In the new animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, opening December 25, a former soldier in the Israeli army during the 1982 war in Lebanon attempts to piece together memories he’s long suppressed. He visits therapists, friends who fought alongside him and journalists who covered the conflict. Their stories serve as a kind of reporter’s notes, the basis for the narrative he constructs through illustration and voice-over. The animation, meanwhile, is a kind of metaphor for his fantasy life — the way in which his memories of the war are more like dreams or hallucinations than concrete remembrances of his past. Eventually, he comes face-to-face with what actually happened and the result is harrowing, but also strangely beautiful. Here, that man, director Ari Folman, 45, discusses with WWDScoop how the process began, why he harbors an extreme distaste for former Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon and the reason he thinks psychotherapy is useless.
This story first appeared in the November 24, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWDScoop: How did the process of Waltz With Bashir begin?
Ari Folman: When I was 40, I requested early release from the reserve. Before that, I was a screenwriter and I did silly instruction movies like How to Defend Yourself From Atomic Attack. They told me, “Yeah, you can be released from the reserve five years early, but you have to go see the army’s therapist and tell him everything you went through.” I did that and found it astonishing. It was the first time I ever told my story, and this is basically where it all began. I had the main story line but there were some black holes, and the film was that journey, trying to figure out what were those black holes in my memory.
WWDScoop: Virtually everyone you encounter while trying to piece things back together seems to have blocked out what happened during the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when nearly 2,000 unarmed Palestinians were killed. Do you think there was an epidemic of selective memory after the war in Lebanon?
A.F.: No, I think there is a widespread epidemic of soldiers all over the world, who, to go on with their lives, suppress their memories from war. It’s not specifically identified with the Lebanon war.
WWDScoop: Both Ariel Sharon, who was then Israel’s defense minister, and Elie Hobeica, the Lebanese general who was in charge of the troops, were blamed for the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Yet both of them went on to remarkably successful political careers. Why do you think this is?
A.F.: It’s Middle East politics. Sharon was banned from the Ministry of Defense for life, but nobody in the committee that found he was guilty put a clause in saying he couldn’t be prime minister. So he just came back 20 years later and was treated like a legendary leader. Because he was old, he was considered wise. It was pretty ridiculous, if you ask me.
WWDScoop: Nevertheless, you’ve said that you were more interested in making a film about the common soldier than one that makes a larger political statement about Israel. How come? Why not think big?
A.F.: Unfortunately, I don’t think a film can really change the world. Maybe it can change the mind of a single individual or a few. This is what I was hoping to achieve. I was hoping that young people would attend the movie and it would open their minds and show them how stupid war in general is. But I don’t think it can change anything in the political situation in Israel. And, weirdly enough, the film was welcomed by the right wing there.
WWDScoop: What do you attribute that to?
A.F.: Usually, there’s a lot of controversy about those kinds of films— antiwar films—but when it’s done by a former soldier, they say, “OK, at least this guy was in the battle, what can we say?” And also, the second Lebanon war in 2006 was so extreme, and the news reels coming from there, and the embarrassment about what happened there was so huge that it was nothing compared to a cartoon movie.
WWDScoop: Before making Waltz With Bashir you were the writer of Be Tipul, an Israeli TV series about a shrink that served as the basis for HBO’s In Treatment. Is there a lot of therapy in Israel now?
A.F.: Yes. It’s very popular. It’s very American, with all the clichés of psychotherapy you see in films and everywhere. In upper-class societies, people have money to spend, I guess. I’m not a great believer in psychotherapy.
WWDScoop: Isn’t that an oxymoron? A guy writing a show about therapy who doesn’t even believe in it?
A.F.: No. In the treatment I wrote, therapy fails and the patient commits suicide. As long as they let me do that, I didn’t mind writing it. I had it written into my contract that it would end that way. I’ve been through therapy. I believe it’s a religious cult.
WWDScoop: That’s a bleak world view.
A.F.: It is. But it’s my opinion. I think dynamic therapy, like doing art or making this film, is a million times better.