An Interview With Ari Folman and David Polonsky
How did the book Waltz with Bashir come about?
Ari Folman: The project began as a movie, of course, but the film was more influenced by graphic novels than anything else I’ve seen. I’m a big fan of graphic novels, and books in general were on my mind throughout the whole process, especially Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, and The Adventures of Wesley Jackson—novels by writers who’d experienced war and then taken a step back to look at it in an ironic, funny way. So the book version always seemed obvious to me and we worked on both simultaneously.
From early on, people kept saying that the frames looked graphic novel-ish, probably because the movie’s naturalistic and expressive style created a graphic novel-ish visual world. And the story, the subject itself, was a natural as a graphic novel. With Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Joe Sacco’s work, and the amazing stuff done about Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo, comics became a really effective way of merging journalism, history, and personal experience.
How is the experience of reading the book different from seeing the movie?
David Polonsky: The role of the viewer changes in an interesting way. In the cinema, as a filmmaker, you own the audience, but with a book it’s completely reversed. You’re at the mercy of the reader, who can close the book at any moment. To say it differently, the book puts the story into the reader’s hands while in the movie theater the viewer is in the hands of the storyteller. So the job of keeping the reader’s attention is more of a challenge. Also, I’d say that in the graphic novel the story is tighter, we were able to present the historical facts more clearly, and the panels, without the special effects of the movie process, are more detailed and refined.
And the audience’s relationship to it is different. The pace of the book allows for a better grasp of the nuances and a more reliable transfer of information. Reading a graphic novel, you’re not in danger of losing track of the story and you have time to pause over the panels and take in details that otherwise fly by. Another thing is that in the book the drawings are able to stand as art in their own right, and you see how much of the story they carry. Both the illustrations and the reader’s mind get to play a larger role.
Can you give some examples of how the illustrations work to drive home the themes of the story?
David Polonsky: Well, Waltz deals with memory and what it does with the past. The actual events in Lebanon happened, but memory suppressed them or turned them into nightmares or fantasies. It’s not clear to the characters what’s real and what’s memory, and we tried to make the drawings a bit like that by creating an uncertain feeling of whether the viewer is looking at a photograph or a drawing. We depicted places that are real, like Beirut and Tel Aviv, and worked in backgrounds that seem very photographic but are in fact drawn. So the reader is looking at something unreliable, which is much the same way that memory works.
And then there’s the use of color. There’s one specific orange tone that’s used throughout the story. It’s the orange of night flares, which produces a very artificial and alarming atmosphere. Living close to war, you get to see flares, and I know that eerie orange look—it’s not a warm glow but a chemical burn. Flares are at the heart of Ari’s memories, real and distorted, and so the color appears intermittently until the orange takes over in the final scenes. The effect is not intended as something for the reader to decipher—it’s subliminal.
Why illustration? Why tell this story with comics and animation?
Ari Folman: It gave us total freedom to do whatever we liked. We could go from one dimension to another, from real events to the subconscious to dreams to hallucinations. It gave us the liberty to play with vastly different elements in one fluid story line, with no boundaries, and also to make something visually familiar and tired—war scenes—look entirely new.
In terms of the drawings, what was the biggest challenge?
David Polonsky: The illustrations had to have a sense of truthfulness. I couldn’t pretend I was showing things exactly as they were, although there had to be the ring of authenticity. But I had no references for a lot of the scenes—like the one where Ari is in the Beirut air terminal, for example. Besides the fact that as an Israeli I can’t go to Beirut, the building itself was demolished and rebuilt. So I had no idea what the inside looked like. But there were some references to work with: the scene took place in the 1980s and the building was from the 1930s, and there was Ari and the impression that all this European modernist splendor would have made on him as a young soldier. We collected old posters for Lebanese airline companies, and those details made their way into the panels.
For the characters, it was crucial that they shouldn’t be too stylized or caricatured. It would have been much easier if we could have exaggerated some of the features, but the drawing had to be kind of humble. I couldn’t intrude in the drawings with any kind of showmanship because the story was the most important thing.
The story is Ari’s, and very personal, but it’s drawn by David. How did you work together?
Ari Folman: We went through a lengthy process with many conversations about what we were creating. At first, David found it difficult to take something so intimate, something that came from me, and draw it. I think it’s pretty rare that an illustrator inhabits someone else’s history for three years of his life. It was hard for me, too, because I can’t draw, and that limitation meant I really had to put myself in someone else’s hands.
David Polonksy: For me, the difficulty was creating the young Ari of the 1980s, someone I didn’t know. There were very few photographs of that period. I had to come up with someone who combined rebelliousness with conformity and a certain innocence. A boy but not a boy; a rebel but not a rebel. There’s something intriguing about that. Ari didn’t accept the rules of his surrounding framework—and he’s still like that—but he nevertheless became an army officer. So I gave him a nonstandard haircut and left him unshaven, which is pretty unusual in the army.
Ari Folman: My mother says he didn’t make me handsome enough. And in the present-day drawings, David had to change my hair color all the time—it kept getting grayer. Seriously, David’s gigantic achievement is to have captured my character at nineteen years old. I felt no connection to that person and only became reacquainted with my younger self through David’s portrayal, which was of genuine psychological help to me. He found something very true that allowed me to absorb and understand myself at that age correctly. David opened my eyes. He found in me the dissonance between a constant attempt to defy norms and the fact that I was totally part of the mainstream. In the army I was the real thing, hard core: an officer in a combat unit.
I’m sure there are people who are skeptical of your claim not to have remembered anything from 1982.
Ari Folman: It wasn’t that I didn’t remember anything at all, I didn't have total amnesia. I had the main story-line of my army service, but there were big black holes. Those holes were the reason why I took my Waltz with Bashir journey. I think I worked very hard to suppress those memories, deliberately choosing to forget. When I was released from the army I cut off all ties with the people who were there with me, which is pretty unusual in Israel. And I think the massacre itself was easily erased because we didn’t actually witness what happened in the camps.
Is that why you chose to end Waltz with Bashir with documentary photographic images of the massacre in Sabra and Shatila?
Ari Folman: No, that’s not the reason. I just didn’t want anyone to put this down thinking that the drawings are great, even if they are. I want people to understand that the massacre really happened. Thousands of people were killed, most of them children, old people, civilians. It puts my story in proportion and perspective. It had to be done.
There are many other parts of Waltz that are raw and horrific. What did you feel as you were doing these careful, detailed drawings of war?
David Polonsky: I was really hunched over this thing and very close to it so I wasn’t thinking about the big picture. It only hits you at the end when you see what you’ve done. Most of the time I was focused on the details. But there was one thing that broke through, the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which came in the middle of the project. I was drawing these different places and at the same time I saw them on TV being bombed. It was weirdly claustrophobic, seeing the same stupidity repeating itself. And I was reminded that what I was doing wasn’t only a work of art but a part of our lives.
You’ve insisted that Waltz with Bashir is not a political project, but there’s no way to read the book or see the movie and avoid making a connection to politics.
Ari Folman: The point is that I didn’t set out to make a movie or a book with a political message. It’s above all a personal story. But certain things were very important to me that you might call "political." We went to great lengths to avoid conveying anything about war that might be heroic. We were constantly vigilant making sure there wasn’t a shred of glorification in this story. The soldiers aren’t heroes and they aren’t role models. They’re not even antiheroes.
Books and movies about war, even when they’re antiwar, nearly always miss the mark. The fighting might be terrible but the soldiers are always cool, heroic, one for all, brothers. I do not want kids to wish they were like these characters. Here’s how it is as a soldier: You’re very young and totally clueless. You don’t know where you are and you don’t know who you’re shooting at. You’re afraid that you won’t be alive tomorrow and it feels like there’s not a single decision you can make to change any of it. I’ve been asked if I’m a pacifist. I became a pacifist the day they put me in a tank, and if Waltz convinces even one young person never to go to war, then I’ll have done my job.
David Polonsky: There was another crucial thing for us, which was to avoid showing the soldiers as victims. There’s a phrase in Israel about shooting and crying—we shoot and then cry at our misfortune at having to do it. We didn’t want any of that here, no self-pity. There’s a clear, simple message: War is terrible. To me, Waltz is first of all a work of art. But of course to be a good artist you have to be honest, and in Israel you can’t be honest if you disregard politics. So that’s always there, and sometimes it makes for better art because it keeps you from being too wrapped up in the form and the aesthetic.
Ari Folman: Listen, Waltz breaks no news in terms of what happened at Sabra and Shatila. Everyone knows the reported facts and I had nothing new to say. I was interested in the ordinary soldier, his point of view, and in the chronology of his understanding of the massacre. When do you put it all together, everything you’ve heard and seen and all the hints you’ve picked up, and realize there’s mass murder going on around the corner?
This is not a specifically Israeli question. This story could have been told by a Russian soldier in Chechnya or an American in Iraq or a Dutch peacekeeper who witnessed the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Unfortunately, it’s a universal story.
The book and the movie have come out in the United States at a time when the conflict seems more intractable than ever.
Ari Folman: I’m not that pessimistic. Everyone knows that one day there will be a Palestine. In Israel, most people want to be part of the mainstream of ordinary life. They want to earn a good salary, pay less taxes, take a vacation abroad once a year. They don’t want to live by the sword. Look at it this way: I made the movie of Waltz with German co-producers. Sixty years ago, my parents’ families were slaughtered by Germans. My parents were the only survivors. What’s sixty years from the perspective of history? Nothing, but the change is profound. I’ve been to the Sarajevo film festival: think what was happening there thirteen years ago and now they live in peace. So it can be done.