Learning from Waltz With Bashir

Waltz with Bashir

Waltz with Bashir

Well, from Ari Folman, the creator of this compelling animated documentary, actually. An interview with Marshall Fine of the Huffington Post, gives us a glimpse into the mind of writer/director Ari Folman who made this film against all odds and gained worldwide success. He has almost philosophical views on war, forgiveness and politics but those have no place here on an animation blog. What I really want to share here are 5 invaluable lessons gleaned from the interview with this unconventional film-maker. I hope our aspiring animators and film-makers who want to make their own films will take these lessons to heart.

Lesson No. 1: It is all in the story-telling

(from the interview) …A very personal look at the Israel-Lebanon war of 1982, Waltz with Bashir follows Folman as he tracks down old friends and fellow veterans of the Israeli Army and asks them to share their memories of the conflict. Whenever he tries to remember it, he draws a blank – and so he goes to his friends to help refresh his memory. The result is an exercise in recall that melts from memory to dream to hallucination – ending in a shocking moment of reality when the film suddenly moves from animation to archival footage of the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Muslims by Lebanese Christian forces, in retaliation for the assassination of president-elect Bashir Gemayel…

With a controversial but factual story about war combined with real, archival footage, who would have thought the film would catch the fancy of people across the world? A dark, disturbing subject like war has been tackled innumerable times before so what sets apart this film? The answer lies in the telling of the story. Can you create interest in the minds of the audience? Can you get them involved in the lives of your characters? Can you hook them, grip them, enchant them, make them suspend disbelief and lose themselves in your story? THAT is the power of story-telling, no matter what the subject is.

Lesson No. 2: Believe. In yourself. In your story. In the medium.

(from the interview) …But, as Folman says, a nonfiction retelling that relied on archival footage would have been lumped in with all the other talking-head political documentaries that come and go – many of them never being released, most going unseen in the U.S. – every year. Animation made it stand out – and helped Folman find a way to exploit the visual aspects of what is essentially an oral history.
“Animation was the only way to do it,” he says. “I imagined it as an animated film. I always knew it would be. I had no other choice. It’s a story about the subconscious, about fear and death, war horrors, drugs – the only way to include all of that was animation.”
Inevitably, he faced questions: Is it true? Is it real? Which raised other questions: Did animation undermine its connection to reality – or enhance it? “The hardest part was convincing people that it could be done,” Folman say…

A lot of people questioned Folman’s decision to make a film on this subject. They felt his choice of medium was inappropriate as well. He did not have a background in animation either. But he believed. In the story he had to narrate, in the medium of ‘animated-documentary’ and most of all, in himself. The strength of his conviction ensured that the film got made.

Lesson No. 3: Never give up. Keep trying.

(from the interview) …Even then, the film had to be made piecemeal. Folman started with three minutes, then started pitching. It took him four years to get the money to finish the movie.
“I pitched it three and a half years ago in Toronto,” he says. “I had a three-minute scene that I showed to 40 people – and 38 of them said, ‘Why animated?’ They didn’t want it.
“You have to convince a lot of people. I went to a lot of parties. It was a complicated four years. I never stopped. I did three minutes, then went to Toronto and raised money. Then I did 20 minutes, then I stopped and raised more money. Then I did 40 minutes. If you stop, you get stuck and lose your team and it gets more complicated.”…

The task was daunting. The film was almost experimental and most people had rejected his pitch. Yet he went on undeterred. He not only worked on the film himself, he also went around trying to raise funds. He did everything possible to ensure the film was completed. He had a vision and a task. He went all out to make it a reality, not giving up even once.

Lesson No. 4: Innovate

(from the interview) …A TV writer (including for the Israeli version of In Therapy) and director, Folman had never worked with animation before. And with minimal funding for his idea, he had to come up with his own approach. “We invented the animation style,” he says. “Basically it is cut-out animation. We did it ourselves because of the very low budget we had.”…

Sure, there were problems. Unforeseen ones as well as expected ones. With a budget that was limited, Ari and his team reiterated the proverb – Necessity is the mother of invention. When you have a goal, you cannot let anything stop you from achieving it. Try with whatever is within your means but also push the limit whenever you can. Experiment, innovate, turn your shortcomings into advantages, push the envelope.

Lesson No. 5: Do it for YOURSELF

(from the interview) …As he worked on it, Folman felt he was making something special – but what filmmaker doesn’t? Even then, though he was excited when the film was accepted at Cannes, he had no sense of the way it would be received.
“We were clueless about its impact until we came to Cannes,” he says. “We knew nothing. We were working in a small lab on the outskirts of Tel Aviv and we were having fun. I knew when it was done it would be a great movie. All along, I was very confident. I had solved a lot of the problems artistically and financially. But I was surprised at the fight for the film after the screening. Really, we didn’t know what we were doing. I believe you never do as filmmakers.”…

Folman did not make this film to prove a point. He did not make it to win accolades for the animation. He had a story that he wanted to narrate which he wanted to take to people across the world. He was not thinking of audiences or jury when he was making the film. He made it the way it best enhanced the story. He was focussed on the task at hand and gave it his best. That is something most of us do not do. We lose track thinking of the grand prize awaiting us at the finishing line. Do not make the film because it is your class lesson, or project, or perhaps your job. Do not do it for the ‘money’ or ‘awards’. Do it for your own sake – because you have a story that deserves to be told in the best possible manner.

I will leave you with the trailer of Waltz with Bashir and a parting thought. There is so much to learn from the experiences of others. Our animation/filmmaking students sometimes suffer because they do not have good teachers at their schools and institutes, but what stops them from learning outside the classroom?

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