Collective Memory: Two Films

October 28, 2008

Comments on Waltz with Bashir and Hunger (some spoilers)….

I saw Waltz with Bashir yesterday, an animated documentary about the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war. It was told as one man’s attempt to recover his suppressed memories of what he had witnessed there – particularly the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He visits old friends, trying to piece together their fragmented memories and to awaken some of his own. There is no collective memory of these events. Different people remember different parts, others have suppressed the whole thing. But, as his therapist friend tells him, part of the suppression is because the events at the refugee camp are too closely associated with another collective memory, the soldiers’ images of the Holocaust, pieced together from their parents’ stories.


The fact that the film is animated means that hallucinations, dreams, memories are given the same visual treatment as the talking heads scenes or as photographs – the pieces of ‘evidence’ that substantiate the soldiers’ memories. Sometimes the whole thing feels like a fictionalisation; the opposite effect to documentaries which intersperse interviews with live witnesses (holding real photographs) with live-action reconstructions of their memories. At the end it breaks into news footage: his search for memory has led him to authenticated ‘history’.


So much to think about! I need to see it again. On top of that it’s an amazing film and so beautifully drawn – every frame is stunning.


Last week I saw Hunger, the Steve McQueen film about the dirty protests and hunger strikes in the Maze. Again it is beautifully made and raises lots of questions. I think what struck me most was the complete lack of narrative tension. There is no point when you hope that things could end differently – not because we already know the story but because of the attempt to strip the film of sentiment and just show ‘what happened’. Very little back-story is given (certainly far less than would be demanded by a mainstream film); apart from one amazing scene, the film is almost entirely without dialogue. It has a very fatalistic tone.


After the screening, McQueen spoke about the research they had done with former guards and prisoners at the Maze. He had focussed on the small details, trying to reconstruct how it really was from their collective memory of it. For example, the cells had been set-dressed by former prisoners. Of course, (and as McQueen well knows) representation can never be that simple. Inevitably a narrative is constructed from these details. The choice of what and what not to show shapes our understanding and our response to the events. This is what makes it interesting


In the second half of the film, some concession was made to the conventions of biopic with a memory from Bobby Sands’ childhood. I have absolutely no idea whether this was true or not. I suspect not. (McQueen said the Sands family gave their approval but had no further involvement). It seemed an odd digression from McQueen’s seemingly positivist intentions.


Writing this down I noticed that both films were attempts to reconstruct events from 1981/82.  


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