Monday, November 17, 2008

Waltz with Animation

What an amazing weekend! I got to see some great animated features and shorts at the SF Int'l Animation Festival, and meet a couple of the directors. I also helped a friend with her film (when I wasn't shamelessly napping on set) for almost 6 hours, which let me look over the shoulder of a professional director of photography.

Movie still from "Sita Sings the Blues" by Nina Paley

On Thursday night I saw Sita Sings the Blues, and afterward got to talk to director Nina Paley a little bit. The story parallels her own heartbreak with an ancient tale in the Ramayana. My friend from India was sitting next to me, and we both loved the aesthetic and structure of the film's storytelling. However, she noted how "Sita" could be offensive to those deeply rooted in Indian culture and religion (which is why it's supposedly banned in India). The principal characters in the folk side of the story (Sita and King Rama) are revered as gods in Indian society, and the film seemingly trivializes and satirizes them not only in the context of a love story, but also to critique misogynist influence over conventional thought in India. Nina Paley defends her use of these deities by claiming not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of culture, as deep interest in the Ramayana is shared among other cultures and religions in addition to India. A FAQ/interview with Nina Paley can be found here.

Interestingly, the film also has big distribution barriers specifically due to music copyright infringement. Paley used prerecorded music of Annette Hanshaw without clearing the rights to use it, mainly because it would be too expensive for her smaller, independent project. You can read Nina Paley's thoughts on copyright laws vs. artistic freedom here. Being an artist myself, I am torn on this issue. However, I commend Paley for having the courage to defy an established system of copyright laws and beliefs for the greater goal of unlimited creative expression.

I think the Best of Annecy 2008 was overall much stronger in comparison to last year's compilation of shorts. My favorite pieces were the french sci-fi short Skhizein, and the chillingly beautiful The House of Small Cubes, which was made in Japan. I also saw Bill Plympton present his first feature "Idiots and Angels," and I got a free drawing from him!

Movie still from "Waltz with Bashir" directed by Ari Folman

Finally, I saw the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir. Wow. What a powerful, haunting, heart-string-ripping piece. The film rarely holds back on showing us the atrocities of war and the ironic shame of a people who had once endured a similar fate that they now exact upon their neighbors. Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman combines a beautiful soundtrack, cinematography, and a pseudo-realistic style to reflect the intensity and complexity of the story. The film penetrates and reveals the horrors of the war in Lebanon, specifically the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, using layers of personal accounts, documentary film, and televised interviews.

After discussing the movie with friends, one of them being from Syria, I question whether the film told the whole story (within the limits of time) of the Israeli army's involvement in the massacre, or if they chose a biased, Israeli-centric point of view that ultimately continues to rest direct responsibility for the massacres on a Lebanese group. It's well-known that the Israeli army (and government) allowed Lebanese Phalangists to massacre Palestinian refugees in these events, as the animosity between the two resident groups was notorious at the time. However, were Israeli soldiers also directly involved in the killings, or did they just watch on from a distance before taking initiative to stop the massacres, as the movie tries to portray? Were the film makers hesitant to fully admit the degree of Israel's responsibility for the events of the war, or does the film succeed in commenting on the fragmented nature of memory and truth, as no one is capable of fully realizing the truth about themselves, others, and the events of the past and present. Especially when compounded by post-traumatic stress.

I think that Ari Folman wants us to question the film. He wants us to question and research everything that leads up to these events, using both an open mind towards the bigger picture, as well as a critical, closer look towards everything that has influenced the conflicts from all sides. The pursuit of truth is manifested in his character in the film, who has no memory of his experience as a soldier in the war, except for a few flashbacks and a mysterious, recurring vision. After researching accounts from fellow veterans, commanding officers, victims, and public information, he comes to the realization of what he, the Israeli army, and government had done. Finally, a friend points out to him that much of Folman's guilt and pain surrounding this event is due to the irony of the Israeli soldier filling the shoes of the Nazi during the massacre.

I wish I were more capable of describing the film's beauty and the complex history that inspired it. Hopefully those who have yet to see it will one day get the opportunity to do so.

Meanwhile, watch this. It is both sad and awesome: