Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman enters the rarefied genre of the animated documentary with “Waltz with Bashir,” a autobiographical retelling of his effort to recover suppressed memories of his military service during his country’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon—a venture that culminated in the notorious massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut by Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies as the IDF guarded the perimeter—done in a visually surrealist style.
“It’s completely autobiographical,” Folman explained during a recent Dallas interview. “It’s my story”—the story of how he tried to recall what he’d experienced while serving in the infantry at age nineteen by interviewing former comrades and discussing what had happened with journalists, psychologists and historians.
“Once I took the decision to make the film,” Folman said, “the major decision was just to do the film. Once I did, it felt really natural to go and meet those people. I’d really tried hard to forget my army service, and in a way once I did this journey of meeting those people, interviewing them and asking the questions, it was kind of a relief in many ways…. It was therapeutic.”
But rather than presenting the result as a live-action documentary, Folman decided to do so in a striking animated form. But it was the story, not the technique, that drove him. “I wanted to do the film, and I didn’t want to title it in any way. But I was working in animation at that period of time, and I really fell in love with the freedom of making films with animation. I think that animation can explore—it doesn’t just have to be for families or kids. And for me, it gave me total freedom to tell my story and go from one dimension to another, from reality to dreams to the subconscious to lost memories to anything, to all the things that you see in the film. And you can go really fluently from one dimension to another if it’s animated, if it’s drawn.
“It didn’t help to raise money. On the contrary. If I had to go through the process again tomorrow, I never, ever would declare it’s an ‘animated documentary.’ I’d just say it’s a personal story that I want to do animated.”
Folman emphasized that the film is true animation, not rotoscoping, where live-action video is painted over. “I just don’t believe in that technique,” he said. “Not that it’s easy work—it’s not. But I think that the technique is so much ‘out there’ that you can’t get emotionally attached to the characters when you see that their faces are drawn over and not drawn from scratch.”
At the end of “Waltz with Bashir,” however, Folman switches to live news footage of the carnage that was found in the camps after the massacre. “It’s an ideological decision I took—it’s not even an artistic decision,” he said. “It was essential for me to prevent the situation that someone, somewhere would walk out of the theatre and think it’s a very cool antiwar animated film with great drawings and cool music. I mean, it happened, and thousands of people died there, all of whom were non-protected—women, old people, a lot of kids. And it’s only fifty seconds, though you have the feeling that it lasts forever. Those fifty seconds put the whole film into proportion, they put me into proportion, my story, the animation, the beautiful drawings—everything.
“I didn’t want to investigate the political levels,” Folman emphasized. “I wouldn’t waste four years of my life doing that. I was more interested in the common soldier, because I was a common soldier then, and in trying to understand the chronology of the massacre—meaning, how long does it take for someone to gather all the facts and put it into one frame that tells you there’s a mass murder going on around the corner? That’s what I tried to do in the last part of the film.”
Folman added: “I think the film has a very universal theme, and I think it could have been written by an ex-American soldier in Vietnam or a current American soldier in Iraq. I think that the only statement coming out of the film is a very strong antiwar statement. In contradiction to a lot of big American films, this doesn’t glorify war in any way, or give you the bravery of war or the brotherhood of man—nothing. It just shows you how useless wars are, and you can say that about any war from my point of view.”
That strongly pacifist sentiment is why Folman is a bit uncomfortable with the fact that the current Israeli government has embraced “Waltz with Bashir.”
“Considering myself a rebel all my life, being hugged by the head of the IDF just before I flew here is kind of weird,” he said. “I’m being harassed by my crew—they think I’m from the Mossad now!”