Friday, January 09, 2009

WALTZ WITH BASHIRThe Evening Class Interview With Ari Folman

It took four years for Israeli director Ari Folman to complete his animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, which was entered in the competition for the Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Though—despite predictions—it did not win that honor, Waltz With Bashir went on to win six awards from the Israeli Film Academy, including Best Picture. It had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and its US premiere at the 46th New York Film Festival. The film has been submitted as Israel's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, as well as for Best Animated Feature. Predictions for an Oscar win look optimistic, judging from its recent Golden Globe for Best Foreign Feature; the first nonfiction film in Golden Globe history to claim that honor. Concerned with the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, the film came highly praised at its Cannes premiere as one that would "leave its mark forever on the ethics of war films in general" (Screen Daily). Variety hailed it as "something special, strange and peculiarly potent." Time magazine asserted that "the message of the futility of war has rarely been painted with such bold strokes." It was with considerable respect that I sat down to converse with Ari Folman.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First of all, Ari, Waltz With Bashir is a remarkable film. It's a film that confirms that—by diving deeply into the personal—a filmmaker can achieve the universal, the philosophical, the political. I consider the commensurate practices of psychotherapy and filmmaking to be sibling practices, having both appeared on the scene at relatively the same time, and both practices are continually evolving. You've frequently been asked about the therapeutic effect of Waltz With Bashir in healing your own psyche, but what do you hope will be its therapeutic benefit for others, not only in Israel but worldwide?

Ari Folman: First, I'm not a great believer in psychotherapy. If it's evolved, as you say, it has evolved to the point of being a quasi-religion, almost a cult. If you are a believer, it can work for you. If you are a non-believer, it probably will not work for you. I say that after—as you can imagine—having experienced long terms of psychotherapy. That's my general opinion of the system and how it works.

Guillén: Have you ever read a book by James Hillman and Michael Ventura called We've Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse?

Folman: No.

Guillén: It's a wonderful book.

Folman: Yeah?

Guillén: It's an articulate indictment of psychotherapy, which might interest you.

Folman: My belief is that any kind of filmmaking is therapy; but, it's dynamic. You're actually doing something. It's not the masturbatory ritual of meeting your shrink once a week. You travel, you meet people, you record them, you listen to and deal with what they have to say, you write a screenplay, you film your subjects, you imagine and invent things from scratch, a new dimension of memory, you do real work. Sometimes in psychotherapy you don't do real work. It's not as strong as creative expression. And it doesn't have to be filmmaking. It can be writing, painting. Waltz With Bashir is—I don't know, maybe it's too pretentious to say that it works as psychotherapy for other people—but, it works. My life has changed tremendously in the last seven months since Cannes; and what's happened is I can't go to public events anymore because in the end I find myself sitting in the corner, very gloomy, and someone I've never seen before sits beside me and tells me all his horrific war stories—there have been many wars so it could be any one of them—and then he says, "I can't help it. This is coming out of me because I've seen your film and it's encouraged me to talk, so I want to talk to you because everyone in the film talks to you." So the film admittedly motivates people. I predicted that but I didn't predict hearing from so many women that Waltz With Bashir was the first film that really showed them what war is. Not that they had anything against war movies in general; but, they never understood the experience through film. Waltz With Bashir was the first time for them to understand a lot of things about their husbands, about their sons, and about the little children who might be soldiers someday. I don't know why this film specifically appeals to women—much more than any other war film—but this is what I've been repeatedly told.

Guillén: The film's narrative structure, its structured subjectivity, is comparable to how narratives are structured in so-called "objective" documentaries and, thus, Waltz With Bashir achieves an equation between subjectivity and objectivity.

Folman: I don't believe in objectivity. There is no objectivity in filmmaking. Logically, it cannot exist. The basic fact that you go into an editing room with 200 hours of footage and by the end of the editing process come out with a film that is 50 minutes or an hour negates objectivity.

Guillén: In all honesty, I agree. Waltz With Bashir is a subjective statement by which you have created an understanding of yourself. Its intense subjectivity has thinned the membrane between the personal and the political and, thereby, has engendered a historical document about how a nation or a culture has created an understanding of itself. Yet it's also thinned the membrane between filmmaking and the psychological process of editing. History making, filmmaking, selfmaking.

Folman: I agree with you and you have phrased it like no one ever has to me. When you go on a very personal journey, in the end you hit all the political points that you didn't think you would. It's true. And I think by utilizing the personal, you achieve more because audiences sense that your initial inspiration was not just to do an anti-war film. When you are honestly personal, an audience feels less manipulated.

Guillén: Waltz With Bashir's anti-war statement is evident—that is its obvious surface—but, what intrigued me the most was the psychological process of editing: how you make a film, how you remember your life, how you remember history. The fact that it's animated, and starts right off with animals, gives it a double whammy of anima. A soufulness immediately launches and situates the film. It grounds it.

Folman: That was planned.

Guillén: You have recounted many times how you achieved your animation design, and I know one critic wrote about how your particular style of animation leaves the viewer unmoored, floating somewhat. How did you develop that aesthetic of being slightly afloat?

Folman: The animation was dictated by the design of the film. At the beginning I was obsessed to make a film where the design was as realistic as possible, meaning putting in more shadows on the characters, more wrinkles, shapes, contours. However, the more details you have, the more complicated it becomes to move the characters in cut-out animation, which is actually the simplest animation. We took it to the most extreme level. On the way, I saw the down side of the technique. Slow movement was the most complicated thing to achieve with this technique. Just a person walking slowly down a corridor was the most complicated thing to capture; contrary to the big action scenes with shooting and the movement of armored vehicles. Basic movement killed us. There was one moment where I decided, "Let's make everything in cut-out, but the lower part of the body will be classic animation. From the knees down, it will be frame-by-frame." The resulting look had something unique, disconnected from time. It released you from time, which I rarely see in filmmaking. For example, in David Lynch's movies, you lose a sense of time.

Guillén: With regard to timelessness in your creativity, then, you enter the terrain of mythmaking. So along with selfmaking, history making, filmmaking, we add mythmaking. I feel a need to stress these multiple equivalent threads in your film. I study a lot of mythology. I study a lot of cosmogonies from various cultures around the world and there are two basic principles I've observed with regard to cosmogonies; two approaches that are engaged in the process of a creation myth. They either see it and it becomes or they say it and it becomes. I bring this up because it's my understanding that Waltz With Bashir was largely predicated upon sound and that sound is the driving creative force behind this film.

Folman: For me, always. The only tough part about creating a film for me is the writing, which I treat as my main profession because it's real work. I'm sometimes embarrassed by how much fun I'm having with all the other stuff involved in filmmaking. I don't want to admit the truth that I'm just having fun and not working, you know? The most fun for me is doing the sound. It's miraculous. For example, in the opening scene with the dogs we had 102 tracks of animal sounds. We had wolves, lions, tigers, etc. The sound was engineered in a studio in Berlin that had formerly been the gym of the Nazi hierarchy. It was an incredible place. The sound designers were very talented German engineers. I told them to go wild. There are a lot of things I say about the war in the film but one of the basic ways I envisage it is as a bad acid trip. You might know that in a bad acid trip you go on a journey where you never know what's next, which I think is a lot like filmmaking as well. Hopefully, it's not predictable. Everyone talks about visions when they talk about LSD, but really it's more about sound, and rarely do you see that truth expressed in filmmaking. In the 10-12 minute Mardi Gras scene in Easy Rider—which I think is an incredible scene—it's all about sound, nothing about visuals. I felt that I had to take the audience immediately into that dimension, to strike them with the opening sequence, shock them, and then let them fly into the film. So we went really wild with the sound and put a lot of effort into it.

Guillén: I would have to say as stunning as the visuals are in Waltz With Bashir, its sound design is what I consider its presiding achievement. It's the sound design that captured me and stayed with me long after seeing the film and which, in my opinion, best approximates the recollective process of memory. I know exactly what you're saying about LSD. I actually studied with Stanislav Grof who, you might know, conducted extensive research into the therapeutic usage of altered states of consciousness through a career's worth of experiments with LSD. Grof was the one who discovered through his research that LSD was a serial experience that progresses upon repeated usage and that the visual hallucinations usually associated with LSD were merely the first stage of the acid trip, followed by a more pronounced and enduring stage of aural hallucinations. Returning to the cosmogonic principle that sound manifests, if you place—let's say—iron particles on a drum skin and strike a tuning fork, the vibrations will arrange those particles into mandalic patterns. In other words, sound creates form.

Folman: You're totally right. I completely agree with you.

Guillén: And, of course, the Biblical cosmogony follows suit with God speaking and creation becoming manifest. I'm very clear that the form of Waltz With Bashir, its manifest structure, relies heavily on its sound design. The visuals were arresting and, as stated earlier, unmooring; but, it was the film's sound that gave me the best handle on the film's themes. Cosmogonies aside, who did you work with to create the sound design?

Folman: The sound designer is
Aviv Aldema, who I've always worked with in Israel; but, the whole sound team—the mixer, the sound effects designer—were German. Then I brought in a British composer Max Richter who I think is brilliant. I had never met him but I used to listen to his albums while I was writing. He was truly inspiring for me. I wrote the script for Waltz With Bashir in six days, listening only to Max Richter's albums. I didn't mean for that to happen like that, but it just happened. When I finished the script, I thought, "This guy has, in effect, written the soundtrack for the script." Because scripts have soundtracks. Think about it. If you listen to Bach for a month while writing, Bach will emotionally influence the writing. Nothing influences emotions more than music. As a former resident of San Francisco, Frank Zappa, used to say: "Music is the best." [Chuckles.]

Guillén: I'm convinced music is the highest of the arts. Without question, Waltz With Bashir has served the purpose of informing audiences of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, of which many of us were unaware. As history, as information, that has merit in and of itself; but, the film's most visceral effect is in its simulation of the very real process of active imagination. Any artist or, for that matter, any person who is grappling with memory, attempting to individuate through memory, attempting to reconcile memory, anyone who is looking into themselves, is engaged in active imagination. I can understand why—when you go to cocktail parties—everyone wants to come up to you and tell you their war stories because you have unleashed a therapeutic device. It may not be psychotherapy or the talking cure; but, it's a creative device by which people can cope with selfmaking. One of the most interesting critiques of your film, which I've had to sit with, is the notion that Waltz With Bashir is the shadow of the Holocaust. Can you speak to that?

Folman: Yeah, yeah. I have no problem at all speaking about it. First, I'll tell you that—since the film was released in Israel—I have never been asked about the Holocaust at all. For a very simple reason: because the comparison was obvious. It's in the DNA of the Jewish people in Israel. Whenever they see newsreel images of any kind of mass murder—Sabra and Shatila, Srebrenica in Bosnia, Armenians, Rwanda, it doesn't matter—for them it strikes immediately and flies them into the past. I never mentioned The Holocaust in the film but it's referenced two times. First, when we entered the camps I was asked, "Do you remember the famous photos from the Warsaw ghetto?" And I say yes. And my other friend the therapist says, "It's not the Sabra and Shatila camps; it's the other camps." It's as if Waltz With Bashir is speaking in code. Never in the history of my country has there ever been such a demonstration of outrage such as took place the day after the Sabra and Shatila massacre. I'm not even sure people fully understood why they were taking to the streets. Israeli troops didn't directly participate in the massacre. They've done terrible things but in this case specifically they didn't do the shooting. The Israeli people had never demonstrated to such an extent before nor afterwards. But when they saw the newsreels, which I incorporated into the end of Waltz With Bashir, they freaked out. They protested that there was no way that the Israeli government could be connected to such an atrocity, taking into consideration what had happened to the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

As I've traveled with the film, people have found it very hard to understand how I could make the comparison; but, it's not a comparison. Some things can't be compared. They can hardly be understood. Can you understand what happened during the Holocaust? There's no way to understand it. There's a 90-minute film called Massaker that's about Sabra and Shatila. It's about five Phalangist soldiers, filmed in silhouette, who recount what they did in the camps. It's nothing but them speaking. As you listen to them, you can't believe that any human being could have done those things. You just can't believe it. You say, "No." And then in the end you say, "What? Did they invent these stories? Why would they do that?" The point is they did it. Some things just can't be explained. For us it's easy to make the reference; but, in some places, they just couldn't figure it out at all.

This is actually one of the most interesting discussions I've had on the film. I want you to consult with me on my next film. I think you could help me. It concerns all these areas that we're discussing.

Guillén: It would be my honor. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

Cross-published on
Twitch. Waltz With Bashir is currently playing in San Francisco at the Clay Theatre, 2261 Fillmore Street, San Francisco; (415) 267-4893.


Debbie Ann said...

wow, what a great interview!! Sounds like you and Ari had a great connection.You have such a great range of knowledge it is so great when various pieces can all be connected.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks sweetheart. My best to you and Charles. I've been enjoying reading your cinema dispatches from down under on The WELL.

Pacze Moj said...

Another fantastic interview, Maya. I put off reading it until I'd seen and thought about the film, and, as usual, I always come out richer after your questions and your interviewee's answers.

I thought the film was so-so, and while, like you, I liked the sound design, I was a bit put-off by the music-video vibe / structure: interviews punctuated by scenes set to music. Might be a quirk of mine, I'm not sure.

I also had a tough time understanding the film as either pro-war or anti-war, given it doesn't really address a war. I was moved by some of the testimony (my favourite, if I can use that word, episode was a soldier's memory of being left behind and having to swim back to meet his troops) but none of struck me as anti-war. If anything, I got the message: war is war -- inevitable -- but killing civilians is a whole different story.


The colour shots at the end -- of the massacre victims -- struck me as slightly exploitative, because the film wasn't about the Palestinians or the Lebanese Christians. I understand that that's the moment (and the image) that had affected the Israeli soldiers; but, perhaps unfairly on my part, the choice to include them at the end seemed like it was meant to shock-and-awe the audience rather than lead to catharsis or provide a coda. If I'm not mis-remembering, the film doesn't even say how many Palestinians were killed or that there weren't [m]any fighters in the camp.

Seeing Folman mention the film Massaker, though, blew my mind a little. In that film, the Phalangists claim that Israel participated *directly* in the massacre: a claim that Folman and his film deny (rightly, according to all available evidence). It seems to me that if we take the Phalangists at face value, we believe that, too. Else, we take exception to that claim and have doubts about the rest of their testimony. Either way, it was strange that Folman didn't mention it.