By David D'Arcy
If you ever doubted that animation could convey deep and complicated human emotions, see Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman's feature-length chronicle of his journey to retrieve his memories as a soldier in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Our memories of that bloody time are dominated and scarred by the massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in September 1982, as Israelis stood at the gates to the camps.
Folman's elaborate animation began with a live-action filmed version of the story, followed by original drawings of the same script. As specific as the film becomes in its finding of fact from other veterans, now middle-aged, who fought (or fled) with Folman, there's much that's either universal or iconic here. Those human emotions that I cited are recognizable – fear, incomprehension and helplessness. If these Israeli victims seem and speak like victims, Folman never lets you lose sight of who the real victims were.
In the documentary – this is Folman's testimony that comes from him and his friends – there is much recalled about the "silence of death," as the Israeli veterans call it. Still the film has music in its title, which leads to some inevitable questions. Was the "waltz" a choreographed maneuver to enable Israel's Christian allies to eliminate the Palestinian threat in Beirut, in Vietnam-speak, "with extreme persuasion," using the assassination of Bachir Gemayel, the Christian dauphin, as a pretext? Let's remember that as soon as Bachir's death was announced, the Phalangist radio stations around Beirut switched from rock and political propaganda to classical music, and the troops waltzed all the way to the camps.
Ari Folman is now at work on a documentary adaptation of the novel, The Futurological Congress, by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem. I spoke to him before Waltz with Bashir showed at the New York Film Festival, when the Wall Street Journal ran my article on "serious" animation.
You shot everything in video, then story-boarded, and then did the drawings – is that right?
That's right. First we had the research, something like one year of research, looking for stories about the First Lebanon War. I didn't know what I was looking for exactly. Then, according to the research, I wrote the screenplay. Then we shot the whole screenplay in a sound studio, because I figured out that the human ear would be intolerant to location sound in animation, because we were used to very clear sound in animation since we were kids. We cut it into a 90-minute feature documentary, and we tried in the studio to dramatize as much as we could. In the studio, if I would interview someone in a car, we would sit in two chairs, and pretend it's a car. Then we made a storyboard out of the video – it's not as if we did roto-scoping, which is to make a computerized drawing from the filmed images of the characters. It wasn't like Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater's films. We drew from scratch from the video again, and then moved it in animation.
When did you decide that the film would be animated, and determine that animation could sustain the emotional power of the story and the feature length?
Actually, there was no other way. We had to do it in animation, or not do it at all. I had some experience with animation in my previous show, which was a documentary called The Material that Love Is Made of, a five hour documentary, which was basically about love. I followed eight love stories, and in between, in each episode, I had a scientist talking about scientific aspects of love. But there was no way that I could find a collaboration between the real stories and the scientists, because they were always patronizing all of the interviews. So I wanted to make this experiment of drawing them and using their voices. So we did that, and each episode opened with a five minute scene of a scientist drawn, talking about the neurobiological aspects of love, for example. It worked out fairly well, although the animation was pretty simple.
So I was having ideas about making this film [Waltz with Bashir] and I wanted to explore what I did in the previous documentary. From the very beginning, when I imagined the characters, I imagined them drawn, and animated.
Of course, my main concern was that the audience would not get attached emotionally to the characters because they are drawn. We put a lot of effort into drawing them as realistically as we could – with more details, more shadows in the face. And of course, the more details you have in a character, the more complicated it would be to move it in animation. Only after twenty minutes of film did I learn that it would work at feature length. I didn't know it before.
Did you see any feature length animation that dealt with things besides comedy, irony, cartoons – did you see anything that was approaching emotions similar to the way that you intended in your film?
Did you see When the Wind Blows? It's about a very old couple, in the UK, and they're experiencing an atomic attack. It's incredible.
These are exceptional films that go for a depth of emotion, and they tend to be a small percentage of the animation that's made.
You see a lot of this stuff in graphic novels.
But reading those novels, every frame has an immediate pause function, which is not the way you usually watch films. You can freeze a frame and set your own freedom.
There's Joe Sacco, and there's the guy [Joe Kubert] who wrote the graphic novel Fax from Sarajevo, and of course there's Maus [by Art Spiegelman.]
Given the drawn image of the characters, was there an emotional distance from them? How did that work?
I wanted to narrow the gap. It was something I had to deal with and find a solution for. This was my main concern, that because of this distance you won't be attached to the film.
The whole film deals with the distance between the life you're living now and the person that you were, the memories that you had. Are the veterans of the war in the film actual recognizable people, are they composites, or do they risk being recognized on the street, for example?
There are two actors in the film, out of nine characters, for whom we had to invent new faces, because the real people didn't want to appear in the film. All the others are just like me – this is how I look basically. It depends on whom you ask. If you ask my mother, she thinks I'm prettier, but I'm not that sure.
She's your mother.
She's a Polish Jew.
Bookmark/Search this post with: