Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour
Of all the films nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar this year, director Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir reaped substantial press and stirred the most controversy. A documentary fashioned as an animated film, it is as much an imagined memoir as it is a record of a tragedy that happened in September 1982—the massacre of 350 (some say 3,500) Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian Phalangists in West Beirut, Lebanon, while Israeli troops controlled access to the camps. Israel had invaded earlier that year to stop the Palestinians, who were using Southern Lebanon as their base of operations.
After a major international outcry, an Israeli commission was formed to establish responsibility for the killings. Though the Phalangist militia who did the killings largely avoided scrutiny, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was held indirectly responsible for permitting the Christian Lebanese paramilitary in the camps--and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to resign after he was found to bear personal responsibility.
As a 19-year-old draftee, Folman was one of those Israeli soldiers near the camps' gates. In 2006, when he ran into a friend from his army days, his comrade shared stories of nightmares stirred by that experience. To his surprise, Folman realized he could not recall anything from that period; later, he had a surreal vision from that night. Encouraged by another former soldier to tell of his vision and recover his memories, Folman embarked on a journey that culminated in this film, including interviews with a journalist, a psychologist, and other veterans who were there—a remarkable, feverish collage of recollection and documentation through simple but effective flash-generated animation.
Waltz With Bashir premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, was part of 2008's New York Film Festival, and went on to win various awards, including the 2009 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Though nominated for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar™, it didn't win—much to the surprise of many critics and film mavens. While the winner, Departures, was much appreciated, it neither reached the audiences or garnered the media attention Waltz with Bashir has had from the beginning.
Frankly, with its controversial approach and and unremitting tone, as well as its fundamental criticism, if not indictment, of Israeli society, Waltz with Bashir didn't win over the voting bloc of the Academy. Maybe that was because it was one of the darker films nominated while the others offered a heartening response to our gloomy times, or perhaps, because it held the Israelis far more accountable than ever before. And Israeli accountability has come under scrutiny with the recent incursion into the Gaza Strip. But now, as the film goes into much wider release, this seems like a good time to make available this exclusive interview with Folman.
Q: In a lot of films, Israeli soldiers are portrayed as super soldiers. This film shows a decidedly different view of the Israeli soldier.
AF: I tried to figure out why this subject was not at all referred to after the film [came] out. The only thing that I could think about was that in the second Lebanon war, the idea was shown in such an embarrassing way, and it was so out there in the media—through testimonies, newspapers, and on TV all over the place--[that it was a] big embarrassment, because, [even though] we were not even fighting an army, we couldn’t win it.
In a way, I think that people hurt so much--they got so much information about the army--that if this film is too much for you, you can always say it’s a cartoon film. It’s Mickey Mouse. If you don’t say that, you say, “I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it two years ago in the war.” Then, people didn’t mind, really.
Q: Is that why you made with the animation?
AF: I was very concerned with the fact that I wanted the audience to be attached emotionally to the characters, although they are animated. I put a lot of effort in the drawings to make them as realistic as could be. We put in a lot of details which made the animation much more complicated for us.
I just felt complete artistic freedom to do it animated, and could never imagine the film [being] different. From the very beginning, I imagined it as drawings, and imagined the characters as drawings. If you look at all the elements in films, it’s war, fear, memory loss, subconscious, drugs, isolation. For me, the perfect way to go from one dimension [was through] drawings and animation.
Q: How about the documentary process?
AF: I advertised over the internet that I was looking for stories from the Lebanon War [I was in]. We got responses from more than a hundred people and started to interview [them]. It took us something like a year [to do]. Then I wrote the screenplay pretty fast. It was the quickest screenplay that I ever wrote; it took me seven days.
We dramatized everything we could in the sound studio [and shot it there]. We cut it into a video-film and then we took the video as reference, made a storyboard out of the video-film, then we moved the storyboard to video.
We [watched] it on the big screen to see that the drama and everything was working. Then in the end we picked up the key frames. More than 3,000 frames were drawn, and then we moved them. It took us four years.
Q: Were there parts that you said to yourself, “This is better than I thought?" And were there parts where you thought, "Maybe not so much…"
AF: It’s always like that in every film. One year after my previous film [Made In Israel] was released I had a special screening in Berlin. Then, I saw the film onscreen and realized for the first time that I could cut [out] 20 minutes to make it a perfect film.
With this one, I was pretty [much] at peace with everything. There [are] some small parts of the animation that I would redo, or do it [as] classic animation—which is frame by frame. I would take out the 50 seconds of live video at the end… Or maybe, I would take 10 seconds off. Apart from that, I wouldn’t change anything.
Q: Have you screened this for Palestinians; have any of the survivors seen this?
AF: It was screened twice in Ramallah. I didn’t go there. They didn’t want me there because they said I needed insurance and no one, of course, wanted to insure me [laughs]. But it was a good screening.
Then I had this kind of weird screening, it was the opening night in Brussels. The special guest was not me; it was the Palestinian ambassador for the EU—[Leila Shahid], [who] is pretty clever and funny as well. She was in the camps four hours after the massacre. [The late controversial leftist author] Jean Genet wrote this book, Four Hours in Shatila It’s a very famous French book. She was his guide. She had a lot to say about the film. She loved it, but she said I could have [taken] more responsibility, and Israeli soldiers knew more than there is in the film. We were hoping to screen it in Beirut because our Belgium distributor’s husband is Lebanese, but we couldn’t do it. Probably in the end we will spread screeners or something like that so people can see it.
Q: When you speak to soldiers now, what is their attitude about it?
AF: I think a lot of things have progressed. If you take how many people [recently] refused to back the second Lebanon War; they were in a crazy situation and they said no…. We [Israelis normally] don’t do that. That was an [unimaginable] situation 25 years ago—you just [would] go and die.
For example with this [current] war, [there] was this guy, a 28-year-old captain, in the reserves, who said, "No, my soldiers are not going to this village because they are not prepared and don’t have the right weapons." They took him out of the battlefield. But then it was out in the press, and the army just let him go because they knew if they were going to [court-martial] him, it would be a big embarrassment for them. And for his soldiers, he’s a hero because he saved them. Twenty five years ago, you couldn’t live in Israel anymore [after that].
Q: Do you ever worry about being called up again?
AF: No. I’m too old.
Q: The Jewish people have to deal with this guilt of being "the chosen people." Do you think that was a part of this film's story?
AF: I don’t think the film deals with guilt. In France, they all thought it dealt with guilt, but I don’t think so. I think it deals with memory, with suppressed memories, but it’s not about guilt. With some places I travel to, they find it hard to believe the film, but this is the truth.
Q: Though you and the soldiers weren't responsible for the massacre directly, how would describe your feelings about having a responsibility as a bystander?
AF: It all depends on how much you know or don’t know. The film has a lot to do with the chronology of the massacre, [or] any massacre. Meaning, how long does it take you to take all the things you hear or see, or someone said to someone--and you were the third party--and put them into one frame [so that you can] say, "Okay, there is a mass murder going on." The second question is, "What do you do then?"
Since I didn’t really know what was going on, [I had to ask], "What did I do there?" That’s what the film is all about—trying to figure out things. I’m pretty sure that if you asked everyone that was with me, we didn’t have a clue about what was going on.
As it's shown in the film, when it ended we could see the women running out of the camps and we saw what was going on. It’s more of a theoretical question now. For the first time, I must admit, I was busy with [it] only after the film was released and I was asked so many questions. That is what would I have done if I was this guy on the first circle [surrounding the camp], like this tank commander that saw what was going on on all those three days. I don’t know… I don’t have an answer. I know what I want to know. I want to think about myself, how I was educated and everything.
Q: Knowing and not knowing. That’s kind of the essence of the Jewish experience.
AF: The government knew. The leadership knew. But we didn’t know. Not enough was done to prevent it by people who knew, and after it started, to stop it, or, [at least,] stop it after a short time. It took more then three days and nights. [Had it] been stopped earlier, it would have saved a lot of lives.
There is no news in the film. There was a committee in Israel, the Kahan [Commission]. They found people responsible [and] banned them from office for [their] lifetime. But I was not interested in those people. I was not interested at all in the political level, [only on the] very personal, private level.
Q: Did you see parallels in what happened in [Lebanon] and what happened in Rwanda?
AF: It was [in] allowing it, and [in] surrounding the camps. It’s mostly just allowing it—the lights, the flares [we shot off]; the flares that helped—meaning that a lot of people knew.
I see similarity between this and [what happened with] the Dutch peace army in the Srebrenica [Bosnia-Herzegovina] massacre in 1995. They were there. I don’t know what a "peace army" is, I can’t even understand the meaning of "peace army." How can peace have an army? But they were there for the sake of guarding the people, and during those three days more then 8,000 people were slaughtered. So it didn’t do anything. I screened it in Sarajevo [several] months ago and it was an incredible screening—unbelievable, the best we had since Cannes.
Q: You must provoke a lot of anger from the right in Israel.
AF: No, just [from] the left.
AF: I don’t know why. I was expecting as usual a brutal attack from the right, but the film was so well received by everybody. Sometimes I think we as filmmakers underestimate the audience. They saw the film just as I meant it to be [seen]. It is a very private film, an autobiographical film.
The only criticism that I did receive from Israel was from [the] very left-wing, [who were] saying that the film didn’t take enough blame for Israel’s responsibility for what happened. I can tell you that in [the] very right-wing newspapers, and on the radio stations, they praised the film. I was surprised.
And the government sent [it] at their expense to all the festivals to represent the country—two government funds [have] supported the film—for two reasons. The first, it does seem to give a view of [Israel as] a very pluralistic country.
The other thing is, in some places in Europe and America, [they still] don't know anything about the massacre. But in Europe, [especially] in France, it was, for many people, the first time [they heard] that it was a Christian regime that did the massacre and not Israeli troops. In many ways, [the film] did good.