In my mind, I'd associated this with Persepolis
. They're both Oscar-nominated foreign-language animated films that were released in Britain in 2008, exploring the wars and recent history of a Middle Eastern country through the autobiographical reminiscences of the main character, who's also the film's writer-director. You can see how someone might get those two confused.
However they're also completely different films and comparing them directly like that isn't fair to either of them. Persepolis
was an autobiography, whereas this is a documentary. It's being done from a very personal point of view and it has a framing story in the present day, but it's focused on a narrower time period than Persepolis
. It's about the 1982 Lebanon War. Ari Folman is an Israeli writer, director and actor who fought in that war when he was a teenager, but now finds that he can't remember what he did in it. This is sufficiently weird that he finds himself going on something of a quest to uncover the truth.
Firstly, this film requires closer attention than a drama. Despite its colourful presentation, a lot of its content is simply Folman's interviews with the people he fought alongside, whom decades later he's now tracked down again. There's a naturalism to them. They're just talking, in a way you wouldn't get from a scriptwriter. Look at the cast list and you'll see that almost everyone is playing "Himself (voice)", although there are apparently some composite characters too. Most drama these days seems designed to be watched with the sound off, but be warned that here you'll miss a lot if you're merely skimming.
However that said, it also has a more traditional dramatic structure than Persepolis
. On that level it's rather impressive, in fact, with one of the more unusual framing stories I've seen in a long while. You'd normally expect the modern-day scenes to be the duller bits, but Folman's found something fascinating in this phenomenon of people (including himself) who've somehow drifted away from their wartime memories. "It's not stored in my system," says one man. "Dissociative events," says a psychologist, following it up with a story about the man whose metaphorical camera broke. Folman's trying to understand himself as much as uncover the truth about what happened and in that we're right behind him. This makes no sense, yet it happened. Folman never finds a definitive answer to why his brain should have been doing that to him, but that's okay since we've been allowed to follow his detective work and in the end feel we understand it a little better too.
Then we've got the war. This is controversial stuff. The film's banned in most Arab countries, like all Israeli films, with unsurprisingly the most heat being generated in Lebanon. In Israel the film was only moderately successful commercially and has been attacked for being too kind in its portrayal of the IDF (Israel Defence Forces), but it's also making comparisons with the Nazis and painting the IDF as a bunch of barely-trained incompetents who stood and watched a massacre. A recent poll found this to be the third favourite film of all time among Israelis. Personally I think it's mad for countries like Lebanon to ban it, unless they're worried that their populace might immediately go out and start lynching Jews afterwards.
Intellectually it's not digging deep. It's a very personal viewpoint, after all, although it's going into more depth than Persepolis
did with the Iran-Iraq war. That wasn't a war film, after all. However it's emotionally powerful and it feels honest in its portrayal of its teenagers with guns. These guys do some horrible things and don't even stop to reflect upon it afterwards. Did they receive any kind of training? I'm not talking about the basics of how to fire a gun, but about military discipline. These soldiers find themselves in a warzone and they react by shooting at random, falling apart under fire, running away and just doing whatever seems natural at the time. The collateral damage they inflict is appalling. They don't think. Pull stunts like this in the British Army and you'd have been court-martialled or, in earlier eras, shot.
I should emphasise that the film isn't a hatchet job, since it's made by one ex-soldier and mostly comprised of conversations with other ex-soldiers. It doesn't pass judgement. However it doesn't feel surprising at all finally to reach the Beirut massacre, except perhaps for the actual extent of the killing and the fact that it's the Christian Phalangists rather than the Israelis themselves who are doing it.
Then you've got the visual style. I think the idea of an animated documentary is brilliant. Make up for the lack of contemporary footage by creating your own! Technically, there are two sides to these visuals: the artwork and the animation. The latter, I'm afraid, is distracting and at certain times horrible. Sorry, but it is. It looks like Flash animation, because it is. I love the actual artwork, but they've relied on computers to generate the movement between drawings and it shows. People don't move naturally, but morph from one pose to another. However that's only in certain scenes, with the film at other times switching to a level of naturalism that's almost incredible, with computer-generated vehicles and a number of shots that I'd have sworn on my mother's grave were rotoscoped. Apparently they weren't. Instead they're using a technique invented by Yoni Goodman at the Bridgit Folman Film Gang studio in Israel. The quieter scenes are the ones that suffer, while their rendition of wartime is masterly. Nevertheless judged purely as animation, this is an awkward collision of technologies and it often doesn't work.
However the art makes up for all that. It's detailed, atmospheric and perfect. It looks so wonderful that the film becomes great to watch despite the animation, but it's hardly Disney. Apparently the artist David Polonsky drew most of the film left-handed because he thought his original drawings "too pretty". What we see has a real knack for ugliness, beginning with the dogs in the opening sequence. This film isn't deliberately crude, but it's not afraid to show you nudity, vomiting, urination, weird dream sequences and explicit hardcore sex on a TV screen when someone's watching pornography. The tone of this film is absolutely right. This is after all a narrative in which our heroes at one point find themselves shooting a child who's trying to kill them with rocket-propelled grenades.
I was fascinated by the sound of Hebrew, by the way. It's got some French vowel sounds, but also some gutteral consonants that remind me of Russian, e.g. the "ch" in chutzpah.
This film is outstanding. Like Persepolis
it was Oscar-nominated, but I think it's significant that Persepolis
went for Best Foreign-Language Film and got a Best Animated Film nomination instead, whereas here it's exactly the other way around. I love that fact. This didn't win an Oscar in the end, but it did walk away with a gazillion awards from pretty much everyone everywhere and it's both a thoughtful and a visceral piece of work. Its final punchline in particular is a masterstroke and you might easily find yourself discussing the film for hours afterwards if you see it in company. I need to watch more documentaries.