waltz with bashir
World Cinema

Waltz with Bashir directed by Ari Folman

thumb_waltz_with_bashir1-1 How do you show war – with all its lunacy, its waste, its human cost  both for the victors and the survivors? You can try to be visceral and make a heroic story of it – like “Saving Private Ryan”, but that leaves you feeling a bit hollow, as if the complete tale has not  been told. You can try to juxtapose grim action and dark poetic – like “Thin Red Line”, which leaves a deep impression but its too real and too visible. The best visual masterpiece that combines everything that can be said is to my mind “Apocalypse Now”.

But once you see “Waltz with Bashir”, you realize the handicaps and the restrictions that a purely human actor oriented war movie puts on the creative narrative. War is a hazy thing when it passes – for both sides and both make up memories to explain the events. War is too traumatic for objective storytelling. Those scarred by it would take refuge in their minds and colour the events so that they can move on.

This is why you need a medium of storytelling that allows you to bewaltz-with-bashir-2 (1) fluid and can give dimensions to a story that a camera focussed on a human being can’t.

“Waltz with Bashir” is the director Ari Folman’s attempt to come to terms with his own past, to exorcise his own ghosts. He served in the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) during the 1982 Lebanon War which saw the horrific massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The story begins with Ari’s colleague complaining to him about a recurring nightmare that he has which has to do with his experience in the war. To his surprise, Ari cant remember anything about his own experience. Its as if its completely been erased from his memory.

So begins his quest for finding the truth – what really happened. And piece by piece he begins to unravel the facts until finally he comes face to face with the horrific realization of what his recurring vision means. Its a journey that lets the viewer go along with Ari as he goes around the world to dig inside his own mind. It never lets you get ahead, with the result that you find out at the same time as Ari…

waltz-with-bashir4 I started this post by talking about the dynamism of the medium. I don’t think story would have the same impact if it had human actors and shot on camera. It would have seemed too real. The magic of this movie is that it could move seamlessly between visions and reality thus giving a surreal feel to the story. The violence and the madness depicted in animation gives a deceptive look of lesser intensity until the scene explodes with savage intensity. Seeing an animated scene that has its roots in reality can be quite disconcerting, hence the magic. The scene where the soldier dances a mad waltz to the tune of his gun firing in front of the fresco of Bashir could not have been replicated so effectively by a human actor. It would have seemed too fantastic. Here it fit the pattern. The last devastating truth, the wails has the danger of being clichéd in a normal cinema. Here they tear at you…

The final minutes of actual footage of the massacre gives a jolt to the viewer. It was the best ending that could have been given to the movie. In the end, reality does matter. And the people actually died, whether we show with human actors or whether on the computer.

I liked the honesty of the movie. Some people have called it simplistic waltzbashir_450x250 and even propagandist in its politics. The first part is true, to the extent that it did not look into the politics and confined itself to the human cost. It is after all, a man’s search for meaning. As for the latter accusation, perhaps they didnt hear the reference to the SS in the movie. Its good to see an Israeli movie referring to Israeli action akin to that of an SS. The candour is refreshing.

There are many reasons to watch this movie – for its brilliant storytelling, for the innovative medium, for its exquisite imagery and for a great journey into the mind of those who get stuck in war. But maybe you would want to watch it for the what it tries to tell…


World Cinema

Paradise Now directed by Hany Abu-Assad

paradise_nowThe controversy that this movie has generated is a testimony to how important this movie and what it says, is. The movie is about people about whom the world chooses to sympathize from a distance and claims to understand using a remote. The movie brings a human face to the people under one of the longest running and brutal occupation in modern history, an occupation that hasnt stopped being schizophrenic, ever since the start.

This movie is ultimately about the choices that people make, under a situation where there seems no way out, except one. It is a world where death and martyrdom is taken as a way of life, as a given, as the only dignified answer to a life of humiliation, the only defiant answer to a war machine that kills without mercy . It is a world where you go to dinner with your family at night and prepare to blow yourself  next morning and you would have a complete justification, without self pity as to why you must do it.

But is also a world of possible redemption and a choicePARADISE_NOW_dl_1 of a different kind. And I believe that it is in this, above all, that this movie excels.

The story is about two friends, Said and Khaled, who are selected for a  suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. The story is about how they go about preparing – as a soldier of the cause and as a human being. The story is also about Suha, the daughter of a famous martyr, who believes in an alternate way to fight the Zionist enemy. The movie is ultimately about the choices each one makes, while giving us a glimpse into how they think, how they view the world and the enemy, and also why they think and act the way they do.

paradisenow483_001 The movie is short and extremely powerful with some searing poignant scenes (Like Said’s last visit). It does not glorify or take sides, something that would have been all too easy, unconsciously if not consciously. There are no heroes, neither are there villains. The ‘enemy’ – is that the child who got up on the bus at the bus-stand? Is it heroic to take lives? It does not attempt an answer but leaves the door wide open for thought.

It takes an almost dispassionate view of the human cost of a situation that the world is weary of. And it makes you look deep into the faces of the people who have been sidelined to a few  paragraphs in the daily newspapers, the people who have nothing left except their bodies to fight tanks and jets.

It is an important movie. For all of us…


Book Review, Fiction, Historical

“The Book of Saladin” by Tariq Ali


This was a book that I have been wanting to read for atleast four years!!! This and the whole Islamic Quintet…and it has been unbelievably tough to get hold of it…

But this quest ended with the finding of the treasure a few months back!!! and what a treasure it is…

It needed the calibre and passion of someone like Tariq Ali to meld together history and fiction in such a beautiful mixture. The story not only holds itself faithful to the historical facts but also weaves fiction in ways that it does not affect the narrative, only enhancing it.

The story revolves around Salah-ul-din, more popularly known as Saladin (in occidental literature that is), the liberator of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was sacked and brutally occupied by the First Crusade in 1099, with all its muslim and jewish occupants killed in the most barbaric manner imaginable. Islam, then at the height of its civilization, was shocked at the acts of the barbarian hordes from Europe. It gave them a body blow from which they took almost a century to recover.

Saladin-l It needed Saladin to unite the warring factions in the Arab world and present a united Islamic army to the crusaders. Jerusalem was liberated by Saladin’s army in 1189, for which he till today remains a role model in the Arab world with various leaders wanted to co-opt him, Saddam Hussain being one of them (in fact the eagle on the flags of Egypt, Yemen and Iraq was the flag standard of Saladin).

The book is not only about this historical event and all the incidents leading upto it but is equally about the person that Saladin was. Written by a fictional biographer Ibn Yakub employed by Saladin at the start of a book to record his life, the past and as it happens, we are treated to a feast of diverse characters – from the fiercely independent Sultana Jamila, the concubine Hamila and their complicated relationship, Shahdi, the irreverant old soldier whose loyalty is only to Saladin, Nur-al-din, the sultan who most inspires Saladin, Ibn Maymun (historical Maimonides), Guy Lusignan, Balian of Ibelin, Reynald of Chatillion to lots of minor characters that enrich the story over the 200 odd pages.

Most of all, its about Saladin – his passion for driving out the Franj (the all encompassing name given to the crusaders – derived from Franks) from the holy lands, his innate sense of justice which seems remarkably liberal even by standards of our century, his intellectual rigour, his tolerance for diversity, his humour. Its also about his  weaknesses and about the doubts saladin sideabout his actions and his increasing loneliness as he begins to be treated as a demi-god after the liberation of Jerusalem – all of which makes him very much a human which makes the reader almost reach out to him and sympathize. The portrait is of a man far ahead of his time who over the centuries will be commoditised to suit the different ruler’s different interests

What we have is a story of heroism, of human frailty, of a enlightened civilization trying to gather itself and find old glory, of events that have gone down in history, set in a period whose echoes affects our conscience even today, even though we might not be aware of it. For example, the Arab hatred of the western ‘barbarism’ and of the word ‘Crusader’ can be gleaned from here as can be the seed of the decline of Islam – the religion and the civilization that played the most role in European Renaissance.

What we also have is a very human story – of love, of betrayals – both personal and political, disillusionments, glorification and vilification of liberators, also of hope and redemption, all of which make it a story that does not seem at all distant.

In fact, the aware reader will find all the aspects of the modern world reflected in the lives if the characters and the world they inhabited and the reader will realize that we do not live lives too different from them. Change the names and dates and the event will mirror events in our lifetimes. History does repeat itself – again and again.

It does not need a historically aware person to read and enjoy the book and that is its beauty. In fact this book is a must read for everyone not only for its gripping story or for its glimpse into a lost world but also for its relevance for us today.

Saladin is one of the people in history whom I truly admire and it truly has been a feast reading this book. Tariq Ali, it seems cannot disappoint.