Why emotion trounces facts (a.k.a. go see Waltz with Bashir)

November 30, 2008

Waltz with Bashir dogs

Sometimes a film comes out which forces you to rethink how intensely you can be affected by a story told in sound and image.

Waltz with Bashir is the journey of Ari Folman trying to piece together his experience of the 16th September 1982 in West Beirut. On that day, he was a soldier in the Israeli military as it looked on at the massacre of thousands of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. After a friend and soldier from that time tells him about a terrifying recurring nightmare where he is chased by 26 dogs (why 26 exactly? the explanation that comes is memorable), he has his first flashback but absolutely no memory of the day. The film is his interviews with others who were there as he tries to remember where he was – and what he did.

This is not a political blog, but this film must be seen to remember what happened. However, plenty has been written about that side of it, not least in its many glowing reviews, so I’ll talk about the other reasons to see it.

We are all communicators. Here are three things this film does that we can learn from:

1) The grabber

‘I am a great believer in openings. Here, I wanted it to imitate a very bad acid trip, which, in my opinion, is what war is. You have to strike the audience immediately. Strike them hard, shock them. Then they faint and you can start the movie.’ Ari Folman interview in Time Out

The opening scene of the film (pictured above) grabs your attention by the throat. A dog from the depths of hell runs at the camera and is joined by one, two, then a pack of dogs knocking down chairs, tables, people and stopping only when they get below the storyteller’s window – who knows they are there to tear him apart.

This gets your attention, but that’s not all. Once you have someone’s attention you have ten minutes only to tell your story before you have to grab them again. Although the opening is memorable, each new scene is different and unforgettable, and captures you again.

2) Show, don’t just tell

Take away the images, and the film is seven people being interviewed. However, each scene switches between the rotoscoped live footage of the interview and vivid, dreamlike renditions of the stories being told. This gives them an incredible impact which makes the stories themselves unforgettable.

In the field of presentations, one of the purest proponents of using images to support stories is Garr Reynolds. If you don’t read his blog, Prezentation Zen, then do!

3) Emotion, not facts

One of the reasons for this blog is to try to explore and explain some the things that make people tick, and there is one thing that keeps coming back: people are driven by emotion, not facts. Future posts will try to explains some of the reasons for this, but for now Waltz is an astonishing example of this power.

There are no statistics in this film, and very few facts. Almost every scene is the incomplete, imperfect memory of one of the interviewees. However, by making the film a personal journey and using this slightly unreal animation it intensifies the emotional impact and ultimately the persuasiveness of the film in a way that the Wikipedia entry linked above cannot. In the end, it feels much more real than live action.

Go see this film

Amazingly, Waltz with Bashir was created with Flash, Photoshop and a budget of only $2 million (compared to the $120 million budget of Wall-E for example), and took four years. It’s worth reading these two interviews with David Polonsky the film’s art director (although best to do so after seeing it to avoid spoilers): Interview 1, Interview 2.

If there were only one reason to go see Waltz with Bashir it is this: history records the facts of the stories we create, but people are driven by emotion, not facts. You can learn some lessons from the masterful storytelling, but most of all go see this so you can be reminded and devastated by what people are capable of, which is just one step to making sure such terrible things can never happen again.

Trailer below:

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