Ari FOLMAN'S "Waltz With Bashir," which screens tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival, straddles many boundaries: between memory and dream, history and memoir, fact and fiction. Using animation to shift fluidly between frames, the movie investigates the Sept. 16, 1982, massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut. Lebanese militiamen belonging to the Falangist Party, their passions inflamed by the assassination of the country's president-elect, Bashir Gemayel, slaughtered hundreds and possibly thousands of men, women and children, stacking their bodies in the narrow alleys between houses.
As the Falangists moved in under cover of night, Israeli troops stationed around the perimeter sent up flares to light their way. The Israelis were told they were merely supporting a mission to remove terrorists hiding in the camps, but it eventually became clear that wholesale slaughter was underway. What was known, and by whom, is still the subject of fierce debate, but then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was held responsible by a government commission for ignoring the risk of bloodshed and was forced to resign his post. He was elected prime minister in 2001.
Folman, then a 19-year-old soldier, was serving in Beirut on the day of the massacre but had no memories of that time. He had, however, a recurring dream of walking through streets filled with wailing women in black chadors.
Seeking to fill in the gaps in his mind, Folman, whose background includes fiction and nonfiction film as well as the original Israeli version of the HBO series "In Treatment," decided to make a film collecting the memories of his friends and fellow soldiers, many of whom had been unaware of the events taking place only a few hundred yards away. But rather than simply assemble their recollections, Folman wanted to explore the process of memory itself, why we forget things we want to remember, and remember things we want to forget.
'Like a very bad acid trip'
Even after last year's "Persepolis," many will be surprised that Folman chose the medium of animation to deal with such a sobering and controversial subject. But at the Telluride Film Festival, where the film screened last week, Folman said he never considered any other approach. "I don't think any other method could have told the story," he said. "I always meant it to be drawn." Moving between past and present, real and imagined, the movie, he says, "is like a very bad acid trip. I wanted to have the same feeling as if you're going to a different dimension."
After years of research, Folman brought his subjects, who include celebrated TV war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, into a sound studio and recorded them on audio and videotape. The words became the movie's soundtrack and the images served as a guide for the animation, except in two cases in which his subjects asked to have their words redubbed and their appearances altered. For one interview, which he wanted to set in a car, Folman gave his subject a mock steering wheel, the better to act out the scene. Before a frame of animation was drawn, Folman had assembled a rough cut using the video footage.
Critics have likened "Waltz" to Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," but Folman bristles at the mention of rotoscoping, the technique used in Linklater's film, in which animators trace their drawings over live-action footage. Every frame was drawn from scratch, Folman says, proudly noting that "Waltz" is only the second animated feature to be produced in Israel. The first was in 1961.
Although the movie has a fairly conventional talking-head structure (at least if you close your eyes), Folman shies away from labeling it a documentary. "Once I've finished, it's not for me to judge," he says. "I got tired of categorizing films, where documentary ends and fiction starts. The main difference is that if I had declared this a fiction film five years ago, it would have taken me years less to raise the money."
Folman spent years assembling the funding for the movie, persuading backers that his approach was worth the risk. In all, he raised about $2 million, an extremely small budget for an animated film. The first cut was produced with Flash software, a low-cost method usually characterized by two-dimensional figures and jerky movement. Later, touches of 3-D and traditional hand-drawn animation were added, but the movie's look remains simple, almost schematic.
"Someone asked in one Q&A if the characters walk slow because they are traumatized," Folman recalls. "I answered that they walk slow because the budget is low. If we had more money, we could do more classic animation."