A trio of naked soldiers stride slowly through the sea past a floating corpse toward a Beirut of high-rise buildings luridly lit by orange flares. This hallucinatory image repeats like a leit motif throughout “Waltz with Bashir,” an animated documentary by Israeli Ari Folman about war and memory. At last year’s Cannes no one was busting down doors to watch a handful of Israeli soldiers reconstruct their experiences in the first Lebanon War of the early 80’s, an event barely familiar to most Americans — though the informed will recall the genocidal massacre of Palestinians that occurred in the Shatila refugee camps. Yet “Waltz with Bashir” was instantly hailed as an original, mesmerizing work that borrows the style of underground comics to explore the intersection of dream and historic fact.
Once you get the reference, the title is a gut punch in itself. The opening salvo: a man is pursued by a pack of ferocious dogs — reminiscent of fantagraphic novels – yet can’t identify his “crime.” In a bar one night he tells his friend Ari Folman that he suspects this recurring nightmare is linked to his military service in the first Lebanon War. The admission propels Folman, who’s needled by his own memory lapses about his army stint, on a quest to discover the truth of that period by interviewing fellow soldiers. Rather than a parade of talking heads pondering the fog of war, Folman offers a grunt’s-eye, absurdist view of combat — notably free of theorizing — that uncovers through dream logic and imagery the terrible events that haunt these soldiers. And rather than the rotoscopic wobble favored by Richard Linklater, Folman offers hand-drawn portraits that render his subjects uncannily vivid. “Waltz” is trippy, appalling, sexy, funny, wary of neat conclusions, and unlike anything you’ve seen.
indieWIRE: Did you always intend to do “Waltz with Bashir” as an animated documentary?
Ari Folman: Yes. I had the basic idea for the film for several years, but I was not happy to do it in real life video. How would that have looked like? A middle-aged man being interviewed about events that happened 25 years ago – and without any archival footage? SO BORING! But if it could be done in animation with fantastic drawings, it would capture the surreal aspect of war. If you look at all the elements in the film – memory, lost memory, dreams, the subconscious, hallucinations, drugs, youth, lost youth – the only way to combine all those things in one storyline was drawings and animation. You know, the question most frequently asked since Cannes is “why animation?” And it’s a question that’s absurd to me. I mean, how else could it have been done?
indieWIRE: In the film you seem to conflate war and masculinity, as if war were a proving ground for Israeli soldiers. In fact, I was reminded of how Eytan Fox tweaks the image of the macho Israeli.
AD: It’s much more complicated than just masculinity. A lot of war – when you’re really young — has to do with proving that you’re more of a man, what do you think? It’s not for ideological reasons that people go to fight. Men go to war usually for the wrong reasons — the wrong ideological reasons as well.
iW: For the character named Carmi war seems to have erotic overtones. He hasn’t had much success with women —
AF: Oh, he does now.
iW: — and then gets on a battle ship he calls “the love boat” and dreams he’s floating in the sea on top of a giant naked woman.
AF: [“Waltz”] is a very erotic film. I got some extreme reactions to it from one journalist in France. It was embarrassing, a really disturbing interview …
iW: Do you think it’s mainly women who react that way?
AF: I can tell you that it appealed to a lot of women in Israel. They said it was the first war movie – at least in Israeli cinema — in which they could understand the meaning of war. Partly it’s the design that contributes to the erotic quality. The drawings, colors, the characters – everything.
iW: How does the design add to the erotic quality of the film?
AF: Look at the motion. People don’t walk in reality like they walk in this film. It’s a different kind of walk we developed, slow and awkward. We had problems in animation creating this slow movement. It’s much easier to make action scenes. So we decided to turn the problem into an advantage. The repeating scene in the water is sexy because it’s not a realistic style of movement.
iW: Is sexiness a bit incongruous in a film about a mission ending in a massacre?
AF: To tell you the truth, the erotic was not something that was intended, it just happened in the making of the film. War is a lot of terrible things. It can be like a really bad acid trip. You think, It can’t go on any longer, and then it does. I wanted to give that feeling in the film. And the vicious dogs at the beginning get you right into that kind of language.
iW: Why include that scene from a porno movie?
AF: The most common shared memory of people who came back from Lebanon was it was the first time we ever saw porn. We didn’t have VCR’s in Israel in 1982 – not until 1984. The army invaded a different country and in each house there were VCRs and movies on big cassettes. A lot of people told me, yeah, it was the first time for me to see a porn movie, so I thought I should include it. We had a censored version of the porn scene for the U.S. but these guys here [at Sony Classics] decided not to use that version. The censored version is funnier. Remember that Mark Spitz speedo with stars and stripes? We put stars and stripes on everyone in the porn scene, including the dog.
iW: Can you describe the animation process used in the film?
AF: “Waltz with Bashir” was made first as a real video based on a 90-page script. It was then made into a story board, and drawn with 2300 illustrations that were turned into animation. The animation format is a combination of Flash animation, classic animation and 3D. I want to emphasize that this film was not made by rotoscope animation, meaning that we did not paint over the real video. We drew it again from scratch with the great talent of art director David Polonsky and his three assistants.
iW: You’ve said you were not influenced by the rotoscope animation of Richard Linklater. So what were your models?
AD: Graphic novels – not something like “Persepolis,” but Joe Sacco, Jason Lutes, Chris Ware.
iW: How did your experience making documentaries for TV prepare you for “Waltz?”
AF: I made an experiment in my documentary TV series “The Material That Love is Made Of.” Each episode opened with a three-minute animated scene introducing scientists talking about the “science of LOVE.” It was basic Flash animation. It worked so well that I knew a feature length animated documentary would eventually work. I think you get enormous freedom with animation and illustrations. It’s a really great language for me, the best. You can imagine everything. It can be done if you have the right people, with their own perspective on things. Illustrators are brilliant.
iW: Much in “Waltz with Bashir” is deeply personal, yet it appeals to people very broadly. Do you have a theory about why?
AF: I think that in general it tells you about repression (of memory). And that has universal resonance. Everyone has gone through some event in life that they chose deliberately to forget. It doesn’t have to be such an extreme event as war, it could be a broken heart, a loss of family when you were young. You could go down in the street and choose anyone at random, and something occurred to him in life, and he decided, I don’t want to deal with it, I’ll just go on. Which is probably good.
iW: I’ve seen your film twice and would go back a third time just for the sound track. You use classical music at unexpected moments.
AF: Yes, the Bach Piano Concerto # 5 repeats three times. And the Schubert sonata opus 959 is transformed into different styles – and plays over the whole ending [live archival footage revealing the Shatila massacre]. Then Max [Richter, a German-born Brit composer] made some electro Schubert for the ending titles. Max writes a combo of classic and electronic music, and performs on a computer with a band and strings. It’s pretty cool. He’s totally responsible for the music. One song written specially for the film is called “Good Morning Lebanon.” In the opening scene with the dogs it’s techno, electronic music.
iW: And in the scene on the tanks, when the soliders are firing away, you use a sonic background sound to manipulate – in the good sense – the viewer.
AD: It’s the back sound of the film all the time. They invented that sound in the studios, they went in search of it. Putting in the sound is the best part, you’re just having fun. We did the mixing in a studio in Berlin that used to be the gym of the Nazi leadership. The foyer was donated by Mussolini. The building and sound facilities were incredible. I was there for six weeks with all these talented German guys and a guy I brought from Tel Aviv. In the dog scene we had 98 tracks that we reduced to 5 tracks on a big mixing console.
iW: Why did the Israeli Left object to the film?
AD: Because they thought it didn’t place enough national blame for the massacre.
iW: Well, why didn’t you hold the leadership more to account? Sharon was complicit, after all, he allowed the massacre to happen.
AD: I didn’t want to make any statement about the leadership. I wanted to recreate the world of the ordinary soldier. There was a commission that found Sharon guilty, he was banned from office for life, then he came back as Prime Minister, came back as a hero, think of it. Those things happen in Israel … Bottom line, for me it was not a revenge film against Ariel Sharon. As for why he didn’t stop the massacre, he’s asleep now, so we can’t ask him. The whole plan for Lebanon was so sick, to my mind. What the master plan was nobody really knows.
iW: Rather than presenting an argument, this film unfolds with dream logic. How did you structure it?
AC: I’m always on the verge between reality and fantasy and dreams in whatever I do.
iW: You mean, right now, just sitting here?
AD: Yep, but especially when I write. This borderline between reality and dream really blows my mind. For me it’s natural. That’s why animation is so natural for me, you can go from one dimension to another. This film has a very strong structure in the screenplay –
iW: — of a quest.
AD: Yes, and all the other elements were just supporting. But if you look at the future, probably films will change completely, even if the basic story and storytelling will stay the same.
iW: What’s your next project?
AD: I’ve optioned a novel by Stanislaw Lem, a Polish author who wrote “Solaris.” It’s called “The Futurological Congress.” It’s fiction but it’s going to have a leading American actress in it playing herself. The present will be live action, the film’s future time will be drawn.
iW: As a young draftee, you had your own demons to exorcise regarding the war in Lebabnon. Was the making of “Waltz with Bashir” therapeutic for you?
AD: I’d say the filmmaking part was good, but the therapy aspect sucked.