TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
'Waltz With Bashir' leads down filmmaker's nightmare alley
Ari Folman was an 19-year-old Israeli soldier in 1982. His film 'Waltz With Bashir' explores a massacre he has no memory of taking place.
BLOCKED MEMORIES: The animated film is about the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut (Handout / AP)
As the Falangists moved in under cover of night, Israeli troops stationed around the perimeter sent up flares to light their way. The Israelis were told they were merely supporting a mission to remove terrorists hiding in the camps, but it eventually became clear that wholesale slaughter was underway. What was known, and by whom, is still the subject of fierce debate, but then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was held responsible by a government commission for ignoring the risk of bloodshed and was forced to resign his post. He was elected prime minister in 2001.
Folman, then a 19-year-old soldier, was serving in Beirut on the day of the massacre but had no memories of that time. He had, however, a recurring dream of walking through streets filled with wailing women in black chadors.
Seeking to fill in the gaps in his mind, Folman, whose background includes fiction and nonfiction film as well as the original Israeli version of the HBO series "In Treatment," decided to make a film collecting the memories of his friends and fellow soldiers, many of whom had been unaware of the events taking place only a few hundred yards away. But rather than simply assemble their recollections, Folman wanted to explore the process of memory itself, why we forget things we want to remember, and remember things we want to forget.
'Like a very bad acid trip'
Even after last year's "Persepolis," many will be surprised that Folman chose the medium of animation to deal with such a sobering and controversial subject. But at the Telluride Film Festival, where the film screened last week, Folman said he never considered any other approach. "I don't think any other method could have told the story," he said. "I always meant it to be drawn." Moving between past and present, real and imagined, the movie, he says, "is like a very bad acid trip. I wanted to have the same feeling as if you're going to a different dimension."
After years of research, Folman brought his subjects, who include celebrated TV war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, into a sound studio and recorded them on audio and videotape. The words became the movie's soundtrack and the images served as a guide for the animation, except in two cases in which his subjects asked to have their words redubbed and their appearances altered. For one interview, which he wanted to set in a car, Folman gave his subject a mock steering wheel, the better to act out the scene. Before a frame of animation was drawn, Folman had assembled a rough cut using the video footage.
Critics have likened "Waltz" to Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," but Folman bristles at the mention of rotoscoping, the technique used in Linklater's film, in which animators trace their drawings over live-action footage. Every frame was drawn from scratch, Folman says, proudly noting that "Waltz" is only the second animated feature to be produced in Israel. The first was in 1961.
Although the movie has a fairly conventional talking-head structure (at least if you close your eyes), Folman shies away from labeling it a documentary. "Once I've finished, it's not for me to judge," he says. "I got tired of categorizing films, where documentary ends and fiction starts. The main difference is that if I had declared this a fiction film five years ago, it would have taken me years less to raise the money."
Folman spent years assembling the funding for the movie, persuading backers that his approach was worth the risk. In all, he raised about $2 million, an extremely small budget for an animated film. The first cut was produced with Flash software, a low-cost method usually characterized by two-dimensional figures and jerky movement. Later, touches of 3-D and traditional hand-drawn animation were added, but the movie's look remains simple, almost schematic.
"Someone asked in one Q&A if the characters walk slow because they are traumatized," Folman recalls. "I answered that they walk slow because the budget is low. If we had more money, we could do more classic animation."
Rather than move ineluctably toward a definitive account of the massacre, "Waltz" is discursive, taking in a range of stories from the war. One soldier recalls escaping death by hiding behind a sand dune and then having to swim out to sea to return to his unit. Another tells a fantastic tale of dodging gunfire and taking out snipers, his feet moving in an off-kilter dance.
Although Folman sees "Waltz" as an antiwar film, he stresses that its subject matter is personal and not political. "It's pretentious for any filmmaker to make an international statement," he says. "I did so much research into the history, but I ended up writing my own story because I just couldn't handle the national things."
In Israel, Folman says, the film was criticized for not emphasizing the Israeli army's role in the massacre. "I still can't figure out why it was my responsibility to take any national blame," he says. "The common soldier is what I was interested in. It is a big enough subject as is."
In the end, Folman says, his goal was to remember not what he did but who he was.
"Five years ago, if I looked at a picture of myself as a 19-year-old guy, I felt completely distant from that guy," he says. "Now, I feel more for that guy."