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


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