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March 1, 2009.
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 Ė 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 Phalangists, who
committed the killings, were spared the brunt of the condemnations, the
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were found indirectly responsible for
permitting the Christian Lebanese in the camps Ė and Ariel Sharon was found
to bear personal responsibility and forced to resign.
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 Ė 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 Oscarô, it didn't win Ė much to the surprise
of many critics and film mavens. While the winner, Departures, was
much appreciated, it neither reached the audiences nor garnered the media
attention Waltz with Bashir has had from the beginning.
Frankly, with its controversial approach 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 dark times; or perhaps because it held
the Israelis far more accountable than ever before. However now, as the film
goes into much wider release, this seems like a good time to make available
this exclusive interview with Folman.
In a lot of films, Israeli soldiers are portrayed as super soldiers. This
film shows a decidedly different view of the Israeli soldier.
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 Ė through testimonies, newspapers, and on TV
all over the place Ė [that it was a] big embarrassment, because, [even
though] we were not even fighting an army, we couldnít win it.
way, I think that people hurt so much Ė they got so much information about
the army Ė that if this film is too much for you, you can always say itís a
cartoon film. Itís Mickey Mouse. If you donít say that, you say, ďIíve seen
it, Iíve seen it. Iíve seen it two years ago in the war.Ē Then, people
didnít mind, really.
that why you made with the animation?
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 is war, fear, memory loss, subconscious, drugs,
isolation. For me, the perfect way to go from one dimension [was through]
drawings and animation.
How about the documentary process?
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.
Were there parts that you said to yourself, ďThis is better than I
thought?Ē And were there parts where you thought, "Maybe not so muchÖ"
Itís 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 Ė which is frame by frame. I would take out the 50 seconds of live
video at the endÖ Or maybe, I would take ten seconds off. Apart from that, I
wouldnít change anything.
Have you screened this for Palestinians? Have any of the survivors seen
It was screened twice in Ramallah. I didnít go there. They didnít 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 Ė [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.
Itís 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 Belgian distributorís husband
is Lebanese, but we couldnít do it. Probably in the end we will spread
screeners or something like that so people can see it.
you speak to soldiers now, what is their attitude about it?
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 noÖ. We [Israelis normally] donít do that. That was
an [unimaginable] situation 25 years ago Ė 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 donít 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, heís a hero because he saved them. Twenty five years ago, you
couldnít live in Israel anymore [after that].
Do you ever worry about being called up again?
No. Iím too old.
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?
I donít think the film deals with guilt. In France, they all thought it
dealt with guilt, but I donít think so. I think it deals with memory, with
suppressed memories, but itís not about guilt. With some places I travel to,
they find it hard to believe the film, but this is the truth.
Though you and the soldiers weren't responsible for the massacre
directly, how would describe your feelings about having a responsibility as
It all depends on how much you know or donít 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 Ė and you were the third party Ė 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 didnít really know what was going on, [I had to ask], "What did I do
there?" Thatís what the film is all about Ė trying to figure out things. Iím
pretty sure that if you asked everyone that was with me, we didnít 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. Itís 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 donít knowÖ I donít have an answer. I know what I want to
know. I want to think about myself, how I was educated and everything.
Knowing and not knowing. Thatís kind of the essence of the Jewish
The government knew. The leadership knew. But we didnít 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,
you see parallels in what happened in [Lebanon] and what happened in Rwanda?
It was [in] allowing it, and [in] surrounding the camps. Itís mostly just
allowing it Ė the lights, the flares [we shot off]; the flares that helped Ė
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
donít know what a "peace army" is; I canít 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 didnít do anything. I screened it in Sarajevo
[several] months ago and it was an incredible screening Ė unbelievable, the
best we had since Cannes.
You must provoke a lot of anger from the right in Israel.
No, just [from] the left.
I donít 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 didnít take enough blame for
Israelís 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
And the government sent [it] at their expense to all the festivals to
represent the country Ė two government funds [have] supported the film Ė for
two reasons. The first, it does seem to give a view of [Israel as] a very
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.
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