'Waltz with Bashir' Makes War Look Stupid
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Several months ago, when Ari Folman was promoting his new animated documentary, "Waltz With Bashir," the film screened for a Palestinian audience in Ramallah, less than 40 miles from his home in Tel Aviv.
The director was asked not to attend.
Folman had already traveled far and wide to promote the movie, which had received wildly enthusiastic accolades everywhere, from Cannes to Auckland. But the French company presenting in Ramallah had asked the 45-year-old war veteran not to come to this screening so close to home, because it was not sure it could guarantee his safety. The company had a point: "Waltz With Bashir," a graphic and violent series of recollections of the 1982 war in Lebanon, told almost entirely from the point of view of Israeli soldiers, culminates in bloody live footage of the aftermath of the infamous Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp massacres in which thousands of Palestinian men, women and children were murdered by Christian militia with Israeli troops stationed directly outside the camps.
As it turned out, the audience response in Ramallah, though passionate, was the kind every filmmaker dreams of: There was high demand for more screenings, because there wasn't enough room in the theater for all the people who wanted to see the film.
This did not surprise Folman, whose intent for his documentary was always to tell a universal story, not a specifically political one: "I show how stupid wars are," he said in a telephone interview. "I wanted to make a movie that no teenager could watch and think 'Oh, sure, war sucks, but those soldiers are cool.' There is nothing cool or glamorous about war."
Folman should know. He was 19 when he was flown over the Lebanese border for the Israeli offensive in 1982, and as we learn in the film, he passed the flight daydreaming about a romantic death in battle, hoping to inspire regret in the heart of the girlfriend who had just dumped him. What the boy found instead was fear and absurdity and enough trauma to blot out his memories.
It would be 20 years before Folman, now a successful screenwriter and director who barely even thought about his time as a soldier, would be forced to grapple with the meaning of his wartime experiences. He was 40 years old and tired of his time in the Israeli reserves, where he'd been put to work writing scenarios for military videos explaining, among other things, the proper care and feeding of gas masks. The army agreed to let him go -- but only if he would agree to a series of exit interviews with a therapist.
Thought not a big believer in psychotherapy, he took the deal. Over the course of eight or nine sessions, he realized that he had no memory whatsoever of the massacres themselves, even though he had been stationed nearby. He then set out on a quest, both personal and professional, for answers to the questions that had come up in therapy: What had happened to him in Beirut? What had he seen? Why couldn't he remember? What had the war done to him?
Folman sought out classmates, as well as men from his old unit and the first Israeli reporter on the scene of the massacres, and gathered their stories. He consulted an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder. He reached out to his best friend, Ori Sivan (listed in the credits as "filmmaker and shrink"), and he set out to make a film that would capture the surrealism of war and the fluidity of memory. He had already experimented successfully with animation for his popular Israeli TV show, "The Material That Love Is Made Of," and so he hired the artist Yoni Goodman, a gifted illustrator, and then set about trying to raise the money to get his movie made. Despite the modest $2 million budget of "Waltz With Bashir," potential investors were reluctant to back the film -- the first feature-length animated documentary ever made, and Folman ended up having to mortgage his house.