ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman has made a remarkable documentary called "Waltz with Bashir."
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SIEGEL: It begins with a nightmare - a pack of dogs chase an Israeli man in his 40s.
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Like Folman, the man is a veteran of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, of the siege of Beirut. The man's memory of that campaign is haunted. In the film, Folman's memory is clouded and full of holes. "Waltz with Bashir" documents Folman's efforts to fill in the holes, to piece together his unit's role in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Israel's Lebanese Christian allies did the killing, but the Israeli army controlled Beirut and soldiers like Folman were at best unwitting accomplices. This is not a heroic view of the Israeli army. "Waltz with Bashir" is about war and memory, and here's the most stunning thing about it - it's animated. Beautifully. Folman shot the movie and then he had illustrators reduce it, or enhance it, to drawings.
Mr. ARI FOLMAN (Director, "Waltz with Bashir"): I did it because animation gave me the total freedom to go from one dimension to another, from reality to dreams to subconscience issues to hallucinations to drug influences to war, which is probably the most surreal thing on earth, at least that I've experienced. And, I mean, the stream of events in the film - to go from one dimension to another, the only way was to draw it.
SIEGEL: I heard the art director of "Waltz with Bashir," your colleague, say that animation - one advantage of animation was also to appeal to young audiences.
Mr. FOLMAN: Yeah, it was. For me, it was very essential to bring young audience to the theaters to watch the film because I thought that if this film could influence even one teenager taking a decision not to go to war, doesn't matter where, I did my job. I earned it. And this is a general statement that appeals to this film but it can appeal to any other war that, I mean, all wars are useless, a very useless idea. And sometimes in films we tend to glorify them by making all those great characters and that they show you that it's all about bravery and brotherhood of man. And I don't believe in that.
SIEGEL: You don't believe in that?
Mr. FOLMAN: No, not at all.
SIEGEL: One thing you relate very clearly of the experience of being at war in Lebanon in 1982 is the sense of fear, the fear that people felt.
Mr. FOLMAN: It's more than fear. It's just, you're very young and you're totally clueless about what you're doing. The fear is the fear that you don't know if you will live the next day and you don't have any decisions that can change it to take.
SIEGEL: Mm hmm. Your role in Beirut, as you reconstruct it and reconnect with it in this whole story, is, as Israel controls the Lebanese capital, Israel's allies, the Phalangist Lebanese Christians, take out revenge on Palestinian refugee camps. The killers are Lebanese, the victims are Palestinian, you and other Israelis are, in your case, launching flares to illuminate the area, in effect to assist the Phalangists in doing this deed.
Mr. FOLMAN: Yes.
SIEGEL: Had you remembered that all those years or did it take a lot of work to come back to that memory?
Mr. FOLMAN: I think for us, what happened during the massacre in the camp was something that was completely - was taken out of our systems because we are not eye-witnessing it. So, I think we did ourselves an easy life by saying, OK, we didn't know that was going on. The responsibility was much more a government issue, and us, as common soldiers, we were clueless about what was going on.
And I think the film, it deals with a lot of things, mainly about memory, but also, it deals with the chronology of the massacre events, trying to figure out when do you realize - when do you realize that everything you hear or see or somebody else saw and told you, second- and third-hand information - when do you put everything into one frame and you say, OK, there is something very bad, there is mass murder going on just around the hill? And then what do you do in order to prevent it? And it's more about chronology of the events than about anything else.
SIEGEL: Was it received as well in Israel as it's been in Europe and in the Untied States?
Mr. FOLMAN: It was received too well.
SIEGEL: Too well?
Mr. FOLMAN: Too well. Yeah.
SIEGEL: Why? How is that?
Mr. FOLMAN: Because I was expecting at least a kind of debate, you know, at least…
SIEGEL: You wanted someone to say it's a slander, this is treachery that he's engaging in.
Mr. FOLMAN: A controversy, something and…
SIEGEL: He's undermining national morale.
Mr. FOLMAN: And then I was hugged dearly by all the political spectrum. The government took it as a project and they keep sending the film all over the world on their expense.
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Mr. FOLMAN: And me - I mean, I considered myself this kind of really cool rebel and now I'm the government's darling, so it's kind of problematic for me, you know what I mean?
SIEGEL: Well, do you think the film represents any strengths of Israeli cinema beyond the film itself?
Mr. FOLMAN: Yes.
SIEGEL: I mean, is it representative of something?
Mr. FOLMAN: It represents the most important things and that's - it shows Israel as a very tolerant country. I mean, we don't have private investments in film. This film was heavily supported by a couple of Israeli film funds. And it shows all over the world that, in Israel, you can say whatever you like, basically, and the government pays for that. And another thing that they realized that - I mean, here in America, let's face it, honestly, most of the people don't know anything about what happened in Lebanon 25 years ago.
SIEGEL: That's right.
Mr. FOLMAN: Not that I think that it matters. I think they have to run and see the film anyhow.
Mr. FOLMAN: In Europe, they do know, and a lot of them, for the first time, in France and in England and in Germany, where it was very well received, understood that it was not Israeli troops who literally pulled the trigger in the camps and did the massacre. And that's a…
SIEGEL: That it was the Phalangist militia.
Mr. FOLMAN: It was the Christian militia and the government understood that this propaganda can't be bought with money.
SIEGEL: So, you wish that you'd - you wish you'd been received as more of a rebel, more of a troublemaker.
Mr. FOLMAN: Well, I save that for the next time. I kind of enjoy it, you know. I'm just - in a way, I'm sorry that my father doesn't live to see it because when I started the project, he was alive. And he warned me so much, you know, don't do it. Everybody will freak out, will be furious at you. You'll be hounded by the government for years. And look at me.
SIEGEL: (Laughing) You're a hero. You're a national hero.
Mr. FOLMAN: I'm the Israeli delegation now.
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Mr. FOLMAN: Wherever I go, the government - the ambassador is waiting for me, you know, welcoming me. I go to all those embassies. They have receptions for me. I mean…
SIEGEL: Ari Folman, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. FOLMAN: Thanks. Thanks.
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SIEGEL: Ari Folman's animated documentary "Waltz with Bashir" opened in New York and Los Angeles yesterday. You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.