Waltz with Bashir: buried memories of a massacre

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When director Ari Folman set out four years ago to shoot what he calls “a personal documentary” about his memories of serving in the Israeli Army during the first Lebanon War of 1982, he thought he was making a small, anti-Establishment film. He could hardly have foreseen how differently events would turn out.

Waltz with Bashir, an animated account of Folman’s experiences as a soldier, has become a huge, unexpected international success. Wildly acclaimed on its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it has become a hit at other festivals and in other countries. In France, where there is great interest in Lebanon and the Middle East, it attracted an astonishing 500,000 admissions.

And though Folman feared that it would be shunned in his native Israel, it has been warmly embraced. Waltz with Bashir has won six awards, including best film, from the Israel Film Academy. It is Israel’s official entry for best foreign film at the Oscars early next year. And the government is actively supporting its foreign distribution, despite its trenchant political tone.

“The most surprising thing is the very big hug that Israeli government officials have given the film,” Folman tells me when we meet at a London hotel. “Everywhere I travel, the local Israeli ambassador is there. They send the film all over the world at their expense. The Minister of Foreign Affairs calls me personally to say they’ll do anything to help.” He smiles and shrugs.

He and his filmmaking colleagues view this generosity with amused perplexity: “My team keeps hassling me,” he says, laughing. “They keep texting me: 'What have you done, Ari? What went wrong?’

“And it does feel out of control. At the [recent] opening of the Haifa Film Festival, [Israeli president] Shimon Peres made a speech. He said: 'There’s a world economic crisis now – but we’ve got Bashir!’ ” Folman shakes his head in disbelief

. His bafflement is not hard to understand: Waltz with Bashir is a contentious film. It is based on fact. His friend Boaz Rein Buskila, who had served with him in the army, told him of a recurring dream in which he was being chased by a pack of vicious dogs. Folman recognised this as a dream about the war, realised that he had suppressed his own memories of that time, and resolved to make a film that would piece them together.

Boaz’s dream about the vicious dogs is vividly, scarily captured in animation in one of the film’s early scenes. The effect is to rock audiences and capture their attention immediately. To rekindle his own memories, Folman sought out colleagues from his years in the military, interviewed them on camera and then had a team of illustrators from his studio, Bridgit Folman Film Gang, draw those interviews, as well as re-create in animated form his version of the events from 1982.

The result is a remarkable, riveting film about the trauma of conflict, culminating in an infamous massacre: Lebanese Phalangist Christian militia entered two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut (which was under Israeli army control) and slaughtered hundreds, maybe thousands of men, women and children. It looked like immediate revenge for the death in a bomb explosion of Bashir Gemayel, the charismatic young leader of the Phalangists, who gives the film its title. Animation may seem an odd medium for such a trauma-ridden story.

But Folman had his reasons. “For a few years I had the idea for the film in my mind, but I wasn’t at all happy to do it in real-life video. “Think how it would have looked – a middle-aged man being interviewed against a black background, telling stories that happened 25 years ago, without any archival footage to support them. Boring! Then I realised it could be told vividly in animation, with some fantastic drawings. War is surreal and memory is tricky – and I felt that our talented illustrators could do justice to my journey about [re-awakening] my memory.”..

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