Catching Up With… Waltz with Bashir‘s Ari Folman

Movies Features Ari Folman

Writer/director Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is something audiences may not seen before: an animated documentary. In the film, Folman tries to piece together the gaps in his memory from serving in the Israeli Defense Force during the Lebanon War in 1982. And though the images are animated, their power and meaning remain intact, and the conflict’s full destruction is on display.

The film builds up to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, a shadowy event in Folman’s mind (and for good reason—over 3,000 people were slaughtered), catalyzed by the death of the film’s titular character: Lebanon president-elect Bashir Gemayel, who was killed by Palestinian Arabs just nine days before he was to assume office. Folman, just 19-years-old at the time, says Waltz with Bashir was his chance to reconnect with his own personal history, a history that had been blurred and dormant in his mind for over two decades. Paste recently talked with Folman about the film, which along with Persepolis and Waking Life is helping to pave new ground in the ever-evolving field of animation.

Paste: What compelled you to make the film after all of these years?
Ari Folman: Five years ago, I wanted an early release from the Israeli reserve army. Basically, I was doing nothing but writing silly instructional movies about how to defend yourself from a chemical attack, for example. They said they’d give me a release as long as I met with their therapist and tell everything I went through during the armed services. I did that, I had something like 10 sessions. At the end, I realized it was the first time ever for me to hear my very own personal story. It amazed me. And then I realized I’m not the only one, of course. I went to my friends and realized we never discussed what we did in the armed service. I figured out, I had the main storyline, but there were still some black holes in the story. I thought I should for a journey to figure out what happened.

Paste: In the film, you say you were trying to make sense of your part in the massacre. Is that because making sense of the rest of it is impossible?
Folman: You can’t really understand what happened there. You can’t understand why people would go into a camp and kill for three days. It was more than just killing, really, they did some unbelievable things. For me, it was more trying to figure out why all of those memories were suppressed. I understood they were suppressed, but where did they go?

Paste: So, at the end of this, what would you say you learned about these memories?
Folman: Well, there a lot of theories I can tell you. First, I think suppressing memories is not such a bad thing, as therapists will tell you. In many ways it helps you go on with your life and it’s a good way to go on with your life. But sometimes, it works. You can live your entire life suppressed, and be happy. Sometimes you wake up one day, and this memory for whatever reason reemerges from you and you have to deal with it, like in this story.

There was also something from one my interviewees that’s not in the film. This neurobiologist told me they’re doing very interesting research right now. They think if you’ve gone through a traumatic event, you go on living the memory and you tell the story again and again. After 10 or 20 years, it will be a completely different story because you will relive it in different ways. You will adopt different versions of the story, and add more details through the years. But if you went through an event and you immediately suppress it, they think that there’s a biological shell that will cover this memory in your brain. Once the shell is broken, if it’s broken, the memory will be purely fresh, as if it happened 10 minutes ago. They are trying to prove that now. This is a scientific theory, that you can either believe in or not believe in. For me, it makes sense after this film. When we started the journey I didn’t know what he was talking about. Now, I’m sorry he’s not in the film. He should’ve been in it.

Paste: Was making the film therepeautic in a way?
Folman: It was. You meet people, you interview them, you record them, you listen to the recordings, you write a screenplay, you live it again. Any kind of filmmaking is thereupeautic. It’s about closing circles in your life.

Paste: The title, Waltz with Bashir, refers to a specific scene toward the end, but I was wondering what the title means to you in the context of the film as a whole?
Folman: It is the scene, but more than that it’s a symbolic way of describing the relationship between the Israelis and the Christians in Lebanon, as if we danced with them and this is how the dance ended, with this massacre. “Waltz with Bashir” is like dancing with the Phalanges, our only allies in Lebanon. We could have had other allies, but we chose them and this is how it ended up.

Paste: Why did you feel it was important to add the real-life reaction scenes of the massacre at the end of the film?
Folman: I just thought it’s essential that no one, nowhere, anywhere would walk out of this film and think, “this is a cool animated film with great drawings and music.” It’s more than that. Those things really happened and thousands of people died there – innocent people, kids, women, old people. The footage is only 50 seconds, but it puts everything into proportion.

Paste: You mentioned music, briefly. It’s sort of all over the place in the film, mixing classical with heavy rock. What purpose did you want the music to serve in the film?
Folman: In any film, for me, I put a lot of effort into the soundtrack. I love that stage of filmmaking, because I’m a frustrated musician. I’m a very bad trumpet player. So in film, I get the chance to work with all these talented people and I love it. But this guy, Max Richter, I used to listen to his albums while writing. I thought he was really inspiring and asked him to score the film.

Paste: Why is this film animated? Why not do a live-action documentary?
Because I felt total freedom to go from one dimension to another, from reality to dreams, from subconscious, from memories, to lost memories. It just gives you artistic freedom. I did animation before, I made a five-hour documentary. I followed something like eight love stories for a few years, and in between I have scientists talking about different aspects of love. And I couldn’t figure out who to combine the real stories with the scientists, without having them patronize over the characters. Then I came up with the idea of drawing them and just using their voices, and we did that. We did 25 minutes of it. It was very basic animation, but it worked so well. I loved it. When I thought of this film, I knew it had to be animated as well.

Paste: Do you think films like yours showing people you can tackle heavier subject matter in the world of animation?
Folman: Oh I’m sure about it, I’m sure. I never understood why there isn’t a genre for adult animation. My next film as well will be adult animation. I don’t know why they don’t do it more, probably for economic reasons.

Paste: The film just got nominated for a bunch of Annie Awards, which in a big deal in the animation field. How do you feel now that the film is out and is gaining these accolades?
Folman: It feels great, of course. I think we were really clueless as to what would happen with the film when we completed it. It’s beyond all my expectations, even in terms of the Annie awards. You know, we only had eight animators on board for this film. One of our illustrators drew alone 75 percent of the time. One day, we were sitting in the studio watching Finding Nemo after work, and in the ending titles we counted 42 people just responsible for lighting. We were then six animators. It was such a great laugh. Next thing we know we’re going to compete with those guys for a prize. It’s bizarre, really.

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