“I think any kind of filmmaking is subjective, including documentary.”
Not long after I spoke with Ari Folman about Waltz with Bashir, a harrowing and black-comic animated memoir of his experience as an IDF soldier in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israeli bombs fell on Gaza, in seeming anticipation of a ground offensive. So much for film's capacity to change history or remind us of the errors of the past.
As a means of uncovering repressed traumatic memories, however, Folman found cinema an effective tool. And film has the power to confront audiences with harsh realities and transform horror into art. Since its triumphant screening at Cannes, Bashir has gotten received kudos from critics as well as a Golden Globe nomination, and it's an early favorite for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Less thrilling for Folman have been the hundreds of interviews he's had to conduct promoting the film, among them this one over the phone from Israel, where it was already the following day.
They've got you working late tonight.
Yeah, but I hope it won't take long. It's quarter to one here.
Are you surprised by the response to the film?
After Cannes, I figured that some good things were going to happen. But I was surprised by its appeal in so many places. Different countries and different cultures. In Israel it also did very well. But it's been out more than six months there now, so it's not playing much any more.
Why do you think it has done better than the Iraq-War movies released recently here in America?
Well, I didn't see any good films [on the subject], honestly, at least in terms of fiction. But I think it's hard to deal with those matters when they just appear. You don't have any perspective of time, of history. It takes a long time for such things to sink in so that it's artistic and not that political. I think it took time for the Vietnam War. Not so many years [as for the war in Lebanon], but it took a few years before the big wave of the good movies came out. And it will take time for the Iraq war as well.
This film started out when you saw a psychiatrist and realized that you had blanks in your memory of your war experience, since then you've said that psychotherapy is good for making a film but not much good for making someone feel better. Can you explain?
Filmmaking is dynamic therapy. It's a process. It's a job in which you meet people, interview them, write it, read it, rewrite it, shoot it. And psychotherapy is something that is totally passive compared to making a film or writing.
Both documentaries and psychotherapy try to uncover the truth. Is that attainable?
Not really. That's why the film is always on the verge of reality and dreams. And hallucinations and the subconscious and all those elements that build on memory. I think any kind of filmmaking is subjective, including documentary. It's just pretentious claiming to see the truth, because there isn't any real truth [to be found] trying to realize what happened 25 years ago.
Would you say that repression is healthy?
In general, yes. If it helps you go on with your life. As a method, it's not bad. But once it's out, you have to deal with it. But I'm not against repression. It's part of life.
Would you have been better off if you had never remembered?
It works differently for each person. But if it works, repressing, go for it. Not everyone has to dig into their past traumatic memories in order to survive. For some, it's just the other way around.
Is it important for a country to face up to its past to escape repeating it?
I don't know. It's very difficult for me to talk in a national way of thinking or making conclusions about that. I'm not sure I'm the right guy. I really try to stay on a very personal level of things. I've read a lot of stuff, implications people take from the film about national repression, national guilt, national here, national there. I can't really cope with it because it's defining the film, categorizing it beyond what the filmmaker should do. I've completed my work when the film is screened.
But you'd describe it as an anti-war film.
You don't think that war is a solution regardless of the circumstances?
Unfortunately not. I haven't seen any wars since the Second World War that couldn't have been prevented. In my region, I think that since the Six-Day War not enough has been done to prevent war.
If you went back to when you were 19 and knew what you know now, would you have acted defferently?
It depends. I think in my generation refusing to go into the army or to go to war would have been pretty much impossible. You would have been banned from society, and it was not a thing that people did. It's different today. And it's good that it's different. We live in a different era. Completely.