For filmmaker Ari Folman, it began when a friend who had served with him during the Israeli army’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 told him about a recurring nightmare in which he was chased by 26 dogs he’d been ordered to kill just before the infamous Sabra-Shatila massacre (when the Israeli government stood by while Lebanese Christian Phalangists slaughtered Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps). Disturbed by the huge gaps in his own recall, Folman recorded interviews with his former army comrades and scoured his own memory with the help of a close friend, who was a therapist and the creator of the TV series on which HBO’s In Treatment was based. Then, with an innovative format pioneered by his director of animation Yoni Goodman, Folman spent four years creating the stunning animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. Taken together, the livid beauty of the images and the voices — agony, expressed with the laconically masculine understatement of the disciplined soldier — etches a quietly devastating picture of deferred posttraumatic stress disorder. The pain, anger, guilt, confusion and grief at what they had seen and done, or not done, might be summed up in the testimony of one stoically antiheroic man recounting how, after a surprise attack on his tank unit, he had swum the ocean to safety. At first he felt abandoned by his fellows, then he tortured himself for abandoning them. Waltz With Bashir caused a sensation at Cannes that rippled around the world. By the time I caught up with Folman over a “fitness breakfast” last September at the Toronto Film Festival, he was so weary of traveling and explaining his technique that he implored me not to ask him about the animation.
L.A. WEEKLY:So tell me about the animation. I know you were very irritated at people comparing your work to Richard Linklater’s Waking Life.
ARI FOLMAN: [Sighs] Yeah, our work is completely different. Not that I underestimate his films, but he shoots a video, then the video undergoes a process, it goes into a computer and they draw on the video image. We have the video image as a reference, but draw it from scratch. I thought that Linklater’s Rotoscope technique wouldn’t work for us emotionally, you wouldn’t be able to get attached to the characters. And don’t think it’s easier, it’s not. Waltz With Bashir was made in a studio I built in Israel. The director of animation, Yoni Goodman, invented the technique, a frame-by-frame combination of Flash, 3-D and classic animation. The voices are all taped interviews except for a couple of actors, because the real guys got cold feet and didn’t want to expose themselves. I really loved graphic novels when I was young, and Waltz With Bashir will be published as a graphic novel in the United States.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a documentary that expressed the surreal experience of war so eloquently. It’s also often very funny.
In a way. I hope so. I was influenced not so much by film as by books I read in my 20s, like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. They took a step back and could see the absurdity of everything.
This movie could not have been made at the time of the war, for reasons you seem to touch on in the film.
Yes, 1982 was a turning point for Israel. Up until then all the wars were defending wars. If Israel went on the attack, as in 1967, it was about the aftereffects of the Holocaust, about defending — you might say, even if you don’t believe it — families at home. The Lebanon war was an aggressive political decision. It started as a move to save the border from bombs and missiles, but after a week it was a strict invasion of a foreign country. The public are not stupid, they knew immediately and the images of the massacre were connected to the Holocaust. There was an outraged response and many demonstrations. Something broke up severely in that period, and it was never really fixed.
You make a distinction between the Israeli government, which knew about the massacre, and the soldiers, who didn’t. Yet it seemed to me ambiguous in the film. How could they be so close to what was going on and not know?
The film goes into the chronology of the massacre, meaning, when do you take all the information you have — the rumors, some pictures — and put them into one frame that says, okay, there is a massacre going on, it is hard core, people are being slaughtered? First of all, I believe that it is not in the human system to think that things like that are going on even if you are in a war. You can’t imagine that people do such things. I think Ariel Sharon and the commanders knew; they did nothing to stop it. But the common soldiers had no clue.
How was Waltz With Bashir received in Israel?
There was no political debate at all. It got a very warm welcome from all parties. The only criticism I got was from the very left wing saying that the film doesn’t take enough blame. The right wing hugged it even in really extreme papers — they thought it was a very personal story. I was expecting the worst as usual, but even the Israeli government pays to send us all over the world, because they figure that the film shows Israel as a very tolerant country, at least toward her artists, who are supported by government funds. In France we had more than 500,000 admissions, and our government realized that in France most people didn’t know that Israeli troops didn’t carry out the massacre. When half a million people go to the cinema they understand that it was worth showing the idea of Israel not at its best, in order to gain some points elsewhere.
Do you worry that people, particularly on the European left, would use the film as a stick with which to beat Israel?
Beat what? I couldn’t care less. There’s nothing in the film that was not already said. You must understand that after the second Lebanon war in 2006, a lot of soldiers refused to serve, and it was published in the newspapers. Nothing happened. Some of them were treated as … not heroes, but it was perceived that they saved the lives of other soldiers. There was a very famous event when a young reserve officer refused to go. He said, “I’m not going in with my soldiers, they will die for nothing, they are not prepared.” They were thinking of trying him, but they knew that the trial would do so much damage. So my film, released two years later, was nothing compared to reality.
This must have been a period of great turmoil for you. Were you also in therapy?
It’s like sitting in front of a shrink and talking. I used to belong to that cult, but I’m out now. I’m not a believer anymore. It’s too cheap to just turn it into psychotherapy, into repressed memory. It’s not that I went through the experience and then lost my memory. There are missing parts. When I was released from service I did a lot in order to forget. I disconnected my strings with people who were with me. A lot came back during the process of making the movie. It was not awful, because I don’t treat it as a nightmare. I was going through major changes throughout those four years. I became 40, and from being single and really free, I became a father of three, and I made this film — everything happened together. I think that one of the reasons I made this film was because I became a father.
I optioned a Stanislaw Lem book, The Futurological Congress. I’m going to do it as part animation, part live action, with an American actress in English. It’s a big European co-production. It’s a very complicated novel, and I want to use the invention we have in Waltz for fiction and see if it works.
You’ve already broken down the division between fiction and nonfiction in Waltz.
It’s about time. ’Cause I think the division is really boring.