by Brendan Boustany, Joalda Morancy, Katerina Stefanescu, Shahrez Aziz, and Zach Cogan
I would say that the film is a documentary, in a similar way that Waltz with Bashir is. Both stories rework nonfiction events into artistic images. Still, the stories of the characters remain entirely intact. The artistic style does not interfere with Goss’s goals in terms of the story that she is trying to tell. If anything, her decision to use video game images was simply an artistic choice to emphasize the themes of the film. The strong narrative voice is compelling enough without many visual distractions, so the sparing CGI images do not interfere with the interviews about coming to this country as visual reenactments might. Most importantly, the anonymity that this visual style allows may have been crucial to attaining these interviews.
In the essay “When is a Documentary?: Documentary As a Mode of Reception” Dirk Eitzen lays out the argument that “what distinguishes documentaries, and nonfiction in general, from fiction” is whether it makes sense to ask the question “Might it be lying?” (89). To support his argument he draws on semiotician Sol Worth’s essay “Pictures Can’t Say Ain’t,” where Worth makes the argument that pictures cannot lie (Eitzen 89). Eitzen extends this argument to “everything in movies that does not have the character of an express metatextual caption or label” (91). According to Eitzen, movies merely represent “a space, action, or event” (91), and “project a world” (91), until some “metatextual caption or label,” usually in the form of a framing device, asserts meaning. In the case of Paris is Burning sometimes the “metatextual caption or label” is a literal label, in the form of a title card.
Paris is Burning imposes meaning on the projected worlds of the movie through these title cards. For instance, early on in the film this title card is shown:
by Junyoung Choi, Gabriela Horwath, Tomas Pacheco, Alan Countess, and Wyn Veiga
Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris is Burning explores the nooks and crannies of Harlem, painting vividly the ball culture’s cultural importance in celebrating the drag style and hitherto marginalized gender norms through the transgender families and their flamboyant fashion shows.
Observing the endeavors of New York’s ball culture through the lens Livingston has picked out, both writers Judith Butler and Erving Goffman would likely concur that personal and group identities are reinforced socially through dramatic performances, but would fall short of agreeing on whether there truly is an internal core being expressed. However, if the two theorists sat down and spoke to reach a conclusion, they would most likely agree that the many different categories in the balls helped most people participate in the performative act and present their parts while making explicit the rather flexible nature of gender. Finally, both scholars would also be astonished and disturbed by the growing impact of one’s exposure to the media’s mundane normalized social expectations.
My teaching style for my “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” first-year seminar course at the School of the Art Institute this semester has been relatively hands-off. I show students things in class, give a short 10-20 minute lecture, have students give presentations (you can see their handiwork here!), and then launch into discussion.
One way to conduct class discussion is to have a very specific set of interpretive moves you want to make, and to tailor your questions in order to guide your students through your own thought process. Sometimes I’ll do this type of in-class discussion. (My lesson plan on Bruce Conner’s A Movie details a lot of the points I like to hit up when discussing that film). I’m drifting away from that, though, in this particular class. I give students more work to do, in the form of blog posts and presentations. Likewise, I’m more fully embracing the seminar format in class discussions, allowing conversation to be guided by students’ interests, instead of carefully crafting questions to serve a particular road map.
This has lead to some really wonderful in-class moments that I wanted to report back on. I bristled at the thought of calling these “lesson plans,” given that such language gives me too much credit, and my students too little. Instead, they’re best thought of as the collaborative results of loosely-planned conversations, that hold within them the potential to become future, more strictly-planned lessons.
Here’s the second week in my “Ironic Narration and Lying Photographs” section for my course “Moving Images and Arguments.” Below the fold: Mitchell Block’s …no lies (1973), Luis Buñuel’s Land without Bread (1933), and Jia Zhanke’s 24 City (2008). Let the beguilement commence!
Waltz with Bashir, an animation directed by Ari Folman, depicts Ari Folman, a soldier in the Isreal defense forces and his quest, inspired by a recurring dream, to find out what had happened on the night of the Sabra and Shatile Massacre. Throughout the film, the audience sees Folman revisiting and interviewing former comrades and participants in the war. In the final 50 seconds of the film, the viewers are bombarded, thrown into the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatile Massacre by footage filmed at that time.
As the first ever feature-length animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir (2008) recounts director Ari Folman’s quest to uncover his memories of the role he played 20 years prior in the 1982 Lebanon War. Plagued by his inability to recall any of the events from the time he spent as an Israeli soldier, Folman enlists the help of his old military friends to discover the truth. During his journey, he faces many obstacles that take a toll on his mental state (primarily his memory). Aside from these narrative setbacks, the movie grapples with some greater problems that come in the form of binaries: between the real and the surreal, truth and fabrication, and guilt and innocence. Throughout the film, Waltz with Bashir walks a fine line, dancing back and forth between these conflicting themes. However, the message ultimately becomes clear that the correct path lies in reality, truth and acceptance of one’s own guilt, and the film – in its creation, script, mise en scene, and overall artistic aesthetic – serves as an analogous representation that enhances this viewpoint.
The three main binaries in this film are all interwoven, yet function in distinctive ways. The real versus surreal binary contrasts the events that occurred in real life to the idealized version of reality displayed in the movie, since the latter manages to mask many of the horrors of war through its medium of animation. Instead of using more live footage or making a documentary composed solely of found materials, Folman makes the cinematic choice to romanticize events and blur the distinction between facts and imagination by creating a visual consistency for both reality and fantasy.
Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir first stands out to us because of its use of animation despite its identification as a documentary film– how can a non-fiction narrative be justly portrayed using highly stylised illustration? Yet it is evident by the end that the medium of animation not only allows the viewer to easily cross over any visual and temporal boundaries but also turns around and forces the boundary to be redrawn in a harsh awakening. Thus the documentary footage, hallucinations and flashbacks can all be presented on the same visual plane, that is, until the film’s final clip. Similarly, the characters themselves are enveloped in their own safety nets of self-induced amnesia and coping mechanisms that at once shield them from PTSD symptoms but also help to propagate them.
An essential manifestation of these protective mechanisms are the hallucinations that plague many of the characters and exist in a halfway point between memory and dreamscape. Among these hallucinations is the reoccurring motif of the sea and its role as a protection from enemies and a shield from reality. The sea manifests itself in three key scenes, Ari Folman’s first hallucination of the beach, Carmi Cna’an’s dream of the woman, and Ronny Dayag’s escape at sea. These three all reveal the sea to be a place of escape and protection, as Dayag states, a place of “fear [and] feelings.”
Ari Folman’s masterpiece Waltz with Bashir is a film that blends a number of genres together. Despite being in the documentary genre, the film itself is a blend of reality, imagination, and hallucinations. This leads to the question: What is Folman’s animated, fictionalized, docu-autobiography? Its ability to capture so many elements from being a war memoir, to a piece of investigative journalism, to being an artistic creation constructed for self-therapy provides the film life. Its ability to move between dimensions and emotions makes it a film that is both compelling to watch and worth comprehending. Perhaps one of the most important concepts of the film is the transcendence of reality.
From the very first shot, the viewer is exposed to a number of elements that question dimensional reality.