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Marshall Fine

Marshall Fine

Posted January 5, 2009 | 10:10 AM (EST)

Bashir's Ari Folman: 'They need to establish a Palestine'


Ari Folman, looking both exhausted and still a little amazed, sits back in a hotel room chair and spreads his arms in a shrug.

"I think I would not be sitting here if this film had not been animated," he says of his animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir, which just won the best-picture award from the National Society of Film Critics. "This subject would never have attracted the New York Film Festival or Sony Classics to buy it. The format made people go for the film."

It's September 2008, the week in which Folman's film will be shown at the New York Film Festival, and Folman has been talking nonstop about the animated documentary that took the Cannes Film Festival by storm the previous May - and which snowballed since then. In the subsequent months, as the Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas has escalated, the film has taken on new resonance.

A very personal look at the Israel-Lebanon war of 1982, Waltz with Bashir follows Folman as he tracks down old friends and fellow veterans of the Israeli Army and asks them to share their memories of the conflict. Whenever he tries to remember it, he draws a blank - and so he goes to his friends to help refresh his memory.

The result is an exercise in recall that melts from memory to dream to hallucination - ending in a shocking moment of reality when the film suddenly moves from animation to archival footage of the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Muslims by Lebanese Christian forces, in retaliation for the assassination of president-elect Bashir Gemayel.

But, as Folman says, a nonfiction retelling that relied on archival footage would have been lumped in with all the other talking-head political documentaries that come and go - many of them never being released, most going unseen in the U.S. - every year. Animation made it stand out - and helped Folman find a way to exploit the visual aspects of what is essentially an oral history.

"Animation was the only way to do it," he says. "I imagined it as an animated film. I always knew it would be. I had no other choice. It's a story about the subconscious, about fear and death, war horrors, drugs - the only way to include all of that was animation."

A TV writer (including for the Israeli version of In Therapy) and director, Folman had never worked with animation before. And with minimal funding for his idea, he had to come up with his own approach.

"We invented the animation style," he says. "Basically it is cut-out animation. We did it ourselves because of the very low budget we had."

Even then, the film had to be made piecemeal. Folman started with three minutes, then started pitching. It took him four years to get the money to finish the movie.

"I pitched it three and a half years ago in Toronto," he says. "I had a three-minute scene that I showed to 40 people - and 38 of them said, 'Why animated?' They didn't want it.

"You have to convince a lot of people. I went to a lot of parties. It was a complicated four years. I never stopped. I did three minutes, then went to Toronto and raised money. Then I did 20 minutes, then I stopped and raised more money. Then I did 40 minutes. If you stop, you get stuck and lose your team and it gets more complicated."

Inevitably, he faced questions: Is it true? Is it real? Which raised other questions: Did animation undermine its connection to reality - or enhance it?

"The hardest part was convincing people that it could be done," Folman says. "People categorized the film too much. In documentary, the question of 'Is it real?' varies. I'm tired of it. It's a most complicated thing. Who decides when the documentary part starts and the fiction part ends?"

As he worked on it, Folman felt he was making something special - but what filmmaker doesn't? Even then, though he was excited when the film was accepted at Cannes, he had no sense of the way it would be received.

"We were clueless about its impact until we came to Cannes," he says. "We knew nothing. We were working in a small lab on the outskirts of Tel Aviv and we were having fun. I knew when it was done it would be a great movie. All along, I was very confident. I had solved a lot of the problems artistically and financially. But I was surprised at the fight for the film after the screening. Really, we didn't know what we were doing. I believe you never do as filmmakers."

For most Americans, the 1982 conflict is ancient history - if it registered on their consciousness at all. So the facts of the film come as a surprise to American audiences. Folman shrugs again.

"In Europe, they know much more about the Middle East conflict," he says. "In France, everyone knew all the details of the war and the massacre. America in general is not bothered too much with conflicts that it is not part of. It has a lot to do with Jewish influence. They're so protective over Israel. Everything is about how much they support or don't support Israel."

When it is noted that, to American-Jewish eyes, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle seems unresolvable, Folman offers guarded optimism.

"They need to establish a Palestine, which everyone knows will happen," he says. "In Israel, most people want to belong to the mainstream, they want a healthy life. They want to earn a good salary, pay less taxes, take a vacation abroad. They don't want to live by the sword.

"Look at it this way: I made this with German co-producers. But my family was slaughtered in the Holocaust. My parents were the only survivors. What's 60 years in the perspective of history? Nothing. It happened. I've been to the Sarajevo film festival; think what was happening there 13 years ago. Now they live in peace. So it can be done."

For further interviews and reviews, go to my website, www.hollywoodandfine.com.