Once in a while a film comes along which cannot be placed in a genre. These pioneers, these black sheep or dark horses creep up upon the movie going public and proceed swiftly and efficiently to blow their minds. Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir offer two different perspectives of war: the military and the civilian. It would be foolish to assume that one has more significance than the other, but combined, there is not enough time in the world to consider the questions they pose in relation to the genre. But I’m going to give it a try.
The word “docu-drama” is a slightly ominous one for me. It conjures up images of very cheaply made, more than slightly unnecessary segments, said to flesh out perfectly valid if flat factual information, which has had the misfortune of being told in a dull way. ‘But…’ say these two films, ‘what if the drama was the information itself, told exactly how it was remembered? What if we were shown and not told what happened when and by whose hand? What’s more, what if the narrators whilst surrounded by the text book facts, don’t know the answers themselves?’ Waltz with Bashir explores the Israeli invasion of Lebanon during the first war between the two nations in the ‘80s and we follow the protagonist in order to try and find out what horrific memories he is repressing. The difference here lies not in the fact that the filmmaker is this said chief narrator, but in the way he completely opens up the inner workings of his mind. In doing this he takes us past the facts to the human beings behind them. Director Ari Folman has done nothing short of redefine a genre, though perhaps that is unfair; maybe he has created one anew. You see after the first frame you are not watching to hear of the numbers involved as with usual documentaries, you are watching because you care about him.
The use of animation is what at first glance makes these two films stand out. Persepolis makes use of the stock dark colour pallet to paint for us a very adult world from a juvenile perspective. Yes it is about torture, yes it is about conflict, yes it is about oppression, but *shock horror* it’s funny. Very often it’s, to use the commonly trodden phrase, laugh-out-loud hilarious. As if by magic another sub-genre is born the dock-com. What makes the episodes in this film so funny? Largely the fact that the narrator is on ‘our’ side. She reacts to the good and the bad the way we do, at the same pace as us and without the privilege of hindsight. There isn’t a trace here of any highbrow academics running a series of dates and times and casualty numbers nimbly off the tip of their tongues. The majority of this film is spent pondering men and make-up to a soundtrack which includes Eye of the Tiger. We are not provided with the tinkling of a piano in a high register to tell us how to feel about events most of us are lucky enough to have little direct attachment to. Instead the emphasis is on what we do know, childish neighbourhood games and Bruce Lee movies, not to mention the growing pains, physical or otherwise, that we all encounter from time to time. Waltz not only creates a brand new genre of its own but finds time to subvert the traditional one as well. Just when we getting used to the idea of having a documentary based, graphic novel brought alive for us on the screen they throw in the person to camera interviews that are often found in a regular docu-drama situation. This continuity means that the testaments from witnesses genuinely add to the story instead of detracting from it.
So what’s the significance of all this? Well my hope is that they will encourage many more filmmakers and cinema goers alike to question not only the events that occur in the world, but the presentation of them. Who says a documentary has to be about people you don’t know doing things you’ve never done, experiencing things you will never experience in a time you don’t recognise? Who says they can’t be about adolescence and friendships and parities and air guitar? I guess my hope is that we see more of this strain of factual story telling in the cinema, that up and coming young filmmakers will be encouraged to play around with various styles and ways of relaying statistical information, be inspired to veer off in a completely different direction themselves, minus the sombre tone, badly shot segments and ice cold pieces to camera. They have taken the ‘document’ out of documentary. I think more films should be ‘mentries’ I’d quite like to watch another one.
Written by Leaphia Darko