Filmmaker reveals ‘Waltz with Bashir’ backstory
LOS ANGELES — The day before Ari Folman accepted the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film for his animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir,” he was talking to a packed house at Hollywood’s Arclight Theatre following a screening of the movie.
The 45-year-old filmmaker appeared somewhat bemused by all the hoopla, after eight months of traveling the world with the film and attending dozens of festivals.
“When Sony bought the film they told me, ‘You have to come over for awards season,’” Folman recalled. “I didn’t know what that meant. But now I see that there is an NBA season, an NFL season and an awards season. It’s like every two days there’s a game. You’re competing with the same films and the same directors. Some days they win, some days I win. It’s like you’re all really obsessed with prizes.”
Folman called “Waltz with Bashir” his anti-war movie.
“This film was complicated because on the one hand I wanted to show war in a very nonglorifying way,” he said. “Unlike those American anti-war movies where they tell their kids: ‘War sucks but the guys in the movie are really cool.’ And the kids take it the wrong way. They say, ‘Yes, war sucks, but I want to go to Iraq and die for my country.’ On the other hand, it was essential that the Israeli soldiers weren’t shown as victims.”
Folman was only 19 when he served in Lebanon during the time of the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. But he didn’t return yearning to make a film about his experiences. In fact, he could barely remember them, which is what forms the basis of the movie.
It all started a little more than four years ago, when he was looking to get out of his annual military reserve duty.
“I was not a big fighter,” he confessed. “I was a screenwriter, and my job in the army was to write short instruction movies, like ‘How to defend yourself from an Iranian nuclear attack in 60 seconds.’ I had an agreement with the army: I didn’t have to wear a uniform, I didn’t have to get out of bed, and [in return] they could call me whenever they wanted.”
Folman said the army was always calling him at inopportune times, including in the delivery room when his wife was giving birth, so he told them he wanted out. He ended up being released early — the Israeli army doesn’t release its soldiers until they are 50 — but only after agreeing to meet with an army therapist and discuss his experiences.
“It was the first time I heard myself speak about what I went through, and although I had the main storyline there were definitely black holes,” he recalled. “I started talking to my close friends about it. We were all the same age and had been in the army at the same time and I realized I knew nothing about their experiences either.”
After hearing the recollections of a soldier named Boaz who had to shoot 26 dogs in Lebanese villages to silence barking that would have warned the villages’ residents of IDF intruders, the idea for the film was born. A dream sequence involving Boaz and the 26 dogs he killed became the film’s opening sequence.
Folman waded through more than 100 recordings of soldiers after placing an ad online asking those who served in Lebanon in the first three months of the war to come forward and tell their stories. Nine of those made it into the film, and only two of the stories are voiced by actors, rather than the original protagonists.
Folman says he always intended to make “Waltz with Bashir” as an animated film.
“When you look at everything that there is in this film — lost memory, memories of war, which are probably the most surreal things on earth, dreams, subconscious, drugs, hallucination — it was the only way to combine one fluid storyline,” he said. “If it was a classic documentary, it would have shown middle-aged men telling their war experiences and it would have to be covered with footage that you could never find and wouldn’t come close to resembling what they went through. It would be a boring film. And if you made a big action movie with the budget of an Israeli movie, that would just be sad.”
The film was first screened in Israel in June 2008. While it generated enormous discussion, Folman says, it wasn’t of the political nature he expected.
“I thought people would call it a left-wing anti-Zionist film and that didn’t happen,” he said. “And more than that, the film became the darling of the establishment.”
The Israeli response, according to Folman, was positive for two reasons: It made Israel look like a tolerant country, allowing soldiers to talk openly about their experiences in the war, and when it was screened in Europe it made many people there realize for the first time that it wasn’t the Israeli troops that committed the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres.
“They didn’t pull the trigger; it was the Christian regime,” Folman said. “And this is the type of propaganda the Israeli government couldn’t buy for money. So they kept sending the movie out.”
The refugee camps were in Lebanese territory under Israeli control, but the attacks were carried out by Lebanese Christian fighters allied with Israel. An Israeli investigative commission following the massacres found that though Israeli officials did not have a hand in organizing the massacres, which left at least hundreds dead, they bore indirect responsibility for failing to anticipate the violence and allowing the Christian fighters into the camps.
Then-defense minister Ariel Sharon resigned his post as a result.
“The only place where the film did not do well was in Germany, where the public was obsessed with the comparison of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres to the Holocaust,” Folman said.
“It’s no coincidence that there are two strong references to the Holocaust in the film,” said Folman, himself the son of survivors. “The Holocaust is in every Israeli’s DNA. That’s why the biggest demonstrations in Israel happened after Sabra and Shatila, because it sparked memories of our past. People realized something was terribly wrong because that massacre took place with the support and collaboration of the Israeli government.”
Fielding questions from the audience about how the film might be able inform the current war in Gaza, Folman said he doesn’t believe that films can change the world.
“I do think they can build small bridges, but I don’t think they can change public opinion. Israelis love this film because it shows what war really is, but,” he said, talking about the current war in Gaza, “they say ‘Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.’ That’s very Israeli.
“So unfortunately, my film did not change anything.”