Tak­ing Shatila to Cannes

Ari Fol­man made his an­i­mated doc­u­men­tary about the Is­raeli army’s role in a mas­sacre of Pales­tini­ans as a way of ex­or­cis­ing per­sonal demons. Now the film could win him the top prize at Cannes. He talks to Stephen Ap­ple­baum

The Jewish Chronicle - - ART&BOOKS -

IF IS­RAEL’S ARI Fol­man wins the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val to­mor­row for his har­row­ing an­i­mated doc­u­men­tary Waltz with Bashir, it will be the per­fect end to a jour­ney that he never dreamed he would take. Sev­eral days af­ter the film’s world pre­miere, the 45-year-old Fol­man still has not quite got his head around the idea that his film has been widely praised by the world’s press, and has a good chance of scoop­ing the fes­ti­val’s most pres­ti­gious award.

“It’s kind of a Cin­derella story,” says the Haifa-born film­maker. “[ Waltz with Bashir] started as a £50,000 short film for a doc­u­men­tary chan­nel, so to think that I would end up here, with all the hype, it’s hard to be­lieve. Even if I was like a science-fiction writer, I still couldn’t have pre­dicted what has hap­pened with the film up till now.”

Fol­man’s fea­ture-length film is a bold piece of work which draws on some of his ex­pe­ri­ences as a young sol­dier dur­ing the war in Le­banon in 1982. In it, a char­ac­ter called Ari re­alises that he can­not re­mem­ber the de­tails of a three-day mis­sion, so he vis­its for­mer army bud­dies and var­i­ous as­so­ciates to try and find out what hap­pened. This leads him, and the au­di­ence, to the film’s painful cli­max — the slaugh­ter of hun­dreds, pos­si­bly thou­sands, of Pales­tini­ans by the Chris­tian Pha­langist mili­tia at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. Es­ti­mates of the num­bers of ca­su­al­ties have ranged from 700 to 3,500.

Al­though the Is­rael Defence Forces were not par­tic­i­pants in the mas­sacre, nei­ther were they sent in to stop it. Fol­low­ing an in­quiry into the in­ci­dent by a fed­eral com­mit­tee, Ariel Sharon was dis­missed from the post of Min­is­ter of Defence.

The idea for the doc­u­men­tary was born when Fol­man asked to be re­leased from duty in Is­rael’s re­serve army af­ter he turned 40, and was told that he would have to see a psy­chother­a­pist.

“So I met this re­ally nice lady on a weekly ba­sis for a cou­ple of hours, and I started telling her about my army ser­vice from the very first day,” he says.

Af­ter eight ses­sions, he had told his com­plete story for the very first time. “I was amazed, not be­cause of the things I heard but be­cause of the fact that I never spoke about it,” he says. “Then I started think­ing about it, and I went back to my friends and I asked them: ‘Do you ever talk about it?’ And then they started talk­ing about it.”

When a friend called Boaz told him of his re­cur­ring dream about a pack of wild hounds that bark at him from un­der­neath his win­dow, Fol­man knew he had the ma­te­rial for his next film.

How­ever, it would not be easy. He was de­ter­mined to make an an­i­mated film, which costs money. But, his source of fund­ing was TV doc­u­men­tary de­part­ments, from which he could raise only a tenth of the money he would have re­ceived if he was mak­ing a fiction film.

“So I had to go through a night­mare to fi­nance this film — to mort­gage my house, to risk all my fam­ily,” he says.

But an­i­ma­tion was the only way to go, as far as he was con­cerned. “I thought about all the el­e­ments that I would have to put in the film that were con­scious and sub­con­scious dreams, night­mares, wars, fear of death, lost love, drugs, trips, hal­lu­ci­na­tions, and there was no way to do it in a tra­di­tional doc­u­men­tary.”

Some French jour­nal­ists in Cannes have de­scribed Waltz with Bashir as a film about moral guilt and re­spon­si­bil­ity, but Fol­man is hav­ing none of it.

“I’m sorry to up­set so many peo­ple but this is the hon­est truth — it has noth­ing to do with guilt,” he in­sists. Nor does it have any­thing to do with Sharon. “I don’t give a damn about him. This guy has noth­ing to do with me. I am his vic­tim. I was sent as a pawn in his chess game. I don’t give a damn about him. I was con­cerned only with the point of view of the com­mon sol­dier, the ran­k­less sol­dier, the clue­less one, who was sent to Beirut, I don’t know why, and I was ob­sessed with the chronol­ogy of the mas­sacre.”

He at­tributes his fix­a­tion with the time­line of events in Le­banon to be­ing sur­rounded by Holo­caust sur­vivors when he was grow­ing up in Is­rael. Some of them never spoke about what hap­pened, while oth­ers, like his own mother (he laughs), never stop talk­ing.

Fol­man says he be­came ob­sessed with find­ing out what had hap­pened to th­ese surivors and why, and won­dered whether he would have had the strength to sur­vive in the same sit­u­a­tion. “And, of course, I was al­ways in­ter­ested in how many peo­ple knew [about the Holo­caust]. And if a lot of peo­ple knew, why wasn’t any­thing done for three-and-a-half years? So, for me, of course, the mas­sacre [in Beirut] was con­nected,” he says.

He be­lieves that the rea­son why there was such wide­spread out­rage in Is­rael when pic­tures of the slaugh­tered refugees were re­leased was be­cause of a sub­con­scious link with the Holo­caust. “The re­sponse was im­mense,” he says. “It was some­thing in the Jewish DNA of the Is­raelis that re­lated the pho­tos from the mas­sacre to their past.”

This out­rage is felt in the fi­nal minute of the movie, when an­i­ma­tion gives way to live-ac­tion footage of the af­ter­math of the slaugh­ter. The ef­fect is shat­ter­ing be­cause it sud­denly closes the dis­tance which an­i­ma­tion in­evitably cre­ates. For Fol­man, it was nec­es­sary to re­mind au­di­ences that Waltz with Bashir is not fiction, but an all-too-real slice of his­tory. “I didn’t want the au­di­ence to go out of the theatre think­ing: ‘Yes, this is a cool an­i­mated film. Nice draw­ings. Cool mu­sic.’ I just want to put ev­ery­thing in pro­por­tion and say this hap­pened; thou­sands of peo­ple were killed, kids were killed, women were killed, old peo­ple were killed. And you have to get it, some­times, as we say in He­brew, in the face.”

For all this, he does not ex­pect the film to be con­tro­ver­sial in Is­rael. On the con­trary, ev­ery­thing in the film is known, he says. “So in terms of facts and po­lit­i­cal facts, there is no big news. Of course, some peo­ple will like it. Some peo­ple will dis­like it. But it’s OK. Is­rael is an open so­ci­ety. You can ex­press your views ar­tis­ti­cally. You can go as far as you want.”

One of Fol­man’s hopes for Waltz with Bashir is that it will be shown to Arab au­di­ences, al­though he knows that this could be a pipe dream. “But I would love that to hap­pen,” he says. “That would be the most amaz­ing thing that could hap­pen to this film.”

As for the film’s more im­me­di­ate fate, to­mor­row we will know if Sean Penn’s jury has awarded Fol­man Cannes’s top prize and made his dream even wilder than he could ever have imag­ined.

Ari Fol­man in Cannes. He says his film “has noth­ing to do with guilt”

A scene from Waltz with Bashir — a bold an­i­ma­tion about Is­raeli in­volve­ment in the no­to­ri­ous 1982 slaugh­ter of Pales­tinian refugees in Beirut

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