English and Film


Soundscapes of crisis: discuss the use of music and sound in Black and Folman’s cinematographic depictions of their respective postcolonial worlds.

By Aysha Taylor

Edited by Ellen Mitchell


This essay analyses the use of music and soundtracks in Stephanie Black’s 2003 documentary Life and Debt and Ari Folman’s 2008 autobiographical animated film Waltz with Bashir. Whilst stylistically these two texts are very different, the author argues that they both competently use music and non-diegetic sound to complement, shape and engage with their respective discussions of crises in a postcolonial environment.

Folman’s Waltz with Bashir and Black’s Life and Debt both depict postcolonial worlds through film. Their subjects, themes and visual styles are very different. While Folman allows his personal journey of self-discovery, years after the traumatic events of the 1982 Lebanon War, to be painted through the dark hues of his heavily stylised animation, Black meshes together interviews, essays and footage of Jamaica as she tries to offer a truthful image of Jamaica’s economic and social turmoil. Yet similarities can be found in their subtle use of music and sound. Arguably, both filmmakers competently use music and sound to complement their visual content, but also, more unusually, use music to create a narrative structure to their films, make stylistic and unconventional use of voiceovers, fundamentally shape their discussions of the postcolonial crisis of denial and ultimately consciously consider the role of music during crisis within their narratives. In short, while the soundtracks to both films are a necessary part of cinematic convention, they are also subtly used to push and strengthen the films intelligent, engaging discussions of crisis in a postcolonial world.

Firstly, both Black and Folman use music and sound to enhance their narratives. In their study on the effects of musical soundtracks, researchers Marshall and Cohen state that while most films use footage ‘to depict specific actions’, ‘music can provide specific emotional information’ (Marshall & Cohen 1988, 95). In other words, while the visuals can paint a plot-line, the music builds the emotional arch of the film. And indeed, both films rely on their soundtrack to build their emotional impact, as is typical in film. In Life and Debt, Black often creates a disparity between the music and footage to create tension. For example, the footage of Queen Elizabeth II announcing Jamaica’s independence in 1962, and the following celebrations as the British flag is swapped for a Jamaican one, is accompanied by the happy sound of Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’. As the cheerful melody drifts past the watcher’s ears, it creates a tone of tragic irony. We have already been offered foreboding glimpses into Jamaica’s economic struggle in the future, and the optimism of the ska rendition of Marley’s classic, combined with these moments of foreshadowing, unsettles the viewer. Folman also uses music and sound to build the emotional impact of his text. For example, he adds in non-simultaneous sound effects of dogs and horses whimpering, which accompany images of them dying. This use of audio effects causes the deaths shown in the animation to have a much deeper, more poignant impact. Therefore, both filmmakers use sound and music intelligently, allowing their films to have a much greater emotional impact.

More unusually, both filmmakers also use their respective soundtracks as narrative sign posts. In Life and Debt, Black clearly uses different music genres to define what she is discussing. She confines the tourist scenes to a combination of uplifting or undermining reggae (creating a patchwork of iconic artists such as Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Sizzla and Bob Marley), uses Nyabinghi drums and chants while discussing Jamaican culture (played by Ras Ivi & The Family of Rastafari) and uses classical music as a sound bridge to introduce the discussion of earlier (neo)colonial events like the formation of the IMF after the Second World War. The result is a kind of “sound-coding” system which allows Black to clearly define her themes, time-frames and locations. In contrast, rather than using music to define and separate different topics and themes, Folman uses music to make links between different scenes. For example, the film makes use of sonic flashbacks. Each time Folman sees the vision of him and his two friends bathing in the sea (which has replaced his memory of the Sabra and Shatila massacre), the scene is accompanied by Max Richter’s track ‘The Haunted Ocean’. When Folman finally remembers what really happened at the massacre, his revelation scene is accompanied by the same mesmerising song. This repetition of the song links the two scenes and clarifies to the reader that this is the memory that was replaced by the vision; the memory we have spent the whole film searching for. In this way, Folman uses the song to make subtle narrative links.

Another unusual element of the audio content employed within both films is their use of post-synchronised and non-diegetic voiceovers. In Life and Debt, Black lifts extracts from Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘A Small Place’ and strings them together to form a narration that runs alongside the footage. However, while traditionally in documentaries the narration is normally spoken by the producer, Black does not voice the narration herself. Instead, she takes the words of the Caribbean born essayist, and gives them to the Jamaican actress Belinda Becker. This choice affects the sound of the film. It means that the film is imbued with a Jamaican accent and Caribbean phrasing and ensures that the auditory aesthetic of the film aligns well with the Jamaican content being discussed. But the absence of the white director’s American accent also points to a conscious choice to ensure that the film is entirely Jamaican, rather than once again showing Jamaican content and transfusing it through a white “authenticating” voice. Folman also complexly makes use of voiceovers to add to his own agenda. The filmmaker uses the post-synchronisation of the voiceovers to play with the watcher’s emotions. Throughout the text the reality of the truths being discussed by the soldiers who fought in Lebanon in Folman’s film are distanced by the use of animation. The voiceovers however are the real voices of the real men being interviewed, and subsequently their pauses, their emphases, their tempo have so much more significance because their voices are the only truthful, un-distanced element of the film. Folman plays with this significance; think of the Palestinian women who are seen emerging from the massacre. Murray highlights that, up until the final scene, they are only ever either seen or heard within the animation, never both (Murray 2009, 68). When the real footage of them is finally shown it is the first and only time that both visuals and sound are intertwined and the result in highly impactful. Arguably, what Folman is doing here is eking out the emotion of his film. In holding off this combination until the final scene he allows the film to reach a crescendo when the combination finally takes place. Therefore, he stylistically acknowledges the emotional power of sound when combined with visuals and saves this one use of direct sound until his final powerful exit.

Both filmmakers use music to discuss a disconnect between individuals and nations from the crises around them; however, they achieve this in very different ways. Black works on a more international scale, while Folman focuses on an individual or national scale. Black uses extracts from Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘A Small Place’ that explicitly criticises the tourist’s disconnect from the poverty and reality of Jamaican life. She then more subtly weaves this criticism of this form of international disconnect throughout the film through her unusual use of “sound-coding”, which constantly differentiates the tourists from the discussion of Jamaica and elegantly emphasises the tourist’s separation from Jamaican realities even whilst within the country. This use of music genres and narration allows Black to highlight and perhaps criticise an industry that both shows and does not show national realities. Black also asks the viewer to question Jamaica’s self-representation through her employment of music. As the tourists arrive in Jamaica at the beginning of the film, they are welcomed by a band in the airport. The cheerful tone of the band hired by the tourist board continues the fallacy that presents Jamaica as a foreign paradise, entirely apart from economic anxieties or social distress. The cheerful ditty clashes with the frustrated lyrics of Ziggy Marley and The Melody Maker’s reggae track G7 heard directly before. Subsequently, the song questions Jamaica’s self-misrepresentation and subtly suggests that the disconnect found between the tourist’s image of Jamaica and the real Jamaica is carefully crafted. In this way, Black uses her soundtrack to question and criticise both a perpetrated and unconscious disconnect between what reaches the consciousness of westerners, even westerners visiting Jamaica, and the reality of Jamaica’s poverty.

Folman uses music to discuss constructs of human denial put in place during and after moments of crisis. However, whilst he too asks his viewers to think about these issues, he does not necessarily ask that they be criticised. This can be seen in the portrayal of the sea: often moments of crisis are replaced with images of the sea in the text. For example, one soldier falls asleep on his boat to Lebanon before the massacre, and imagines being carried off by a sea woman into the calming water away from the fighting. Similarly, the narrator conjures up an image of himself and two others bathing in the sea when he attempts to recollect the massacre. For Garret Stewart, in respect to Richter’s ‘The Haunted Ocean’, the scene of the narrator bathing is unsettling and is ‘denaturalised further by the unnerving electronic score’ (Garrett 2010, 59). However, the high octave notes that fill the ears of the listener during ‘The Haunted Ocean’ are perhaps unsettling but also triumphant. Ultimately, layering this triumphant music with sound effects of calm, gently lapping water creates a tranquil effect. In other water scenes, the same audio effects are layered on top of tranquil ambient music, creating a calming vibe. If the sea is indeed read as a representation of buried emotion, as defined by the psychologist Zahava Solomon within the film, then this denial system seems to be accepted rather than demonised within the film. The employment of calming music and sound during these scenes suggests that this response is natural. Therefore, while Black confronts an international system of denial, perhaps Folman is more interested in considering the human protective mechanism for reacting to overloading stimuli created in moments of crisis.

As well as using music and sound for narrative purposes, both films reflect on the role of music. Both filmmakers include songs that are rooted in moments of crisis, provoking questions about the relationship between crisis and culture. In Life and Debt, Black’s soundtrack blends reggae, dancehall, ska, and classical. Yet significantly, Black decides to frame the film with reggae; starting with Buju Banton’s A cappella rendition of ‘Destiny’ and ending with Anthony B’s ‘Raid the Barn’. The visualisation of ‘Destiny’ is highly significant. As Buju Banton sings at the start of Life and Debt he walks through a violent garrison, visually aligning his music with rebellion. In positioning Buju Banton in this way, Black both allows her film to highlight reggae’s role as a ‘vehicle through which the spirit of resistance to oppression is given public expression’ and frames her own film as a narrative of resistance (Russell 2015, 127). Folman treats music’s role slightly differently. One of the key themes of the text is the continuation of trauma after war. Consider the psychologist Zahava Solomon’s statement that ‘the massacre has been with you since the age of 6’. He here suggests that Folman’s parents’ trauma, created during the Second World War, had been inherited by Folman, touching on the subject of Israel’s shared trauma post Nazi Germany. This question of continued trauma is blended throughout the text more subtly through music. Kroustallis highlights the use of war inspired songs such as Zeev Tene’s ‘I bombed Beirut’ and Navadey Ha-Ukaf’s ‘Good Morning Lebanon’ during moments of peace. For Kroustallis, the use of such songs while the Israeli soldiers play tennis and surf is an attempt to draw a ‘crass… connection between war and sports’ (Kroustallis 2014, 146). But these links have a larger significance; both songs in fact were written after their respective wars. ‘I bombed Beirut’ is a revision of Cake’s song ‘I bombed Korea’ which was written in 1994, forty-one years after the Korean War. ‘Good Morning Lebanon’ was written specifically for Folman’s film in 2008, twenty-six years after the Lebanon War. Subsequently, what Folman is instead expertly doing here is once again drawing attention to the presence of war post-war (or moments of peace) both through his choice of song, and his integration of the songs into the film. In placing songs of war during peaceful scenes, Folman reflects on music’s role in post-crisis society as an expression of continued emotional trauma and considers the echo of crisis which is often sustained in moments of calm.

In conclusion, music and sound are often easy to ignore when watching a film. However, whilst the two texts differ dramatically in form, in both films soundtracks and voiceovers are creatively employed to add many different layers to the discussion of their respective crises, particularly through the use of post-synchronised and non-diegetic voiceovers to establish an auditory narrative. Whilst Black uses non-diegetic music that contradicts the footage to deliberately create tension and tragic irony, Folman heightens the emotive impact through non-simultaneous sound effects. The narrative is thus shaped through the soundtracks, both through the creation of a “sound-coding” system in Black’s work, and Folman’s repetition of certain songs, such as Richter’s ‘The Haunted Ocean’, to reveal and establish narrative links. These auditory techniques consciously discuss the psychological trauma in both Jamaica and the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.  Ultimately, the soundscapes shape the texts and are proof of both films’ subtlety and depth.


Primary Sources

Life and Debt. Directed by Stephanie Black. Screenplay by Jamaica Kincaid. Axiom Films, 2001.

Waltz with Bashir. Directed by Ari Folman. Performances by Ari Folman, Yehezkel Lazarov, and Miki Leon. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008.

Secondary Sources

Edwards, N. (1998), ‘States of Emergency: Reggae Representations of the Jamaican Nation State’, Social and Economic Studies 47.1, 21-32.

Kroustallis, V. (2014), ‘Failure to Think, Failure to Move: Handicapped Reasoning in Waltz with Bashir’, Jewish Film & New Media 2.2, 132-152.

Marshall, S.K. & Cohen A.J. (1988), ‘Effects of Musical Soundtracks on Attitudes toward Animated Geometric Figures’, Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6.1, 95-112.

Murray, J. (2009), ‘Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman, Serge Lalou, Gerhard Meixner, Yael Nahlieli, Roman Paul’, Cinéaste 34.2, 65-66, 68.

Russell, H.D. (2012), ‘Life and Det: globalization and the Caribbean in Stephanie Black’s Life and DebtTransition 107, 137-149.

Russell, H.D. (2015), ‘Post-Blackness and All of the Black Americas’, in H.A. Baker and K.M. Simmons (edd.), The Trouble with Post-Blackness, New York: Columbia University Press, 110-43.

Stewart, G (2010), ‘Screen Memory in Waltz With Bashir’, Film Quarterly 63.3, 58-62.

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