Ari Folman made his animated documentary about the Israeli army’s role in a massacre of Palestinians as a way of exorcising personal demons. Now the film could win him the top prize at Cannes.
If Israel’s Ari Folman wins the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival tomorrow for his harrowing animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, it will be the perfect end to a journey that he never dreamed he would take.
Several days after the film’s world premiere, the 45-year-old Folman still has not quite got his head around the idea that his film has been widely praised by the world’s press, and has a good chance of scooping the festival’s most prestigious award.
“It’s kind of a Cinderella story,” says the Haifa-born filmmaker. “[Waltz with Bashir] started as a £50,000 short film for a documentary channel, so to think that I would end up here, with all the hype, it’s hard to believe. Even if I was like a science-fiction writer, I still couldn’t have predicted what has happened with the film up till now.”
Folman’s feature-length film is a bold piece of work which draws on some of his experiences as a young soldier during the war in Lebanon in 1982. In it, a character called Ari realises that he cannot remember the details of a three-day mission, so he visits former army buddies and various associates to try and find out what happened. This leads him, and the audience, to the film’s painful climax — the slaughter of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Palestinians by the Christian Phalangist militia at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. Estimates of the numbers of casualties have ranged from 700 to 3,500.
Although the Israel Defence Forces were not participants in the massacre, neither were they sent in to stop it. Following an inquiry into the incident by a federal committee, Ariel Sharon was dismissed from the post of Minister of Defence.
The idea for the documentary was born when Folman asked to be released from duty in Israel’s reserve army after he turned 40, and was told that he would have to see a psychotherapist.
“So I met this really nice lady on a weekly basis for a couple of hours, and I started telling her about my army service from the very first day,” he says.
After eight sessions, he had told his complete story for the very first time. “I was amazed, not because of the things I heard but because of the fact that I never spoke about it,” he says. “Then I started thinking about it, and I went back to my friends and I asked them: ‘Do you ever talk about it?’ And then they started talking about it.”
When a friend called Boaz told him of his recurring dream about a pack of wild hounds that bark at him from underneath his window, Folman knew he had the material for his next film.
However, it would not be easy. He was determined to make an animated film, which costs money. But, his source of funding was TV documentary departments, from which he could raise only a tenth of the money he would have received if he was making a fiction film.
“So I had to go through a nightmare to finance this film — to mortgage my house, to risk all my family,” he says.
But animation was the only way to go, as far as he was concerned. “I thought about all the elements that I would have to put in the film that were conscious and subconscious dreams, nightmares, wars, fear of death, lost love, drugs, trips, hallucinations, and there was no way to do it in a traditional documentary.”
Some French journalists in Cannes have described Waltz with Bashir as a film about moral guilt and responsibility, but Folman is having none of it.
“I’m sorry to upset so many people but this is the honest truth — it has nothing to do with guilt,” he insists. Nor does it have anything to do with Sharon. “I don’t give a damn about him. This guy has nothing to do with me. I am his victim. I was sent as a pawn in his chess game. I don’t give a damn about him. I was concerned only with the point of view of the common soldier, the rankless soldier, the clueless one, who was sent to Beirut, I don’t know why, and I was obsessed with the chronology of the massacre.”
He attributes his fixation with the timeline of events in Lebanon to being surrounded by Holocaust survivors when he was growing up in Israel. Some of them never spoke about what happened, while others, like his own mother (he laughs), never stop talking.
Folman says he became obsessed with finding out what had happened to these surivors and why, and wondered whether he would have had the strength to survive in the same situation. “And, of course, I was always interested in how many people knew [about the Holocaust]. And if a lot of people knew, why wasn’t anything done for three-and-a-half years? So, for me, of course, the massacre [in Beirut] was connected,” he says.
He believes that the reason why there was such widespread outrage in Israel when pictures of the slaughtered refugees were released was because of a subconscious link with the Holocaust. “The response was immense,” he says. “It was something in the Jewish DNA of the Israelis that related the photos from the massacre to their past.”
This outrage is felt in the final minute of the movie, when animation gives way to live-action footage of the aftermath of the slaughter. The effect is shattering because it suddenly closes the distance which animation inevitably creates. For Folman, it was necessary to remind audiences that Waltz with Bashir is not fiction, but an all-too-real slice of history. “I didn’t want the audience to go out of the theatre thinking: ‘Yes, this is a cool animated film. Nice drawings. Cool music.’ I just want to put everything in proportion and say this happened; thousands of people were killed, kids were killed, women were killed, old people were killed. And you have to get it, sometimes, as we say in Hebrew, in the face.”
For all this, he does not expect the film to be controversial in Israel. On the contrary, everything in the film is known, he says. “So in terms of facts and political facts, there is no big news. Of course, some people will like it. Some people will dislike it. But it’s OK. Israel is an open society. You can express your views artistically. You can go as far as you want.”
One of Folman’s hopes for Waltz with Bashir is that it will be shown to Arab audiences, although he knows that this could be a pipe dream. “But I would love that to happen,” he says. “That would be the most amazing thing that could happen to this film.”
As for the film’s more immediate fate, tomorrow we will know if Sean Penn’s jury has awarded Folman Cannes’s top prize and made his dream even wilder than he could ever have imagined.