War as a "bad acid trip"

Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman talks about his extraordinary animated documentary "Waltz With Bashir," a trip down the nightmarish rabbit hole of memory.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 26, 2008 11:55AM (EST)

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Listen to the interview with Ari Folman

Before the invention of Wikipedia, I might never have discovered that there's a recognizable history of animated documentary filmmaking (above and beyond "Schoolhouse Rock," that is) which long predates Israeli director Ari Folman's extraordinary war memoir "Waltz With Bashir." Legendary cartoonist Winsor McKay made a ripped-from-the-headlines short called "The Sinking of the Lusitania" in 1918, Max and Dave Fleischer made a film called "The Einstein Theory of Relativity" in 1923 and Walt Disney concocted several animated docs, including "Our Friend the Atom," in 1957. (I want to see those last two really, really badly.)

Still, even if Folman's film isn't quite the first animated documentary feature ever made -- that same Wiki article references a 1964 astronomy film called "Of Stars and Men" -- within a few seconds of its opening you know you've entered a new world, like Alice plunging down the rabbit hole. "Waltz With Bashir" is nominally about the Israel-Lebanon war of the early 1980s, but it's really set in a darker landscape than that one, and it literally begins inside a nightmare. A boy or young man is being chased through deserted city streets by a relentless pack of wild dogs; they never quite catch him but show no signs of stopping.

This is indeed a depiction of a dream, a recurring dream that belongs to one of Folman's onetime military comrades from the Lebanon war. It's also a guiding metaphor for the movie as a whole, which although marginally more realistic than that opening scene has the atmosphere of a slowly unraveling nightmare or, as Folman puts it, "a bad acid trip" whose revelations grow ever more disturbing. Shot first as a conventional documentary and then painstakingly reconstructed as an animated film, "Waltz With Bashir" follows Folman's efforts to reconstruct what he saw and experienced in Lebanon as a young soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, where he witnessed the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September 1982.

The results, in my judgment, are stunning. I first saw "Waltz With Bashir" right after getting off the plane at Cannes last spring, and at certain moments during the film I wondered whether I had myself fallen asleep and was dreaming its hellish, haunted images. It invents an ingenious new method of portraying the notoriously untrustworthy realm of memory, which is especially fraught when one is trying to dredge up memories one has worked hard to suppress for 25 years. By his own account, Folman remembered only bits and pieces from his wartime experience before making the film, and remembered them almost as a movie he had seen, or as things that had happened to someone else.

"Waltz With Bashir" -- the title refers to Lebanese Christian leader and Israel ally Bashir Gemayel, whose assassination triggered a violent anti-Muslim backlash that included the Sabra and Shatila massacre -- might be the year's most singular visionary experience available at the movies, and catapults Folman from the obscurity of Israeli TV onto the world stage. It's Oscar-eligible in both the foreign-language and feature animation categories, and if Sony hadn't chosen to hold its United States premiere at the New York Film Festival, might have been nominated as a documentary as well.

I met Folman at his New York hotel on the afternoon of his NYFF premiere in September. He's a strikingly handsome man in his mid-40s, lean and athletic, with salt-and-pepper hair and beard, a rakish George Clooney demeanor and a Mediterranean lust for strong, dark coffee. ("How can people in New York drink this shit?" he inquired while gazing into a cup of hotel java. I told him I often wondered the same thing.) He had just gotten into town from Tel Aviv after collecting six Israeli Academy Awards, including those for best film, best director and best screenplay.

This is such a beautiful and strange film. But it's such an unlikely subject for animation. Why did you decide to tell a true story about your memories of the Lebanon war as an animated film?

You know, when you write a story you imagine it, and the scenes in my mind were always drawn, always animated. So there was not another option. I would never do it any other way. And, honestly, I think I wouldn't be sitting here with you today if this was not an animated film. You wouldn't care about what happened to a guy like me 25 years ago, when I was just a common soldier in Lebanon, if you weren't told, "Oh, it's a very cool animated film. You have to see this film."

As a filmmaker it gave me total freedom to do whatever I liked. To go from one dimension to another. To go from real stories to the subconscious to dreams to hallucinations to drugs to fear of death to anxiety, everything. I had the liberty to play with everything in one story line.

You begin the film with this tremendously disorienting opening scene, the dog chase. It's terrifying and at the same time bewildering. Right away we don't know where the boundaries are between reality, imagination and dream.

That was a deliberate strategy. I think there are a lot of ways to define war. One of them is definitely as a very bad acid trip, and I wanted the audience to go on this sort of trip. I'm a true believer in the openings of films. I treat it like the opening of a chess game, and I love to play chess. You have to think a lot about the opening, and I thought in this film you have to stun the audience immediately, because they're going through a new language of filmmaking, something they've never experienced before. You want to hook them, you want them to be there for the whole 90 minutes. So we put a lot of effort into the opening scene, to stun them within those first two minutes and 40 seconds.

I'm sure some people are skeptical of your claim that you really didn't remember what you had done and seen in Lebanon in 1982. How true is that?

Everything in the film is true. It's an autobiographical story. You have to understand the expression "loss of memory." It's not some amnesia thing, like after a car accident, where you go through a brain concussion, lose your memory and don't know what your name is or where you were born. I had really suppressed memories from that period of my life because I deliberately chose to forget everything I could. When I was released from the army, I disconnected all ties with people who were with me there, which is not very common in Israel. I did a lot of mental work to forget.

Then, a few things in life happened that started to provoke me. I started to remember. It's like an old scar you have, you scratch it and you never know what will come out of it. I had the main story line of my memory, but there were black holes in it. In the film I tried to fill those black holes by going back to the people who were with me in Lebanon, and trying to figure out what happened.

There's always a question about what truth means, in memory or in a work of art. What you capture in the film -- you believe that's the truth about what you saw and what you did?

Yeah, I think it is. You never know. The truth is so subjective in any kind of filmmaking. [To our camera person.] You came to interview me here today and you placed the camera at such a high angle. I am 6'3", but the people on your Web site will believe I'm as tiny as Sean Penn. So there is no truth, OK? Every decision you make in filmmaking is subjective. Saying you own the truth is silly. But I think, being as honest as I can, that this film represents what happened in the best way I could show it to you. These are events that happened 25 years ago; different people see them differently.

Yes, well, one of those events is the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September 1982, when Christian militias allied with Israel massacred hundreds or perhaps thousands of Palestinian civilians in two refugee camps. It's such an explosive topic, with unresolved questions about how much the Israeli government and military knew, and how much responsibility they bore. Were you hesitant about addressing such a painful and loaded subject?

No. I don't think the film brings any news with regard to what happened at Sabra and Shatila. There was a government committee that made an inquiry, and top generals were banned from office. Arik Sharon was banned from office as the minister of defense, even though he came back later as prime minister. I think everyone knows what happened in terms of, like, journalistic facts. I was not interested in that at all, because I thought I had nothing new to say.

I was interested in the common soldier, his point of view, and in the chronology of massacre. Meaning, when do you put all the facts you hear and see, and all the hints you get, into one frame that makes you realize there is a mass murder going on just around the corner? I was interested in that -- telling that story through the eyes of a simple soldier.

I remember hearing some interesting exchanges between you and some Arab journalists at Cannes. As a total outsider, it was great to see Arabs and Israelis having a civil conversation about a movie, and about such a painful subject. But many of them seemed upset with you because they felt you didn't take responsibility or express guilt. Was that frustrating? I mean, from your perspective it must have seemed as if they were missing the point.

You know, I can understand the point they were making. The only criticism I got back home was from very left-wing Israelis saying exactly the same thing: I didn't take responsibility as an Israeli, in the film, for what happened. And frankly, I didn't feel responsible. I was a soldier; we were clueless. We didn't know what was happening until it ended. Then we knew. Of course the government was found guilty. They didn't send the troops in there, but they didn't stop it for three days. They could have stopped it. They could have reduced the casualties. They could have done something. They did not. But I didn't feel that I was a government representative who should take the blame for them. I couldn't care less about Ariel Sharon and his government. I have nothing to do with them, not then and most of all not now.

Your film has a very specific Israeli and Lebanese context, but it could be about Vietnam or World War II or Iraq. I mean, we could always argue about the issue of the individual soldier and responsibility. But these are the kinds of stories that happen in war.

Definitely. This story could have been told -- maybe not by animation, because it's pretty complicated! -- by an ex-American soldier in Vietnam, or by an ex-Russian soldier in Afghanistan or by a current American soldier in Iraq. It could have been told by a Dutch soldier, a peacekeeper, who witnessed the Srebrenica massacre in June 1995, in Bosnia, where they did nothing to stop it. It's a universal story, unfortunately.

Your animation is very distinctive, quite different from the major animation styles we see in feature films. It's not a Pixar-DreamWorks style digital animation, but I know I'm also supposed to say that it's also not exactly the rotoscope technique that Richard Linklater has used.

Yeah, we have to say here to the camera: This is not a Richard Linklater-technique film. This is not rotoscope. If you ever say it is, I mean, my animators will kill themselves. Not because rotoscope is not good enough! It's good, it's nice, but it's not for us. I can try to explain the basic differences. With rotoscope you have a video and you put the video into the computer. Then you go through a process where you draw over the video to get the film you want.

Here's what we did: We had a video that was done in a sound studio, that was cut and everything. Then we drew the video again, from scratch. The video was there as a reference, the sound was used. But it was drawn from scratch. I just thought that rotoscope animation would not qualify in an emotional way. The audience will not get emotionally attached to the characters if they're rotoscoped. There's too much technique there, you can see the video below. We wanted something different and more complicated.

Are you a fan of animated films in general? I was wondering if I detected the influence of Miyazaki here. Not visually, not at all. But maybe in terms of tone.

Oh yeah, I see everything. Of course the Miyazaki films, that goes without saying. But I have three kids, so I see all those Pixar movies. Literally, I have seen each one more than a hundred times, from the beginning to the end. We counted it!

I've seen those, too.

Yeah? You've seen them a hundred times?

Maybe not yet. My twins are only 4, so they haven't reached that level.

Four is good! They can watch "WALL-E." You can see "The Incredibles" 120 times, easily. You see it once each day for three months, four months. What's that in life? It's nothing. Yes, I love animation. This is not my first work in animation; I did it in my previous documentary . It gives me a lot of freedom, and I love the people I work with, they're great. They're very different from the people in live-action cinema.

This film is so powerful and unusual. It's going to be a hard act to follow. Have you started working on something else?

Yes. I have optioned a Stanislaw Lem book, "The Futurological Congress," which is really one of my all-time favorite science-fiction books. It took me a lot of time to get it; I think Steven Soderbergh was holding the rights. I think he blocked everything by Lem when he did "Solaris," but I'm not sure. We're doing it now, it's going to be mostly animated and some live-action. We'll have an American actress in it, playing herself. She's going to be real, in live-action, in the present, and she's going to be a drawn character in the future. Basically it's the same system we used in "Waltz With Bashir," but instead of me going into the past we're going to take her into the future. I have another 1,000 interviews to do for this film -- and when I complete them I'm going to start working on it.

"Waltz With Bashir" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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