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Cannes Q&A: Ari Folman

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Ari Folman's In Competition "Waltz With Bashir" is a bold experiment in one of cinema's most tired genres -- the autobiographical documentary. By using animation to reconstruct the story of his (forgotten) experiences as an Israeli draftee during the first Lebanon War, Folman expands both the form and content possible with nonfiction filmmaking. The Hollywood Reporter's German bureau chief Scott Roxborough spoke with Folman on war, memory and the therapeutic process of making "Waltz With Bashir."

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you first come up with the idea to tell your story as an animated documentary?
Ari Folman: I had the idea for a long time in my mind but I couldn't think of how to tell it. I couldn't do it the usual documentary way: You'd have a middle-aged guy in front of the camera talking and then what do you cut to? There's no good archive material of the war and it wasn't really the story I wanted to tell, which was the story out of memory, out of a lost memory. I wanted to do something different. That's when I thought of the idea of drawing it. Then I had to figure out how to do it and that turned out to be much more complicated than coming up with the idea itself. There's no book on how to make an animated documentary and no other examples of this kind of film. We were on our own. We had to make it up as we went along. It's like a regular documentary. I wrote a 90-page script. Then we shot the whole script in a sound stage and I edited it as if it were a plain video film. So we had 90 minutes on video and I screened it. We cut it like a regular video documentary and did careful storyboards of the film. Then we started from scratch, drawing the film. It's important to note, it wasn't rotoscoping like in "A Scanner Darkly" or "Waking Life." We didn't paint on the video. It was all drawn. We used a mix of flash animation, 3-D and around 20% classic animation.

THR: Did you find the process liberating -- being able to draw whatever you wanted to convey your story?
Folman: There's no other way I could have told this story. Using animation gave me total freedom to do what I wanted. Anything I could imagine -- anything that happened or I thought happened -- I could put it in.

THR: You include dream sequences and fantasies as part of the film. Purists would say that disqualifies it as a documentary.
Folman: I don't know what a pure documentary is. I believe all documentaries are subjective, even if they pretend not to be. I'm not able to judge if my film is pure or less pure than any other documentary. It doesn't matter. You always have to decide if you believe it or not -- even if it was an Errol Morris film. With "The Thin Blue Line" you have to decide if you believe the guy or don't. I wouldn't measure it on the scale of more or less pure but on the scale of more or less freedom. And for this story about the loss of memory of war, how else could you do it except to shoot it they way I did? If you did it in a traditional way, what would you shoot? It was the only way to tell this story and I wouldn't have wanted to do it differently.

THR: When you started, did you have any memory of what happened in Lebanon?
Folman: I had vague memories but no clear ones. I didn't have all the pieces. And I was going through a depression. I met up with people from that time that I hadn't seen in 25 years. We went over what happened in those few days. These different threads of memory, their different memories, trauma and dreams related to the events. In making the film, for those scenes -- the dreams, the trauma, we used a different style of animation, often with a different artist, to set it apart from the style we used with the more hardcore documentary sections.

THR: By making a documentary using this obviously artificial style are you also trying to say something about the unreliability of memory?
Folman: Yes, of course. Think about it -- if I asked you to reconstruct something that happened to you 25 years ago, something in your family for example. It doesn't even have to be something traumatic. Just some event and you went back and talked to your brothers, sister, parents and uncles about it. If you question 20 different people you will get 20 different versions of the same event. At least that many, assuming the people don't change their story while they are telling it. Memory and truth are very fragile things if you look at them from a different angle. The scientist I interviewed for the film is a neurobiologist and he told me that the more a memory is suppressed, the fresher it will be when, after years, the block cracks. If a memory is always working, it will become used. If you are telling the story again and again through the years, it is like different drafts of a script. It starts in one location and ends up somewhere else. But if a memory is covered up and the glass or whatever protecting it is broken, it will be fresh. He doesn't have any proof to show this but that is what he believes.

THR: Was the making of the film therapeutic for you?
Folman: Very much so. Just to meet people you haven't seen in 20 years and hear them tell stories about yourself, tell you things you don't know about yourself. It is a process. Whether you believe in therapy is another question. I'm not a great believer in that religion. But the process is there. It's like the show "In Treatment" on HBO, which is written from my original Israeli show. I wrote the HBO pilot and there is the underlying question at the beginning with the patient: "Will this therapy succeed?" My basic belief is, it won't. But in making a film like this, going over these memories, you do go through a process. There's no doubt about that.

THR: Did making the film change your opinion of war?
Folman: Unfortunately no, I must tell you. While making this film we had the second Lebanon war and it only strengthened the ideas I have had since I was there as a kid (soldier). It's a very banal statement but war is so useless. In real life, it is completely useless. What I try to show in my film is war without the glamour you see in big Hollywood films. It is kids going some place and shooting someone or being shot. There is nothing so banal. It's like that Bob Dylan song "Masters of War." It's nothing more than that. ... It's the same story in every war, everywhere.

VITAL STATS
Nationality: Israeli
Born: Dec. 17, 1962
Film in Cannes: "Waltz With Bashir"
Selected Filmography: "Made in Israel" (2001), "Saint Clara" (1996), "Comfortably Numb" (1991)