Drawing From Memory
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed Waltz With Bashir writer-director Ari Folman for our Fall ’08 issue. Waltz With Bashir is nominated for Best Foreign Film.
It’s been said that the job of the filmmaker is to put on screen things that have never been seen before. And while cinema is essentially an infant art form, these days there are still relatively few films that move into genuinely new territory. Waltz with Bashir, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is one of those films.
In this unique documentary, Israeli director Ari Folman attempts to reconstruct the missing memories from his time as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War. His main goal is to discover where he was during the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp, a revenge killing of hundereds of Palestinian civilians by Phalangists in response to the murder of newly appointed Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. To piece together his past, Folman visits old friends and interviews soldiers he fought alongside, and this journey of discovery is as compelling a narrative as any piece of fiction.
While the unflinching, personal detective story aspect of Waltz with Bashir already makes it unusual, what makes it even more so is that Folman’s documentary is animated. Though on paper this seems like an impossible collision of genres, Folman uses the freedoms that animation gives him to take the film to places another documentary could not go. What’s more, Folman plays with our preconceptions of cartoons always belonging to the realm of narrative filmmaking, and in the process asks exactly where the line between documentary and fiction lies. And while Yoni Goodman’s vivid animation, hand-drawn and in a variety of styles, looks stunning, it always complements rather than distracts from Folman’s compelling and ultimately moving tale.
Sony Pictures will release Waltz with Bashir this December.
I thought it was very interesting that the film starts not from your perspective but from that of your friend Boaz. That seemed like a very conscious decision. It was a very conscious decision. You can imagine that I got a lot of criticism — even for the screenplay — that I’m not there in the first frame and that it might confuse the audience about who the protagonist is in the film. But, I mean, how narrow-minded can we get?
It’s true. I think we do usually assume that the first character whose perspective we see from will be the protagonist. You’re right. It was a deliberate decision and I insisted on it. I saw this other film here [at the Toronto International Film Festival] called Hunger. The main character appears after 14 minutes, and the film is amazing. You don’t need to be hooked on conventions.
Did this film start out as a personal attempt to recover your past? Well, I’ll tell you how it started and you decide. Five years ago, I turned 40. In Israel, I served a few years in the army and between two weeks and a month [of every year] you’re a reservist. I was a screenwriter in the reserves doing shorts and commercials [on topics] like how to defend yourself in a chemical attack, and I got really tired of it although I hardly did anything. I asked for a release a few years earlier than usual and they said, “You know what, we can give you the release but there is this experiment the army is working on. You will have to see our therapist for a few sessions and tell him everything you went through during your service.” So I went to 10 meetings, and when they ended I realized that it was the first time I ever told my story to anyone — even myself. The content of the story was not that amazing, but the fact that I never dealt with it for more than 20 years was amazing, for me. So I went to my inner circle of friends and family and I tried to see if people felt the same, and they did. Then I thought, “Okay, there’s something going on here.” At the time, I was working on this documentary series called The Material That Love Is Made Of and it was the first try I made with animated documentary. I started imagining this journey because I had these black holes in my memory when I was at those sessions with the therapist. I started imagining this animated journey where I go to pick up all those pieces that I’m missing. So this is how it all started.
Did you do historical research about the events depicted before going into the personal aspects of this journey? I advertised on the Internet that I was looking for stories from the first Lebanon War. I got a response from something like 100 men, and we heard all those stories, which were quite extreme. Afterward I wrote the screenplay. Most of the research, of course, is out [of the movie] because we had to keep a very narrow storyline. Then we shot everything on a sound studio, because I thought that the human ear is totally non-tolerant to location [sound] in terms of animation. We cut it as a video documentary film and then we made storyboards out of the video because it’s not a rotoscope film. We moved the storyboard really basically. We picked something like 3,000 key frames and then we would move them.
So the journey that you take in the film is one that you took yourself in real life prior to filming? Yes. I met all those people, and then at the studio we tried to dramatize everything, like if I was interviewing someone in a car we would sit one beside each other with plastic wheels and pretend it was a car.
And when you were shooting it in the studio, you got the real people you had interviewed to recreate their conversations with you? I did, but we had two actors in the film too because the guy from Holland had cold feet a few days before shooting. He didn’t mind [being in] the story so we took his monologue and we gave it to an actor and we invented a new face. It’s one of the things you can do when you have the freedom of animation. Basically, we were having the same discussion as he had twice before, first with the researcher and the second time with me.
What was it like to recreate these conversations on a sound stage, acting almost as if they were fiction? First, it depends who you are. For example, the journalist [Ron Ben-Yishai] has told his story probably at least a thousand times — he wrote a book about it and you can see in the way that he’s talking. But the swimmer, for example — it was the first time he had told his story after so many years. He had so much to get out of his thoughts and the third time was better than the first. It’s something really personal. With someone like Frenkel — the karate guy, the dancer — the first time was the best by far. When we met at my studio after so many years, he couldn’t do it again. It was not as good. So, one is for the better, one is for the worse… I still don’t know if I have the best version… but, you know, that is the price you sometimes pay when you make a film like this.
Why did you specifically conceive this as an animated documentary? It seems that almost anybody else would not have tackled the story in this way. Well, frankly, it isn’t important to me. I’m kind of tired of film formats and if I would have declared this film five years ago as a fiction film, I would have raised the money much easier and I’d be more secure and I would have completed it a year ago, at least. I don’t know why I declared it an animated documentary, but I did. I mean, who decides? Is there a committee who decides when a specific film starts off being a documentary and turns into fiction, or the other way around? I wouldn’t know. I just don’t know what to say, and I don’t care. I mean, this is the film, okay? You’re the journalist — you decide. If you decide that for you it’s a fiction film, I’m happy for you. If, for you, it is in the structure of documentary or what you define as documentary, I’ll go with you as well. I think it’s great that you can choose. Why should I choose?
When I was scribbling notes on the film, I called it a “recalled documentary.” I mean, would it feel more convenient for you if it were a fiction film based on true stories? I don’t think so.
I don’t feel there’s one easy way to categorize this film, and I think that’s a real strength. This was obviously the way that you felt you needed to handle the material, so the label that other people put on it is not important to you. Totally.
Because of the ambiguous genre the film sits in, was it difficult to pitch? I was at Hot Docs three-and-a-half years ago; I had a three-minute scene and I pitched [the film]. There were 40 coordinators from documentary funds and [television] stations there. You had to declare that you had 40 percent of your budget — of course, I didn’t even have 5 percent, so I had to lie but I was selected anyhow. Thirty-eight out of the 40 took their microphones and said, “Why animation? It’s a documentary, we’re at a documentary film festival. Why can’t you film the real people?” It is weird for me to explain, “why animation,” even now. It’s the most frequently asked question since Cannes, and it’s still the one question I can’t understand. I mean, of course it’s an animation ? how else could it have been done? It’s absurd to me.
When you realized the film should be animated, did you have a clear picture of how it should look, and the particular style of animation? I had a clear vision, but it was more than a clear vision: I was obsessed with a few things. First of all, that the audience would still be emotionally attached to the characters, and that meant for me that we would draw them as realistic as the illustrators could. Meaning, we should put as much detail as we can: more contours and shapes; and, of course, the more detail you have in a face or in a body, the more complicated it is to animate it, to move it, especially in cut-out animation, which is the main thing. And then we had the dream sequences, which are more freehand, open in terms of color and shape, and then we had the last part of the film, which is more of a hardcore documentary. When you go to the massacre, it is monochrome and a little more depressing. You know, in this kind of animation, the style dictates the animation and not the other way around.
As the animation process took so long and you were working on Israeli TV shows at the same time, how involved were you in the day-to-day postproduction process? Believe me, I was working on the film. I was involved in every frame. It is about giving the film cinematic taste, trying every little thing that will work as a feature film. Because it takes time, we were screening the materials every two days and reworking them, every shot, every single angle, every aspect of the film. A frame here, a frame there. But Yoni’s main role was that he created the technique of this specific animation, which is an incredible thing.
And what is that technique? This is his invention, a combination of cut-out animation, flash-based [animation], classic Disney frame-by-frame animation and 3-D animation. And then he had to instruct the team because no one was qualified like him to do what he had invented. We only had eight animators. And when we needed two more, we couldn’t find them.
The film has a great score by Max Richter, and I was wondering how early on you had a clear sense of what the music and the sound design of the film would be? I started to work with the guy on the video-board stage already. First I went to Edinburgh [where Richter used to live]. We met and I screened the video board to him so he could see the color of the thing. I told him what I believed should be in every scene, and gave him guide [tracks]. I put in guides in every scene — I always do that. I put in music for my mind, but I don’t understand how [composers] can compete with the guides that film directors give them. There was Brian Eno stuff in there, and Sigur Rós — good things to match. High challenge. But he did it. The guy is absolutely brilliant.
What was the personal impact of making this film and succeeding in uncovering that lost portion of your past? Was it cathartic? It was kind of a therapeutic journey, but any filmmaking is. I would say that five years ago if I had looked at a photo of myself from when I was 19, I would have recognized the guy but felt totally disconnected. And now I live in peace with everything. This is the major change I went through.
The end of the film has a huge impact as we move from animation to news footage. Was the feeling of that shift similar to what you felt when you regained your memory of the massacre? Yes, it is as if you regain your memory and in a symbolic way as if you regain the real footage. In the end, we were not on the beach when the massacre took place, we were outside the camps. Basically, the ending was done just to prevent the situation where anyone anywhere would walk out of the theater and think that it was a really cool animated film with really cool drawings. I wanted to let people know that it really happened. Real people, they died. Thousands of them. On the other hand, if the film is like this bad acid trip like war is, in the end you wake up and this is what you see. So it works both ways.