Sunday, July 06, 2008

Nightmares in the Cinema (and One Excellent Israeli Film)

A couple of months back on Irish Left Review I wrote a piece on good and bad left-wing cinema, noting how many films whose political views one might share tend to be atrocious and embarrassing to watch. There are however the good ones and many in recent times have been coming out of Israel, ironically enough, seeing as it's a country that so often incurs the righteous (and not so righteous) indignation of folk on the left. The last two weeks have seen two Israeli films released in Paris, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz's Seven Days and Ari Folman's animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, which many felt should have come away from the Cannes film festival with at least a minor prize. I have yet to see Seven Days but I got the chance last week to see Folman's film, which is exactly the sort of politically engaged film that is worth watching - intelligent, probing, unwilling to point fingers and devoid of caricature or mechanical dialectics. The film is autobiographical, stemming from Folman's own inability to recall events from his days as an Israeli conscript during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, during which the Israeli military allowed Christian Phalangist militias to massacre Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Folman is initially moved to mount the project following an encounter with a stranger in a bar who was also involved in the invasion, who tells of a recurring nightmare where the 28 dogs he killed in advance of an attack on a Lebanese town gather below his apartment baying for his blood. The opening sequence is a tour-de-force and serves as a frighteningly convincing metaphor for the cycle of violence that Israel and its neighbours remain locked in.

Animation might appear to be an unusual choice of medium for a documentary but, given that Folman's film is largely subjective, it fits in with the tradition of comic-book reportage and autobiography pioneered by Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco and Marjane Satrapi. The interviews with eyewitnesses are real - and the details of each are carefully represented - yet animation also provides a clear advantage for historical reconstruction: it is much cheaper and often more convincing than live action cinema. The film has a ghostly, oneiric quality in which memories meld with one another, where an Israeli gunboat off the coast of Beirut becomes a luxury yacht where troops party to the sounds of OMD's 'Enola Gay' and the Israeli troops' visit to the deserted Beirut airport is more chilling than any amount of apocalyptic hypotheses.

There is one flaw with the film, something which it shares with most well-intentioned Israeli films: it has a blindspot for the Palestinians. It simply cannot represent them, they exist as an offscreen presence, unreachable as they are incomprehensible. This is not necessarily a reproach; Folman was after all a soldier fighting a war against them so his experience would necessarily have been limited. He closes the film with shocking live action archive footage of the dead of Sabra and Shatila, by way of amends one imagines, and also to provide a real-life mirror for the nebulously described nightmare of the previous ninety minutes. Some critics have compared the film to Apocalypse Now, and it is easy to see why but Waltz with Bashir has no truck with the self-indulgence and decadence of that film, and it ultimately assumes its own responsibility for the madness engendered by war. It's a brave, timely film and further proof of the brilliance of contemporary Israeli cinema.

The other end of the spectrum of excellence provided another film this week, from back home, by way of London and Belgium. It was Martin McDonagh's wearisomely glib feature debut In Bruges, where Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are utterly unconvincing as hitmen holed up in the Flemish city. One wonders if McDonagh saw Gleeson's equally unconvicing portrayal of a hitman in I Went Down, but then again on the evidence of this film, the playwright-cum-cinéaste's judgement is probably not the sharpest. The film is a sub-Guy Ritchie caper with scarcely a funny gag, witless divagations on mortality and professional principles. Why filmmakers continue to make fanciful films about hired killers when few of them have ever knowingly met one is beyond me. McDonagh's film is juvenile tosh - you'd expect at the very least intelligence of a Tony Award-nominated dramatist. Harold Pinter did the whole thing with more wit and panache nearly fifty years ago with The Dumb Waiter and McDonagh would be well advised to leave cinema to those who have something to offer it.

Not that In Bruges was the worst film I saw this week; that award goes to M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening. I have found Shyamalan's films equally annoying and interesting in the past, but one thing I really hate about them is the way he bolsters them with dreamy pans and frightfully earnest music. The Happening is too risible for comment and I think I may be watching it again some time in the future as part of a so-bad-it's-good-themed party night. I promise whoever puts it on I'll be a little indulgent.

Here's the trailer for Waltz with Bashir: