February 19, 2009
‘Waltz With Bashir’ Fills In Gaps in Director’s Memories
Israeli director Ari Folman has two sides. There’s the calm, diplomatic one he presented in an interview with Deborah Solomon in The New York Times, when she suggested that the recent Gaza war lends added relevance to his war film, “Waltz With Bashir,” which has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Folman’s response: “It will always be up to date because something will always happen again.”
“You mean the prospect for peace seems so remote? That’s sad,” Solomon countered.
“But it’s true,” Folman said.
Still, after eight years spent digging around in his own war demons to make the film, the former combat soldier said he believes diplomacy is preferable to violence. “Talk, don’t shoot,” he told Solomon. And so, she branded him “The Peacemaker,” placing a title of responsibility upon the artist. The burden of being held to account for Israel’s military actions in Gaza is following him through the heat of this year’s awards season.
In a conversation just a month later, Folman revealed a more volatile side. The call went through at nearly 11 p.m. Israel time, and remarking that he still had three more interviews to do that night, he answered the phone on the verge of a tirade.
When asked if attitudes toward the war in Gaza permeate discourse about his film, and, in particular, if he has encountered any hostility from audiences during the Q&A sessions that follow his screenings, Folman was dismissive.
“Hostile? Why?” he answered. “I don’t recall a military operation that was more supported than this one in Gaza.”
But, surely he had noticed a difference in audience responses to the film either during or after the invasion?
“There’s maybe 20 minutes for this interview, and you’re going to waste 16 minutes talking about Gaza,” he snapped. “I don’t want to talk about Gaza and politics. I have enough of that.”
Considering the barrage of criticism lodged internationally at Israel for its recent military action in Gaza and that Folman’s documentary is a penetrating account of war, it’s no wonder he’s on the defensive: He is being asked as much about current events, or perhaps even more so, than about the making of his film. His impatience may stem, too, from the fact that the movie he calls his “anti-war liberation” played in theaters during an Israeli military campaign lauded in Israel and by the U.S. government but challenged everywhere else. Given, too, that the circumstances of timing have helped make a name for this filmmaker, who previously was unknown outside of Israel, the Oscar nomination has attracted even more attention. All of this has forced Folman again and again to publicly confront the traumatic memories this film was supposed to help him reconcile.
Folman had served in Israel’s army and reserve for 22 years when he finally decided he wanted out. In 2003, just after turning 40, he asked his military superiors to be released from Israel’s reserves. (Every citizen is required to serve one month annually in the reserves until age 50.) He got permission — on the condition that he see the army therapist and talk about his experiences.
At the time, he had become an accomplished screenwriter and filmmaker in Israel, who for his reserve duty made instructional army films like “How to Defend Yourself From an Iranian Nuclear Attack in 60 Seconds.” But it took a series of 20 two-hour therapy sessions for him to begin to talk about the most significant event in his military career, what was also one of the most polarizing chapters in Israeli history: the 1982 Lebanon War.
There were gaps in Folman’s memory, a kind of self-inflicted amnesia. “I realized I had suppressed things, deep down. There were black holes in my memory,” he told an audience gathered at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood last January. When he served in Lebanon, Folman was 19. By age 22, Folman had put his war stories to rest. He deliberately disconnected himself from fellow conscripts and decided to forget what had happened. “I did succeed, but things can get out; then you have to deal with it.”
His first trigger in the film (as it was in life) comes in a phone call from his friend, Boaz. The two meet in a bar, the rain is pelting down outside as Boaz recounts a recurring nightmare: A pack of 26 savage, slavering dogs terrorize the streets of Tel Aviv, then gather, ravenous and barking, at the base of a building where Boaz is hiding. The dream, he says, is connected to Lebanon, where barking dogs often alerted the enemy of approaching soldiers. In Lebanon, Boaz was ordered to kill them. Folman listens attentively to his friend’s story, but when probed about his own tortured past, he comes up blank.
“Waltz With Bashir” is Folman’s effort to fill in the gaps in his memory. It is a documentary, but it is also animated. It consists of nine firsthand testimonials — seven of which are narrated by the veterans who lived them — threaded together by Folman’s personal narrative. It is based on true stories depicted in a surreal phantasmagoria of images. Folman says the only way to make this film was through animation, where there is little distinction between dreams and hallucinations, nightmares and combat. This is Folman’s view of war — absent the glory of victory or brotherhood. It is full of trauma, repressed memories, dreams and lost youth.
“Waltz With Bashir” presents an unrelenting depiction of wartime brutality — innocents die, soldiers fire indiscriminately and the trauma does not end when the combat does. Folman shows the war’s real victims to be the Lebanese and the Palestinian civilians, though they are visible only in the background. The focus on the IDF soldiers does not spare Israelis the conflicted moral questioning that accompanies violent conflict.
There is a popular genre in Israeli folklore called “shoot and cry,” in which soldiers are portrayed as reluctant to kill and maintain their humanity by atoning afterward. Folman insists his film goes deeper than that. He has little regard for American war films in which bravery and friendship are glorified amid terrible carnage. “Waltz With Bashir” has none of that. It tells of fragile soldiers who regress into terrified boys.
“I expected critics to dismiss it as a leftist, anti-Zionist film, but that didn’t happen,” he said at the screening. Instead, Israeli consulates around the world have invited Folman to screen the film. “It’s kinda weird, if you consider how the IDF is portrayed.”
On the other hand, he said, promoting the film is advantageous to Israel, because it gives the impression that the country can tolerate criticism. “This is propaganda for the government,” Folman explained. “They couldn’t buy this for money — so they keep sending it.”
Folman’s own reaction to the film is more complex. He calls it an “antiwar film” — a kind of artistic protest — yet the hint at any tension between his ambitions as a filmmaker and his patriotism was vehemently denied.
“Is there any contradiction?” he said disdainfully. “Let me tell you something. Sometimes you just don’t understand. [This film] isn’t just representing Israel. You sit here, and you ask me if I’m torn apart between ideas I put into my film and being Israeli — I mean, it’s Israel, and it’s much more tolerant than you might think.”
There are still, however, sensitive parallels in the film. The Holocaust is mentioned twice in a story that depicts the brutality of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which the IDF stood by in 1982 as Lebanese Christian Phalangists entered the two Palestinian refugee camps on a civilian killing spree.
Folman himself comes from a “really extreme, hardcore Holocaust survivor family”; both his parents are survivors. “The Holocaust is deep in the DNA of the people,” he said of Israelis. But, unsurprisingly, Israeli audiences didn’t want to discuss it. Elsewhere — in the U.S., France, even a few Arab countries — the subject of culpability is raised: How could a country of Holocaust survivors stand idly by during a massacre?
Folman reminds that Israelis are not of just one mind: “There were never such demonstrations in Israel as when right after people realized something really went wrong there — the Christian Phalangists were our allies,” Folman said of the group that killed massive numbers of Palestinians during the war. A record 400,000 Israelis took to the streets in protest after the Kahan Commission determined Israel bore indirect responsibility for the mass murder.
And Folman pays homage to the slaughtered: Using the film’s only bit of real-life news footage, haunting images of lifeless Palestinians linger on screen. Where the war is animated, documentary footage shows the dead Palestinians. By highlighting their humanity, the film reinforces the inhumanity of the crime against them.
In the late-night conversation, Folman acknowledged parallels between the film and recent events but said he believes his message shouldn’t be reduced to commentary: “The film has a political statement. It’s no big deal; it’s nothing new, and it doesn’t change because of Gaza. Nothing changed during the Gaza event. The antiwar statement will stay there forever. Nothing will change.”
His work, he believes, remains in the realm of art — interpretation, even therapy — but not a political event in and of itself.
“I just don’t believe that films can change the world,” he has said repeatedly.
“They can build small bridges between people, but they can’t really change public opinion.”