Oscar mistakes: ‘Departures’ winning over ‘Waltz with Bashir’

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Throughout February, the Sound On Sight staff will take a look at the Academy Awards.

In 2008, there was one film out of all the Oscar nominees that had a birthright claim to what film critics love to call “inventing a new cinematic language” or “creating a universe of its own”, and this was not endearing and cutesy Slumdog Millionaire, or minority-rights conscious Milk or tastefully prurient The Reader.

The film that existed in a genre of its own was of course Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman’s mostly animated documentary on the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacre during the 1981 Lebanon war. The first mistake was the sole nomination it garnered for Best Foreign Film. Its genre-defying character could have as rightfully landed it into the Best Documentary or Best Animation categories. Only a very taxonomically-challenged Academy could have NOT nominated Folman’s crew of animators, their four years’ toil and minimal use of special effects. Instead, the Best Animation category’s infantilism was compounded by three ‘industrial’ big-studio nominees: Wall-E, Kung-Fu Panda, and Bolt. A bored trans-galactic robot is more original, one has to concur with the Academy, than Palestinian refugees getting massacred.

Within the Foreign Film category, how the Academy could have picked innocuous Japanese dramatic comedy Departures over Waltz with Bashir as the Best Foreign Film winner at the 81st awards ceremony is not so much incongruent as it is a testament to a convention of dousing an award in stale safety, bypassing uniqueness in order to dodge controversy, and ignorance about iconoclastic rarities like Folman’s one-off. Compare the treacle of this predictable, tear-jerking family drama about spousal respect and coming to terms with childhood trauma, rehashing tropes of which Hollywood produces by the spadeful with the violence and beauty of Waltz with Bashir:

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Was the Academy’s blinkered choice underpinned by sheer senility (not to say obliviousness to great art when it hits one in the face) or was political timorousness also a factor? Critics in the US seems to have been as smitten with Waltz with Bashir as international festivals, so perhaps part of reason for snubbing it may be that the foreign film category to some extent ghettoises its contenders into a lay-by category onto which little of the Hollywood establishment limelight is usually shed. What’s more ironic is that the only jurisdictions that seem to have had a problem with the film were Lebanon, where it was banned, and Israel, where it was coldly received and even accused of whitewashing the IDF’s role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

In the end Daigo Kobayashi, the protagonist of Departures makes peace with his deceased father, earns his wife’s support and respect and matures into imminent fatherhood. All is well that ends well. Meanwhile, Waltz with Bashir finds itself suspended in the now perennial cycle of bloodshed, its closing images hauntingly petrifying:

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Zornitsa Staneva


  1. Zornitsa says

    I agree with you about ‘Lives of Others’ winning, but I don’t buy this argument ‘In fact if it wasn’t animated would the film have been noticed at all?’. Well, I tend to appraise films overall, and think ‘Waltz’ is superior stylistically, thematically and affectively. Years from now, which of the two films is likely to be remembered?

    1. Staindslaved says

      Good point. I could say “would anyone have noticed Departures if it didn’t have an emotional and sappy conclusion”. Films should be taken for what they are. While Waltz may be the more remembered film 50 years from now I don’t know that it makes it the better film. I think Pan’s will be a more remember film than Lives, not sure I’d call it the definitively superior film. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. Waltz was a remarkable film though.

  2. staindslaved says

    Oh I can not disagree more. When Departures won over Waltz With Bashir my initial reaction was that they really blew it. That is, until I actually saw Departures. It is every bit the superior film. Waltz With Bashir may be a technical marvel and a wholly original fair but it certainly did not introduce any new ideas or understandings about war and the soldiers involved in them. In fact if it wasn’t animated would the film have been noticed at all? Departures on the other hand was a miraculous film that not only had memorable performances and heart but was a delightful culture class for Western viewers. I adored watching the differences in our burial systems and found it even more amazing how these washers were once considered an honorable profession but were now looked at by some the same way we’d look at garbage men or janitors. This was exactly like Pan’s Labyrinth vs. The Lives of Others. No one knew how Pan’s could have lost until they saw the miraculous film that beat it. Even if Waltz was the better film, Departures is great and certainly not a headscratching upset.

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