Embroidered History

I recently saw two films with unexpected parallels: Waltz With Bashir and Frost Nixon. The first film is an animated feature about an Israeli soldier’s quest to uncover hidden memories of his time in the 1982 war in Lebanon, during the massacres of Palestinian camps in Sabra and Shatila. The latter presents the events surrounding flashy talk show host David Frost, first losing a battle of wits with American ex-president Richard Nixon in a series of interviews, then turning the tables on the savvy Nixon and eliciting a confession of wrongdoing in the White House. Both films, different in format and story, are worthy of viewing, as they offer several layers of ideas that challenge cinema goers today. The similarity between the two films is their debt to the documentary filming style and their blurring of the edge between reality and fiction. Talking heads portrayed by actors and animations intercut more fanciful scenes of the narrative, jarring the viewer to question where reality stops in the film and where the fiction begins. Today, I still question if the devices work, if history will applaud or censure this blend of documentary style with fictional narrative. To its credit, the device is effective for pulling the audience out of a passive viewing exprience into a more active one. To its detriment, the flow of the film’s narrative is interrupted as the viewer questions the intent of the director and the content of the narrative. This idea of blurring fiction with reality in the film medium, although treated with a new style in today’s films, is hardly a novel development. Italy’s Neorealist movement of the 1940s produced some of the most celebrated films of the struggle of everyday man: Rome, Open City, La Strada and The Bicycle Thief. Inspired by the movement and the writings of critic Andre Bazin, French director Francois Truffaut in turn produced a cinematic masterpiece, The 400 Blows, a simple but tragic story of a boy sent to reform school. Autobiograpical in nature, the film’s gritty scenes and natural acting performances leave the viewer unsettled by a certain reality creeping into the cinematic experience. In the years since Italy’s Neorealism and France’s New Wave movements, it seems a new movement has developed in cinema: a director takes a historical event and actually uses the devices normally employed by a modern-day documentary to advance a narrative, which takes license with the actual historical events themselves. The intent of Neorealist and New Wave directors was to bring cinema back to the people, to strip away the artifice of the day. What directors Milos Forman (Waltz with Bashir) and Ron Howard (Frost Nixon) intend with their choices of narrative will be interesting to follow.

2 thoughts on “Embroidered History”

  1. Interesting thought. I would hardly call this a new movement though. Directors have been advancing narratives with Documentary devices for a long time. See films like W.R: Mysteries of the Organism, American Splendor, Gummo, various movies made by Werner Herzog. It is true that these movies are not really about historical events, whereas Frost/Nixon and Waltz with Bashir are, but I think the fact that they are historical is incidental. You could say though, that this is a case of Hollywood adapting a format that has previously been seen mainly in independent and experimental filmmaking. But why? To gain some artistic cred? I don’t really know; I just ask.

  2. G. Karen Merguerian

    I haven’t seen the film about Sabra and Shatila. Do you think the animation is a distancing device, maybe highlighting the nature of material that’s too raw and painful to examine close up?

    I heard there was a lot of resemblance between the new “Milk” with Sean Penn (not in the Snell Library, alas!) and the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” (which is in our collection in VHS). I find the blurring of history in a documentary style common in bio-pics (“Lenny” or “American Splendor”) Some scenes in “JFK” were taken from documentary footage, right?

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