up and loaded onto trucks; Folman flashes back to an earlier generation of his own family being loaded onto trucks by the Nazis. What happens next is, sadly, a matter of historical record – hundreds of innocents were slaughtered. Ben-Yishai, the reporter, was on the front lines and following leads from Israeli soldiers troubled about what they suspect is going on inside the camps, he investigates, bringing it to the attention of the government.

Waltz With Bashir ruined Lebanon.jpg

(Lebanon, once called ‘the Paris of the East’, shattered and ruined by war; a scene probably familiar to many from news bulletins in the early 80s)

In the very last scenes animation is suddenly, jarringly, dispensed with in favour of Ben-Yishai’s news footage. Its simply horrific and the sudden move from animation to news film re-enforces that horror. Its dreadfully hard to take – I found myself seriously struggling to maintain some emotional control – but its something that should be seen by a wider audience (and I wish we could make our so-called world leaders sit and watch it before they decide on more foreign adventures). Like Apocalypse Now it is by turns fascinating and yet often horrific, but its engrossing and powerful. Sad to think Folman must have been working on it when Hizzbolah were firing rockets at Israeli civilians and Israel was bombing Lebanon once more just the other year. Which, regrettably, makes this not just a look at a historic event from decades ago but very contemporary to ongoing strife in the Middle East and elsewhere, while the animated nature of the bulk of the film guarentees images that will stick in the viewer’s mind long after the film has finished. One of the most unusual and remarkable animated films I’ve seen; as I said, it can be hard to watch, but you should try.Waltz With Bashir is on general release in the UK now; a graphic novel version of the story is due soon.

I originally wrote this review up for the Forbidden Planet blog

Hypocritical bastard

George Bush asked in a BBC interview if America still held the moral high ground after scandals of violated civil liberties, civilian deaths, tortures and Abu Ghraib: “Absolutely. We believe in human rights and human dignity. We believe in the human condition. We believe in freedom.” This from a man who is trying to veto a bill from the US Senate (how very democratic of him) which makes the use of water boarding illegal for the purposes of interrogation. In other words he is trying to make the use of torture legal. How this fits in with his previous statement is beyond me. How this retarded monkey can say things like this then apparently believe he is on the side of Good is beyond me. And just how so many fucking idiots can go along with it, vote for it and support it is utterly beyond me.

The fact that the Senate had to even pass a law declaring this process illegal to begin with speaks volumes – most civilised countries would consider such torture utterly illegal to begin with and not need to pass extra laws. This is how the self proclaimed good guys fight the good fight. No wonder the world is such a bloody mess. Neitzche’s cautionary passages on fighting monsters and becoming a monster in the process was obviously not on the reading curriculum for Bush or his supporters. Although since the brain-dead numpty seems to have difficulties with the fairly simple task of putting words together for coherent speech it shouldn’t be a surprise that he isn’t well educated or well read.

Photography then and now

In among all the ballyhoo about spoiled and talentless rich socialite tart Paris Hilton going to jail, getting out then being sent back in tears (in contrast to her earlier cockey attitude) I missed something – see this picture which went all over the news of the silly girl weeping?

Imagine my surprise to find out the photographer behind that snapped image is Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Nick Ut. If you don’t recognise his name you will recognise this photograph Ut took of Kim Phuc, a tiny wee lassie running screaming down a road in Vietnam, her clothes burned off and her skin roasted by napalm dropped by US aircraft (yes, I know, hard to believe the Americans back then thought it was perfectly okay to invade countries thousands of miles away and didn’t care too much about civilian casualties; thank goodness we live in a more enlightened time, eh?).

As if that isn’t a surprise enough as this article points out Ut shot the photo of this dreadful scene – which became not only one of the defining images of the Vietnam War but one of the most influential photographs of the 20th century, a moment of humanity’s inhumanity frozen in time – on June 8th 1972. He shot the picture of a wailing Paris on June 8th 2007. What are the odds? There is a strand of thought which holds that the Americans lost the Vietnam war partly in the livingrooms of America, as people were exposed to photographs and TV news film of the atrocities going on leading a huge slice of the population (and not just the Love Generation) to turn against the government and the war – this is one of the images which probably contributed to that.

Little surprise that in the first Gulf War and subsequent ill-advised military adventures overseas the US military (and UK and pretty much all others) have kept a very tight reign on what the journalists can see, bribing them with the offer of ’embedding’ them with active units to get good shots but subject to military approval and control or else go freelance and have a good chance of getting shot up not just by insurgents but by allied forces as happened to the BBC’s John Simpson among others (all accidental of course, just as US armour shelling the hotel where foreign journalists were in Baghdad was accidental…). Hell, the control and spin extends as far as trying to stop images of flag-draped coffins coming home – supposedly out of respect to the families but if you are cynical (and since authorities are reticent about exact casualty figures I think you’d be right to be cynical) you could be forgiven for thinking it is to stop the home front losing faith.

The day the guns fell silent

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the day the gun fell silent; the cessation of the suffering and carnage of the War to End All Wars. Why then can we still hear those guns, every single night on our television news? Decades after politicians whipped up popular sentiment for war to such a pitch that men (actually many of them really only boys) not only volunteered but happily marched off to war and despite that awful example little has changed; still cold-blooded politicians will manipulate facts to stir up feelings and send out troops not to protect our nation from harm but for their own selfish agendas. And dress it all up in patriotism, while decrying those who oppose or question as unpatriotic.

Sending young folks off to war in a distant land is not patriotism. Taking the goodwill of someone willing to serve their nation (an increasing rarity in our ever more selfish age) and using it for your own ends is not patriotism. Betraying the enormous sacrifices made before many of us were born, lives given so we would never have to know what Wilfred Owen called the ‘pity of war’, is not patriotism. The spectres of the dead should rise as they did in J’Accuse and stare down the hypocrisy of leaders like Blair, ‘honouring’ the fallen at public ceremonies while committing more of their comrades to a similar fate. After the slaughter of tens of millions in the wars of the last century, from the mud and blood of Flanders to atomic conflagration of Hiroshima, from the cold waters of the Atlantic to the killing fields of Cambodia, how can any leader worthy of that title be so easily persuaded to war?

Yes, there will always be times when we are called to arms; if someone attacks you, you have to defend yourself, we learned the hard way that isolation or appeasement are not an option. But always, always it must be the choice of last resort, not a tool for personal agendas, political ideas or corporate and economic opportunities. No, that’s not patriotism; in fact it is the opposite, it is the betrayal of the nation and its people, the corruption of past sacrifices. Thousands of years of civilisation and we still have leaders willing to bang the drum for the march to war, leaders who will never take the risks of battle or suffer those hardships themselves; it’s 2006 – learn another way.

All wars are planned by older men
In council rooms apart,
Who call for greater armament
And map the battle chart.

But out along the shattered field
Where golden dreams turn gray,
How very young the faces were
Where all the dead men lay.

Portly and solemn in their pride,
The elders cast their vote
For this or that, or something else,
That sounds the martial note.

But where their sightless eyes stare out
Beyond life’s vanished toys,
I’ve noticed nearly all the dead
Were hardly more than boys.

Grantland Rice

Nuremberg

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the commencement of the Nuremberg trials, where the surviving leaders of Nazi Germany were brought before a court which gave the world a new term: crimes against humanity. Just another historical anniversary? Far from it; all of our collective history is relevant – events from 60 years ago influence and shape our present just as events 600 years ago. History is far from a purely academic interest, it is the mould of our current world and a lack of awareness of our history denies us the means to understand and thus alter that mould to a new and better design.

The Nuremberg trials set the basis for later international law and set leaders on notice that they could be held to account for their actions in a world court – as old Slobby is at the moment (‘ethnic cleansing’ – a hideous case of history repeating itself if ever there was). Unfortunately it is unlikely we will see all of those who use their power and position unwisely – will we see Mugabe in the Hague? Blair? Bush? The leaders of the insurgency in Iraq who murdered dozens of Muslims at prayer on Friday? As with the supposedly impartial law of our own land those with influence and connections can and often do manage to circumvent the legal consequences to their actions. Nonetheless, the principal is a good one and we ignore it and the lessons of history at our peril.

On which subject I was watching the documentary series The West (from the producers of the excellent Civil War series, which drew largely on the work of the wonderful Shelby Foote) and once again was struck with how patterns repeat in history, usually to our shame. This episode dealt with Custer’s arrogant downfall at the Little Bighorn, the forcible taking of the sacred Black Hills by the US government after promises not to and the flight of the Lakota and the Nez Perce. Legendary names abound in this episode – Sherman, Custer, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull – but the one thing which stared me in the face from over a century ago was the blind arrogance and greed of a larger power which would make many indications of friendship and peace then break their word and commit any and all forms of brutal act on warriors and civilians alike when they saw land and resources they coveted. Be it minerals in the Black Hills or the black gold of oil in the deserts of Iraq, it seems we are doomed to repeat some patterns as long as those with weak morals and no grasp of history are allowed to rule.

All the more important then, I think, that the rest of us learn and debate these events, historical and contemporary. Perhaps it will only be some of us talking online, but as long as some think about it and discuss it we serve notice that we refuse to be comlicit in these events and that we are watching what they do. And who knows, perhaps one day the people who commit such atrocities, dressing them up in lies and broken promises, will have to answer to us. Last week we commemerated the fallen of previous wars and the phrase ‘lest we forget’ was repeated, almost as a litany; this is a good phrase and one we should and must apply not only to those who fell to protect us but to those who would abuse that sacrifice to further their own selfish ends, dressing it in a rhetoric of lies.

“Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for all my horses and cattle.

Good words cannot give me back my children. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves.”

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder coming up over the land from the water), better known to us as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, talking of the plight of his people, but it can all to easily be applied to current events. There is a commendable and concise overview of the chief by Jennifer Beck on this site.

Democracy in action

Hurrah! The people of Iraq are now officially free! No more occupation!!!! Well, except for 160,000 foreign troops and who knows how many foreign fundamentalist fighters. And behold, you who scoffed at Saint Tony and his cowboy pal, Sheriff George – now the cute little people of Iraq have a democratically elected government which truly represents them. Just like in America, where they have a government which was properly elected by the people and fore the people… Oh, hang on a minute… Oh, yes… Er… Hmmmm.

Golfing memoirs

Scotland’s First Minister, Jack ‘Furtive’ McConnell has now announced a U-turn over his incredibly foolish decision not to accept an invite as leader of the Scottish government to the D-Day celebrations. Why would any statesman turn down such an invite? Well, he had already accepted an earlier invite to the anniversary of the Saint Andrew’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Yep, he considered a bunch of upper class twats talking about golf and wearing clothes like 1970s New York pimps to be more important then honouring the veterans of D-Day. Despite the fact that Scotland, traditionally the backbone of the British Army, suffered disproportianetly in terms of casualties he didn’t anticipate the storm of protest he caused amongst veterans and ordinary Scots. How amazingly stupid can this man be?

Picture this: a darkened room in a stately home in Southern England. It is 1944, the early hours of June 4th. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Europe, the man tasked with the unenviable decision of if and how to launch the assault to free Europe is talking to Field Marshal Montgomery. We have a two day window of weather when the tides are right. Do we dare to go, boys? Monty considers this. Pauses in his familiar thoughtful manner, looks at his diary and answers, hmmm, the 6th isn’t good for me, I have a game of golf scheduled…

Greatest Generation the Next Generation

After pissing off many veterans of World War II last week by comparing his illegal foreign adventures to the fight against the Nazis Bush showed his profound understanding of history and the feelings of those vets by re-iterating the same point again. There is no lower step this mass-mudering bastard will not sink down to attempt to justify his insane actions.

Yeah, George, it’s just like WWII. We’ve got a country we invaded which has been bombed into fragments, with no infrastructure left and massive casualties from the bombing of civilian targets while the survivors try to eke out a miserable existence between the ruins while wondering what the future will bring to their ravaged land.

Coming in the week of the D-Day anniversary when we will be remembering the titanic struggles made by thousands of ordinary people to protect us from the most insidious darkness the man is once more utterly sickening.

Blockbuster

Who the bloody smegging hell helped Hutton write his report? Was it the same group of people worked on the Warren Comission who proved that Kennedy and the Texas Senator were all shot by a single magic bullet fired by Oswald? Tony Blair, his government and, even more incredibly, Alastair Campbell, the most evil and canniving of all the evil gang of sub-humanoids sent by the Lord of Hades to plague mankind (that’s Spin Doctors I’m talking about in case you didn’t get it) are ALL TOTALLY FUCKING INNOCENT, FRESH, FRAGRANT!!!!! THE BBC ARE THE SPAWN OF EVIL ATTACKING THAT POOR MR BLAIR….

Does anyone with a brain and eyes still believe a fucking word of what’s going on here? No wonder there are so many consporacy theorists out there when shit like this is pulled on the public. Blair’s still pretending to be a man of the people while fucking every student in the land, being a good leader while taking his own party to the edge of destructionto satisfy his own ego, pretending to be a civlised man while sneind British forces out on an unprovoked war of agression and pretending it was all for our own good and that those pesky weapons we went to war to defend the world against will turn up anyday… He’s been taking lessons from that smeghead Bush in artificial reality poltiics, hasn’t he?

Okay, the Beeb fucked up seriously in the way they handled the whole tale. However they did, as public service broadcasters, have to report the allegations. And given the utter lack of WMDs found, still a relevant story. And frankly, I cannot believe for a moment that Campbell’s spin office did not have a hand on the whole Dr Kelly name leaking. Nothing, but nothing is released by this paranoid and control-freak led government without going through a carfeul airbrushing from what was then Campbell’s office. And if he was in on it then so was Blair since he faithfully reports all to his master.

Paranoid? Look at it this way – Blair just this week took his own party to within 5 votes of defeat and possible government collapse over student top up fees and variable charging at universities. When your party has a majority in parliament which runs way into three figures then coming within 5 votes of defeat takes some skill. And shame on almost all of the Scottish Labour MPs who voted for Blair to save his worthless ass – including my own MP Alistair Campbell (the same one i pillorried a few months back for not even being able to recall we have a parliamen tin Scotland and not a mere ‘assembly’ even although it sits inside his constituency). Shame on you all for abandoning all of your principles and those your apry stood for for decades to protect your political careers. And Blair? Well, not doing all of this was a MANIFESTO PROMISE! He promised the British people if elected again he would not do this. He was then prepared to split the government over it. HE LIED! Yes, folks, he fucking lied and broke a promise. Now how can we possibly beleive anything now from or about a man who cannot keep his word?

I’m now waiting ont he blockbuster, four-hour movie that Oliver Stone is going to make of the whole thing… “Blair and to the right…Blair and to the right…”

The BBC – yes those pesky evil doers who I still trust more than any government on the planet – have the entire report available to download here.

The Rockford Files in Iraq

I was somewhat taken aback when I saw Jay Garner arriving to the new dictator – Sorry, new interim leader of Iraq. That is, of course, nothing like being a colonial overlord governor-general (although he is indeed a general), because America does not and never has believed in colonialism (except for the Philippines, Cuba, Hawaii and countless spots of military of commercial significance around the world, many borrowed from the former British Empire). This is certainly a good way for us to show the Iraqi people who we fought a war to liberate them and give them our wonderful gifts of liberal democracy for the people, by the people and of the people. Just not those people.

Up until now, however, I thought this might be okay – that this J. Garner might be good in the short term. Then I realised today I had misheard Jay Garner for J. Garner. I thought we were talking about the esteemed actor James Garner. I thought the man who shone in The Great Escape, the man who was Maverick would be able to sort things out. Jim Rockford would know what to do and would always sort out the bad guys. Then I discovered that it wasn’t James Garner at all and some bloody retired general. That is a particularly sensitive move – pick not a diplomat or a UN representative but a US general.

Great. Couldnt we at least have some advisory council to work with him composed of actual Iraqi people from a cross-section of their society? Then we may at least have a fig-leaf of pretence that we are not imposing rule at the force of a gun on that shattered country. That sort of thing is not only immoral and illegal (much like the war itself) but makes an utter mockery of the supposed (and rather belatedly voiced) reason for the damned war.

With malice toward none, with charity for all

Stuffed up with a cold I’ve been browsing through books most of the day, when I found a quotation that seemed extremely appropriate to the current situation in a devastated Iraq. The eloquent words of one of the great leaders of democracy and equality, speaking in the end days of a dreadful war, he looks beyond the battlefield slaughter to building a lasting peace, rebuilding the land and taking care of the injured, the orphaned and those freed of oppression.

With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln, 2nd presidential speech of inauguration, March 3rd, 1865.

Shock and awe (TM)

Well the first Gulf War was referred to as a video game war. Night-sight graphics tinged in green, on-screen displays with read-outs taken direct from fighters and even the missiles – it did look like a video game. Were those really people dying there or was it just a multimedia extravaganza, lead by the happy, smiling face of Norman Schwazkopf.

Today in the Guardian I read about how Sony (amongst others) are planning to capitalise on this new war by registering the phrase shock and awe with the US patent office, so it is now Shock and Awe (TM). Sony say they are not necessarily going to make a game of Desert Storm II – although other software makers have already announced just this. Oh no, Sony are sensitive – they are only registering their trademark now in case they wish to use them on a future product, if it is suitable. Nice how they went to the patent office while the bombs were still falling, a fine touch.

War and commerce, my how well these pillars of our civilisations work together. The British Empire, the world’s largest, was powered by mighty commerce and awesome military power. It was also supposedly based on our 18th century Enlightenment theories of liberty. Liberty, massive armed forces and commerce. 18th century Imperial era – 21st century post-modern world. Anyone spot the difference? In France in 1940 we had the Phoney War. Today we have the Sony War. Plus ca change.