Animation sensation: Israeli director basks in glow as Bashir comes to U.S.

Israeli director Ari Folman’s extraordinary animated anti-war film, “Waltz With Bashir,” depicts his elliptical attempt to recapture the lost memories of his 1982 military service in Lebanon.

Folman’s experience turns out to encompass some of the most painful moments of what has come to be seen as Israel’s Vietnam, notably the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Christian Phalangists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Although the film serves as a savage critique of Israel’s military and political leadership — notwithstanding Folman’s assertion that he set out to make an autobiographical film, not a political statement — its release at home didn’t trigger a reexamination of the war.

“The film brings no news in regard to what happened, in terms of facts and responsibility,” the bearded, 50-something filmmaker said during a recent San Francisco stop on his marathon international publicity tour. “I didn’t want to spend four years of my life dealing with politicians. I kept it on a very personal level, the story of the common soldier. All the other facts in the film, they were all exposed in the Kahan Commission 25 years ago.”

Being released in the wake of the debacle of the Second Lebanon War might have contributed to the film’s enthusiastic response at home, Folman acknowledged. But he also admitted having some curiosity as to how the film would have been received had it come out prior to the 2006 war.

“Waltz With Bashir” premiered to enormous acclaim in May at the Cannes Film Festival, and was snapped up for American distribution. Israel’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film opens Jan. 9.

“My life has changed tremendously in the past eight months, but more than anything else, I can’t go to public events anymore,” Folman confided. “At wedding parties, I end up in the corner, usually with someone I have no clue who he is, and I hear all those horrific war stories.”

“Bashir” might be cathartic for veterans, but it’s revelatory for their lovers and mothers. “A lot of women told me that it was the first time they understood what war looks like [through] the eyes of their husbands or sons,” Folman said.

Both harrowing and sensuous, the documentary invites comparison with the most notorious and surreal movie made about Vietnam, and it doesn’t bother Forman a bit.

” ‘Apocalypse Now’ is one of my top five films,” he said without hesitation. “Of course it influenced me. I adore [Francis Ford] Coppola. I think he does [show] war in a surreal manner, which is the correct thing to do. I have problems with other big American war movies that show war is bad for you, it’s a useless idea, but it’s a lot about glamour and glory. A young [moviegoer] might say, ‘Yes, war sucks, but I want to be the guy in the movie because he’s so cool.’ Nobody wants to be the guy in my movie.”

Folman adapted a Czech novel for his acclaimed 1996 debut, “Saint Clara.” His next project is an animated, English-language adaptation of Russian science-fiction novelist Stanislaw Lem’s “The Futurological Congress.” He’s writing the script on airplanes and in hotel rooms, perpetually jet-lagged but reveling in the attention “Bashir” is getting.

The filmmaker has three children, and he said it’s their decision, not his, whether they enlist in the military or contribute in another way. Given his wartime experience and his antiwar conviction, is he in favor of Israel abolishing mandatory military service?

“I can tell you that on the day that army [service] will not be mandatory in Israel, we will know that we’re a normal country,” he says. “That’s for sure. But we’re a long way from that now.”

“Waltz With Bashir” opens Jan. 9 at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco and Jan. 16 at four other Bay Area theaters.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.