Dancing With Memory, Massacre In 'Bashir'

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Filmmaker Ari Folman was a 19-year-old Israeli soldier serving in Beirut at the time of the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refuges. Though he has no memory of the time, he revisits the mission in his new film, Waltz With Bashir, a surreal, animated documentary of the terror.

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is the director of a new film that's on our film critic David Edelstein's 10-best list. Ari Folman's movie, "Waltz with Bashir," is an animated documentary. Folman was a soldier in the Israeli army in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon with the plan of occupying a security zone in the south of Lebanon to stop Palestinian attacks against Israel's northern towns. Folman was one of the Israeli soldiers who surrounded the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon while members of the Christian Phalangist militia went in and massacred the refugees.

But Folman had no specific memories of the three days of the massacre, and that gap haunted him. So, he found some of his fellow former soldiers and interviewed them about their memories, hoping that would help his own memories emerge. The film features the audio of those interviews, but the images of the conversations, memories and dreams are animated. Folman also went into psychotherapy during the four years that he made "Waltz with Bashir."

On a related note, he was a writer on the Israeli TV show that was the basis of the HBO series about psychotherapy and treatment. Ari Folman, welcome to Fresh Air. Would you describe your friend's dream that opens your movie?

Mr. ARI FOLMAN (Director, "Waltz with Bashir") Well, my friend had this repeating constant dream that he dreamt every night or every morning, might say, that 26 dogs are hunting him - rabid dogs, really savage dogs are hunting him and running towards him in the streets of Tel Aviv. They want his head. And it took him some time to realize that they're after him since in the first Lebanon war his job was to eliminate those dogs who were about to alert the Palestinian terrorists that the Israeli army was looking for.

GROSS: So, he had to kill the dogs so that the dogs didn't bark and alert the Palestinians?

Mr. FOLMAN: This is it. And then they came back 20 years later in the dreams.

GROSS: So, what was it about that dream that made you wonder what your role was during the Lebanon war and where you were during the massacre at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps?

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, the dream was so illustrative, you couldn't resist it as a filmmaker. You just saw it immediately animated on the screen. And then, of course, it in many ways - it scratched my old scars that were deeply suppressed about my past - coming from my past, from my sub-conscience, from my deep suppressed sub-conscience from the first Lebanon war. And this where it all started to roll.

GROSS: Your friend pointed out to you that you were actually just a few hundred feet away from the massacre at the refugee camps during the first Lebanon war. Had you completely forgotten that?

Mr. FOLMAN: No, we knew where we were, but I didn't - it's not that I went, you know, like, go for a car accident, and you go through a major brain concussion and then you don't remember your name, who you are and where you come from. It's something completely different. It's that you have the main story line, but there are some fragments missing. And I knew that I was there but, I mean, we didn't know anything, me, at least, and some friends of mine, about the events that were going around and what part did we take in them. So, the film is trying to figure that out.

GROSS: The fact that you were really just a few hundred feet away from the massacres, even though you had no idea what was going on, you found this, like, very disturbing. Now, Americans aren't as familiar with what happened as Israelis are. So, let me ask you, before we go any further, to just describe those massacres. Like, what happened that day - those days?

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, Lebanon was very - a very complexed(ph) country. It had a few parties, most of them religious parties, and each one of them had a private army. Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 because the Israeli northern border was bombed by Palestinians - PLO Army - during the summer, and Israel invaded Lebanon in order to prevent these bombs. And our allies in Lebanon were the Christians. They had their own army that was called the Phalangist Militia. So, we were kind of partners in this multi-party war of Lebanon.

And then, after a couple of months, Bashir Gemayel, who was the adored leader of the Phalangists, the Christian Militia, was elected as president of Lebanon. But a couple of weeks later, his headquarters was bombed and he died with all his chief of staff. The Phalangist, his soldiers, as a revenge for his death, they marched into the refugee camps of the Palestinians, who were supposed to be the ones who killed Bashir, but they - eventually it was found out that they didn't. It was the Syrians.

Anyway, they marched into the camps and they did this massacre, which took place for 72 hours, and they killed more than 3200 Palestinians, most of them were women and kids and old people. All of them were non-protected. And the fact that they did go into the camps was because they got the permission of the Israeli government to do it. Whether the government knew in advance what was going to happen or not, we don't know. What we know is that during the massacre, they got some information about what was going on, and no one from the government really did anything to stop it.

GROSS: In the film, you portray yourself as being really haunted by the fact that you knew - you remembered being in close proximity of the massacre, but you couldn't really remember any details or what was going on. And you also had this, like, image that haunted you and you couldn't figure out where that image came from. Were you - I guess, I'm trying to figure out how much of the film is truly autobiographical and how much of it was kind of dramatized to make it a better movie.

Mr. FOLMAN: It is totally autobiographical. The - all the things that are told in the film are true in the manner, as much as documentary filmmaking can be true or objective - I mean, they're not, it never is. You know, there's no one truth, especially when you go backwards 25 years in time and try to figure out in one event what really happened. So, there are a lot of versions. But the fact that it was done drawn or animated, it doesn't make it less true in my mind, in my opinion.

GROSS: To better understand where you were during the massacre, you talked to some of your former fellow soldiers. You tracked them down and basically interviewed them about their memories of those days. And I'm wondering what your friends' reactions were when you told them that you wanted to do this, and also that you wanted to make a movie about it.

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, most of the people we approached in many ways were longing for just telling at last their war story. They were waiting for someone to listen, because in Israeli society the first Lebanon war is not that thing that you go around and speak about. There's nothing to be proud about. So, in many ways, they wanted to do it. Some of them, weirdly enough, my best friends, didn't want to take part in the film, or at least they didn't want to expose themselves in the film. But, I mean, most of them did.

GROSS: Tell us one of the stories that one of your friends told you about the massacre, about where they were during the massacre or during the war in Lebanon that brought back memories for you, that helped you reconstruct your own experience - one of those stories.

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, I'll tell you something else. I'm now traveled with the film and I read this article somewhere in a plane. I'm traveling the U.S. for 20 days now, from city to city. And it was a story about a current American soldier in Iraq. And I read this story and I figure that it takes an American soldier to go back home from the front in Iraq six days, at least, to his home in - I don't know, Oklahoma, OK?

And then I thought for the first time - if I knew it while I was doing the film, if I would ever think about it, it would have been in the film, but now, of course, it's too late. I'm talking to you now, it's too late to change the film. But then I thought that for us, for example, it took 20 minutes to go from Beirut - from the front, from hell, literally hell - back home to Haifa in a helicopter. So, just imagine the transformation you have to go through in 20 minutes coming from, I mean, the middle of Hell - destruction, death everywhere - going to this live city, everybody's, like, having parties in 20 minutes time. Can you imagine that?

GROSS: You know, it's funny because I thought of Iraq, too. I thought of the war in Iraq during a scene in your film that's about you taking a furlough. And you come home, and like you said, you know, everything is, like, business as usual in Israel, like, there's, like, the punks and the disco and people shopping.

Mr. FOLMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And you are feeling totally disconnected from everything around you. It makes no sense to you. And you remember growing up that when there were wars, that everything stopped in Israel. People were afraid to go out. Give us a sense of what that was like when you were a boy and Israel was at war.

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, I experienced only one war as a boy, as a child, as a 10-year-old kid. And I remember that everything stopped in life.

GROSS: Which war was this?

Mr. FOLMAN: It was the Yom Kippur War in 1973. I was 10 years old then and, you know, there was nothing but war everywhere. We were kids in school, this is what we talked about. We were hooked to the news. We didn't have TV set at home back then, but on the radio all day we were - we couldn't, you know, in nighttime, we couldn't lit the light on - couldn't put the light on because we're frightened that Syrian aircrafts are going to come and bomb Haifa. And this was it.

And the grief of the families of the dead, it was everywhere, in every neighborhood it stuck in every neighborhood there was somebody that didn't come back from the war. And it was like, it was depressing. Everything was really depressing. As kids, we saw the elder people, they were all deeply depressed. And then, I mean, only eight years later, it's not a long time, I came back home as a soldier, nine years later, and no one gave a damn, except my parents, of course. No one. Everybody was partying big time. The 80s culture came from Europe. It was really strong in terms of music and drugs and everything, so it was quite shocking.

GROSS: And what did that make you feel about the war that you were fighting and how you were risking your life to do it?

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, I - it didn't take me time to realize, I mean, it took me just a few hours to realize that it's a total waste of time and a useless idea. And I didn't know what the hell I was doing there.

GROSS: What do you remember now about where you were during the massacre at Sabra and Shatila?

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, it's what you seen in the film. We were something like 300 yards or five - or half a kilometer I would say, from the camps, on a roof of a building and that's it. We were lighting the sky because this is the orders that we were given.

GROSS: You were shooting up flares to light things up?

Mr. FOLMAN: We were shooting out flares, yeah, to light things up.

GROSS: And what you didn't understand then is that you were lighting things up for the Christian Phalangists who were committing the massacre, but you had no idea that that's what you were...

Mr. FOLMAN: Two days later, we already had the idea.

GROSS: You did have the idea?

Mr. FOLMAN: We knew that - not while we were doing it, of course. But after the massacre ended, and we realized that there was a massacre, we realized what was going on during all those three days, of course.

GROSS: So, what have the difficulties been for you of kind of coming to terms for that - that you unknowingly aided in some way, with the flares an act that you found so reprehensible?

Mr. FOLMAN: This is what suppression is all about.

GROSS: Suppression of memory?

Mr. FOLMAN: Yeah, maybe some things in life are too difficult to deal with, so you just suppress it.

GROSS: My guest is Ari Folman, his new movie, "Waltz with Bashir," is an animated documentary. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ari Folman. His new movie, "Waltz with Bashir," is an animated documentary about trying to reconstruct his suppressed memories of being one of the Israeli soldiers that invaded Lebanon in 1982. One of the things that I think is, like, really very effective in the movie is that it's animated. So, instead of just watching you interview your friends about their memories of the war and you sharing your own, the conversations are all animated and within those conservations we see - what's going on in people's minds is animated. The experiences that they're recounting to you are animated. Their dreams are animated. And it made me think about what a good medium animation is for getting into somebody's inner life, for getting into their dreams and memories. Is that why you chose animation?

Mr. FOLMAN: Completely. You just answered the question completely. I couldn't do it better. I couldn't answer it better. Why animation? You summed it up.

GROSS: Had you thought of doing it any other way, or did you know right from the start this needed to be animated?

Mr. FOLMAN: No, no. It couldn't be done any other way. The only way to go from one dimension to another, from dreams to reality, would be in animation.

GROSS: And then how did you figure out what kind of animation you wanted to do? I mean, for instance, there's - the parts that are supposed to be real, as opposed to like, you know, dreams, look very real. But they're not the technique that's called rotoscope, where you're basically coloring over a video or a film and that's why it looks so perfectly realistic, like in the movie "Waking Life." That's not what you've done. What did you do? Like what is the form of animation, and how did you decide on that?

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, the basic animation is cutout animation. It's flash animation, and this is the main animation of the film. And it was dictated mainly by the design of the film, which we tried to do as realistical(ph) as we could, the design. That means putting more details, more contours, more wrinkles - just realistic, because I was obsessed with the fact that I thought that the audience can be only emotionally connected to the characters only if it's really realistically looking.

And then there is the secondary style of design, which is for the dream sequences much more free in terms of colors and proportion and everything. They got more freedom there. And then there's the hardcore documentary thing, which is much more strict. It's monochromatic between orange and black, and it takes really to the end of the film, which is much more melancholic in atmosphere and depressing.

GROSS: At the end of the film, you show actual documentary footage from after the massacre at the refugee camps. And, you know, you've been so drawn up into this point in the animation and the animation has established its own reality and suddenly you're thrust into the genuine reality, the real footage. And it's just kind of - you're unprepared for it and the images are so shocking to begin with, but reentering the world of real images after the animated images maybe makes it even more so. Can you talk about your decision to show real documentary footage of the results of the massacre at the end of the film?

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, it's more of an ideological decision than an artistic decision. And it is there just to prevent a situation that someone will walk out of the theater after having watched this film and think it's a very cool anti-war animated film. It shows you exactly what happened in those 50 seconds, and I think it puts the whole film in proportion. It puts my story in proportion. It puts memory in proportion. It shows you, in many ways, what wars look like.

GROSS: And why you're so haunted by it.

Mr. FOLMAN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So, how did the experience of the war in Lebanon change your idea of the Israeli military and war and Israeli foreign policy?

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, it's not like that. It's much more radical than that. It made me a pacifist. And I just don't believe in any kind of war. It's not just like this justified war and not justified war. I'm totally against violence. And I do think that, OK, wars can be prevented with compromises you have to do in diplomacy and politics. And I mean, mainly I think that it's all the same stuff. I mean, it's all - they're all made the same way. It's like a cliche; it's like a Bob Dylan song. It's those leaders disconnected with big egos that they don't mind sending young people to die in a foreign land. I don't know for what - for land, for a piece of land, for religious ideology? It doesn't matter. It's all the same for me.

GROSS: I'm sure a lot of Israelis would say that Israel is surrounded by hostile countries and unless Israel is willing to fight, it will cease to exist.

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, I won't argue with them.

GROSS: You won't argue with that?

Mr. FOLMAN: No. I don't argue with those people, you know. We have different opinions.

GROSS: My guest is Ari Folman. His new movie, "Waltz with Bashir," is an animated documentary. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ari Folman. His new movie, "Waltz with Bashir," is an animated documentary about trying to reconstruct his suppressed memories of being one of the Israeli soldiers that invaded Lebanon in 1982. Your movie, "Waltz with Bashir," has shown at film festivals. It's already opened in Israel. It's about to open in the United States. Have you been getting different reactions in different countries?

Mr. FOLMAN: Yes, definitely.

GROSS: Can you tell us about some of the differences?

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, I think in many ways the reactions towards the film reflect the country's history and problems from the past that's still haunting the countries. I mean, in France, where it was an enormous success and more than half a million people came to see it in theaters, for them it was all about guilt feelings, the film. This is how they saw the film, and it had a lot to do with their past in Algeria. No matter what you say or don't say, for them it's all about guilt.

For the Germans, it was all about the massacre, of course, and about the comparison with the Holocaust. And eventually, when this is how the press turned out, they didn't come to see the film because they don't want to do anything that has to do with their past, of course. In England, it was a great success. But in England they just treated it as an artistic issue, as an invention in filmmaking, and it was about arts, which is great, in my opinion. In Bosnia, where I had the best screening of the film, it related to the war in Yugoslavia 13 years ago in Europe. So, it was very emotional for them, all the screenings. So, every place it's different.

GROSS: What made the screening in Bosnia that you went to the best of the screenings?

Mr. FOLMAN: It was the most emotional screening. I mean, for people in Sarajevo, where it took place, it's just - they went through the Srebrenica massacre in the mid-90s. The whole event, you know, immediately emerged memories not from very long ago of their past. It was very emotional, very emotional. Huge screening, open space at night, more than 4,000 people. It was amazing.

GROSS: I'd like you to leave us with an image from your movie, "Waltz with Bashir," and it's the image that the title of the film is taken from. Can you describe that image as it's described to you in the film?

Mr. FOLMAN: Well, in the film there's this guy in the middle of battle. He loses it, you might say. And there's this one junction in Beirut that all the soldiers have to cross, and it's being shot at by snipers that you can't see. They're on those huge hotels all over around. And it takes hours to cross the junction, and you have to do it as fast as you can just to survive. And this guy grabs someone else's machine gun, and he runs into the junction, and he starts firing like crazy, and he starts dancing between the bullets. And I don't know if he was there for 10 seconds, one minute, two minutes, it doesn't matter. I mean, the time he stayed there was so risky, so it looked like eternity.

So, this is the title of the film, "Waltz with Bashir." And the other meaning of the title, the symbolic meaning, and this is the relationship between the Israelis and their allies, the Christian militia, that was kind of a dance we did with them that ended up in a very tragic way.

GROSS: And the Bashir is Bashir Gemayel, who was the head of the Christian Phalangist Militia and as the person - as the soldier you're describing as just, you know, circling and circling, shooting at whatever, that waltz that you described - there's pictures of Bashir Gemayel all around him.

Mr. FOLMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, Ari Folman, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FOLMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Ari Folman directed the new animated documentary "Waltz with Bashir." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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'Waltz With Bashir': A Delicate Dance With Memory

Soldiers wade ashore i

Ari Folman's animated Waltz With Bashir reconstructs the director's suppressed memories of a 1982 battle — and a massacre. Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics
Soldiers wade ashore

Ari Folman's animated Waltz With Bashir reconstructs the director's suppressed memories of a 1982 battle — and a massacre.

Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics

Waltz with Bashir

  • Director: Ari Folman
  • Genre: War, Memoir, Animation
  • Running Time: 90 minutes

Rated R: War violence, atrocity aftermath, sexuality

(Recommended)

Ari Folman and Boaz Rein Buskila (animated) i

Folman (left) had huge gaps in his memory of the time — until fellow soldier Boaz Rein Buskila told a story that sparked a quest. Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics
Ari Folman and Boaz Rein Buskila (animated)

Folman (left) had huge gaps in his memory of the time — until fellow soldier Boaz Rein Buskila told a story that sparked a quest.

Ari Folman/David Polonsky/Sony Pictures Classics

The first thing to appear in Waltz With Bashir is an animated dog, but it looks nothing like Bolt. This 'toon is part of an angry pack of yelping, yellow-eyed predators — a nightmare vision.

In fact, Israeli writer-director Ari Folman's powerful, innovative film is composed largely of nightmares, all but the final one rendered in graphic-novel style. A series of flashbacks from Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Waltz With Bashir has been called an "animated documentary." Yet it's not about what happened, but what's remembered.

"Memory is dynamic. It's alive," says one character. That's why the movie was drawn rather than filmed: to capture that mutability, the play between fact and fantasy, guilt and denial, in 25-year-old recollections.

The dogs are part of one man's Lebanon experience, remembered in a bar conversation with a cartoon version of the director himself. After learning what triggered the wolf-pack vision, Folman begins to wonder what he did or saw in Lebanon.

Was he near the Sabra and Shatila camps where Christian Phalangist militias murdered Palestinian refugees after the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel? (Gemayel is the movie's title character.) Folman can't seem to remember, so he begins to collect other veterans' stories.

The project takes Folman around Israel and overseas to Holland. As he travels, his quest flows into the anecdotes he hears: Abandoned on a Lebanese beach, a soldier swims south to safety. As a battle rages, a man imagines being rescued by a beautiful nude giantess. Troops enter a hippodrome and are shocked to find it full of dead horses.

These are real stories, told in voiceover by the participants. (Usually: In two cases, an actor recited the text because a narrator didn't want his voice in the film.) The anecdotes may not all be literally true, but they certainly haven't been sanitized, and some of them are supported by multiple accounts.

The episodes are mostly accompanied by stark, neoclassical music, occasionally punctuated by the cold sounds of '80s British art-pop. Public Image Limited's "This is Not a Love Song" underscores a soldier's tale of alienation while on furlough in a war-ignoring Israel; Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "Enola Gay" plays as bombs fall.

Folman's own long-suppressed recollections of the Lebanon war were triggered by sessions with an army psychiatrist, which are required of soldiers leaving the Israeli reserves. So it's understandable that Waltz With Bashir plays as a psychological exercise as much as a political one. The movie doesn't pretend to answer all the war's lingering questions. It's only about the Israeli veterans, what they did and saw and how they lived with the memories.

If Folman doesn't consider Lebanese or Palestinian viewpoints on the war, he does progress from individual anguishes to general horror. The movie ends, boldly and disturbingly, with the Sabra and Shatila massacres, finally switching from animation to documentary footage. Ultimately, Waltz With Bashir's nightmares are everyone's. (Recommended)

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