Director Ari Folman on 'Waltz with Bashir'

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Soldier-turned-filmmaker Ari Folman’s striking anti-war animation, ‘Waltz with Bashir’, is an extraordinary film, says David Jenkins, who speaks to the director about graphic design, Harvey Weinstein and recurring dreams

Thierry Frémaux, the artistic director of the Cannes Film Festival, has an eye for spotting cutting-edge world animation. In 2007, critics were wowed by his selection of ‘Persepolis’, the witty, black-and-white animated memoir of Marjane Satrapi’s Tehran upbringing.

Frémaux struck gold again this year when he selected Ari Folman’s ‘Waltz with Bashir’: another visually dazzling animated memoir, this time from Israel and detailing the director’s experiences as a soldier fighting in Lebanon in 1982. The bulk of the film is made up of reminiscences from the conflict, later revealed to be the lead up to the Sabra and Shatila massacres, triggered by the assassination of then Lebanese president-elect, Bashir Gemayel.

‘Cannes is a fundamentalist, hardcore, extremist religious cult,’ says Folman, grinning, laid-back and confident on a visit to London. ‘God – the director of the festival – sits on top of the stairs. He says, “Welcome to our festival.” You nod. You smile. There are all these people around you. All in black ties. I tell you, it’s religious.’

Despite all the pomp , Folman was prepared for a cool response to his film, aware that its frank treatment of a sensitive and divisive subject may not be to everyone’s taste. ‘I said to my team when we were walking on the red carpet, “Don’t have big expectations. This is a hardcore movie. Whatever they think, they won’t clap. It’s Europe. It’s respectable.” ’ Following its premiere, the movie received a 25-minute standing ovation. ‘The film was launched on a rocket. Eighty-five people I know flew in from Israel. It was like supporting your local team at Old Trafford.’

The film opens with a scene of slavering, angry dogs chasing a man through the streets – a recurring dream experienced by one of Folman’s compatriot fighters, which in turn sparks the director’s own misty recollections. ‘I am a great believer in openings,’ he says. ‘Here, I wanted it to imitate a very bad acid trip, which, in my opinion, is what war is. You have to strike the audience immediately. Strike them hard, shock them. Then they faint and you can start the movie.’

From there, the structure of the movie comprises a series of flashbacks as Folman reconstructs his experiences of war through conversations with those he fought alongside. Folman is suggesting that people such as himself can extinguish traumatic moments from their past. Yet war movies tend to suggest the opposite, that horrendous images of war are indelibly etched in our conscience, forcing us to relive past miseries. ‘But then it’s not very interesting, is it?’ he says. ‘I think it’s very personal. I believe that most people suppress such memories because it is a very proficient solution for existence.’ So it’s the suppression that leads to trauma? ‘In this film, yes. However, people survived the Holocaust. What have we gone through in comparison to them? It’s not that bad to suppress. But once it’s out, you’ve got to deal with it.’

Does he agree that ‘Waltz with Bashir’ is a war film? ‘It’s not up to me,’ he says, shrugging. ‘I did my thing and that’s it. It’s an anti-war film. At least I hope it is. Critics, audiences, schools, they can say whatever the hell they like. “It’s documentary. It’s drama. It’s bullshit.” That’s fine. To make the film and then try to categorise it? I can’t! It’s too much. I don’t have to.’

Folman’s decision to animate the atrocities of war with the vibrant, angular drawings of graphic artist David Polonsky never trivialises its harsh subject. He chose to make an animated film because it afforded him more artistic freedom, but did this mean he had less freedom in other areas? ‘Money. And no control over the pace of the movie. I could never say to the animators “do it faster” or “today we’ll finish this scene”.’ I suggest that the film must have been meticulously planned. “Ha! No, it was very badly planned. We thought we would do six minutes a month with six animators. We did four minutes with eight animators. It was double the budget. We had no idea what we were getting into.’

How will Folman follow this startling, deeply personal film? ‘On the last day in Cannes, Harvey Weinstein met me in a bar at four in the morning. He said, “I want to see you at seven o’clock. We’ll have breakfast.” So I go and he says, “Congratulations on the film, you’re going to win the Palme d’Or tonight.” So I say to him, “If it’s so great, why don’t you buy it?” and he says,
“I can’t buy it, I’ve got too many films.” Then he asks me what I’m doing next, and I tell him that I want to do an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s “The Futurological Congress”, and he’s not interested at all. After two minutes he says, “You know what? You should do the next “Bourne Identity” film. You were born to do Bourne.” Then I got up and walked out the door.’

‘Waltz with Bashir'
opens on Nov 19.

Author: David Jenkins



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