Experts on Sensitive Issues and Taboos
Cannes 2008. Absolute quiet prevailed. The closing credits of "Waltz with Bashir" rolled up on the screen in front of us. Many in the audience were crying. Rarely has a film here so deeply affected viewers. Four years have since past, yet the memories remain vivid.
The film succeeded in sensitizing audiences to the issue of war. It focuses on the trauma resulting from the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in September 1982 during the war in Lebanon.
After an attack on their leader, Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese Phalange militia killed thousands of women and children as well as prisoners of war living in the camps near Beirut. This all took place in a single night. The Israeli army simply stood by and watched this "dance of death". The massacre is a turning point in Israeli history and considered a taboo topic in the country. It represents the loss of innocence for the "chosen people".
The secret trauma
"Waltz with Bashir" openly addresses the guilt and experiences of those soldiers who took part – a trauma kept secret for decades. After the film was screened in Israel, barely healed wounds were reopened. The most remarkable thing about the film is that it consists of drawn images – hard lines filled with dazzling colours, often yellow and black. These nightmarish images penetrate directly into our unconsciousness. It is an animated film aimed at coming to grips with the past – a cartoon with therapeutic effects. In 2009, the film was justifiably nominated for an Oscar and, in the same year, was awarded with a Golden Globe.
Two men from Berlin, Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner, are responsible for this worldwide success. They are the brains behind Razor Film. The name says it all – the films are meant to cut into our awareness with the power of a sharp razor blade. The name is also serves as a reference to Luis Buñuel's 1929 film "Un chien andalou," where an eyeball is slit with a razor and its contents ooze out.
Paul and Meixner founded their company in 2002 with the ambitious goal of producing art-house films for domestic and international markets. Achieving success with unusual and challenging projects was a risky endeavour for such a small company lacking in financial experience.
Yet, subsequent success has proved them right. In its short existence, Razor Film has won two Golden Globes and has been twice nominated for an Oscar. Their films are screened at the major festivals in Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, where Razor Film has since become a regular guest.
A suicide commando
Their 2005 film "Paradise Now" cast the headstrong pair into the international limelight. The film relates the tale of two young Palestinian suicide bombers. It wasn't the story itself that aroused interest, but rather the perspective from which the story is told. The viewer is put in the shoes of the two young men and sees the world through their eyes. The terrorists are neither victims nor monsters, but rather normal, likeable individuals. These are not fanatics, but, as the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper wrote, "recruits of a murderous hopelessness".
The film is funny and oppressive at the same time. In one scene, a terrorist has to take a break in the bathroom, because his explosive belt is too tight. In another scene, a film in which the terrorists admit to the planned attack has to be shot three times, as the camera doesn't work. While waiting, they relax for a sandwich break. Scenes like this highlight the complete banality of evil.
The film was shot on location in Israel and Palestine. Despite many euphoric reviews, there was also heavy criticism of the film, including calls for a boycott. Razor Film rarely chooses the easy path. Yet, the company manages to combine passion and a willingness to take risks with a high degree of professionalism, courage, and a good sense for successful screenplays.
A fairy tale from the near future
The latest project of Razor Film could once again prove to be a milestone in film history. It is one of the first feature films to be shot in Saudi Arabia. Entitled "Wajda," it is directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour. The irony is that this is a country in which women are not allowed to drive, where men and women are strictly separated, and cinema is generally forbidden.
A German-Saudi crew shot the film in Riyadh under the gaze of the local religious police. Making her film debut, Haifaa Al Mansour tells the story of an eleven-year-old girl who wants to win a Koran recitation competition in order to fulfil her most fervent wish – owning a bicycle, although girls are forbidden from riding a bike in Saudi Arabia.
Haifaa Al Mansour intentionally sought out and wrote to Razor Film for her project. The Berlin film company is regarded as an expert on Middle East topics. It has made a name for itself by dealing sensitively with difficult material, and Haifaa Al Mansour therefore knew she would be in good hands. The film is scheduled for release in early 2013.
One thing is certain, though. "Wajda" will not be seen in movie houses in at least one country – Saudi Arabia – because the country doesn't have any cinemas. However, it will probably be broadcast on television, as the Saudi broadcaster "Rotana" was courageous enough to participate in the film project.
© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2012
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp