After waiting in a line that stretched from the Avon Cinema’s doors, around the corner and past Via Via IV, more than 400 people filled the theater beyond capacity to watch the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe award-winning Israeli film, “Waltz with Bashir.” The Wednesday afternoon screening was followed by a question-and-answer session with the film’s art director and artist-in-residence at Brown, David Polonsky.
“Waltz with Bashir,” a contender for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this Sunday, is the deeply personal story of Ari Folman, the film’s writer, director and producer, who lost all memory of his time as a soldier during the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon. Twenty years after the event that left hundreds dead, Folman attempted to reclaim his lost memories, reuniting with old army colleagues and investigating his identity as a soldier and Israeli citizen. “Bashir” is the artistic chronicle of his efforts.
The film, which combines documentary techniques with cutting-edge animation, is dark and haunting. It contends with psychological trauma, the repercussions of war and an entire country’s struggle with guilt.
Polonsky explained that, for Folman, animation provided the only viable medium for a film about the massacre. Folman and Polonsky – who has also written and illustrated several children’s books – had worked together on previous projects before collaborating on “Bashir.”
“The logic behind animation is the fact that we are dealing with memories, hallucinations and history where questions of truth and subjectivity are constantly being called into question,” Polonsky said after the screening.
He added that animation also provided another, purely practical benefit, as the story covers many different locations and time periods. Animation eased the budget on what would have otherwise been a very expensive live-action film.
“What we were trying to do would not have been possible, unless you are Francis Ford Coppola,” Polonksy said with a laugh.
Despite the grim subject matter, Polonsky said, his work on “Bashir” did not differ that much from his children’s book illustrations.
“They are both a very slow and tedious process,” he said, explaining that distancing himself from the actual meaning of what he was drawing helped him stay sane as he worked on it.
“I was hit with the subject of the film in 2006 during the second Lebanon war and I saw the same images I was drawing coming up on TV,” Polonsky said. “I could no longer escape the work because it was showing up all around me on TV. It was then that I really started getting the intensity of what we had made.”
Polonsky’s innovative animation techniques, which combine real-life photography and film with Photoshop and Flash animation, have garnered the film much critical acclaim.
An audience member at the Q&A described the film as “one of the most visually stunning movies” he had ever seen.
While the actual animation remains consistent throughout the film, color, pacing, music and narrative changes keep the movie dynamic and intriguing. Colors shift from monochromatic to shockingly vivid, and the score includes aggressive rock, tranquil orchestral music and eerily haunting ambient noise. Characters move in slow motion or super-speed in real life and in dream sequences.
While the story the film conveys is highly personal, the political context is hard to ignore.
Polonsky explained that “the film was not made as a political statement,” but many questions and observations posed to Polonsky during the session focused on the political message, response and ramifications.
Danya Chudacoff ’11, who organized the Israel Film Festival of College Hill, agreed that the film itself is not about taking a political stance, but said it inspired her to evaluate how she felt about political and cultural issues.
“As someone with an Israeli mom, I identify with Israeli culture,” Chudacoff said. “The first time I saw it, I was watching it in Israel as an Israeli and I was nauseous for weeks afterwards.”
Daniel Wolfberg ’09, executive director of the Ivy Film Festival, which co-sponsored the event, had not known much about the historical events explored in the film. He said he thought it was very important that this film could personalize and publicize an event that many people have forgotten.
“I feel like you hear about stuff like this in the news a lot and it’s just a regular thing,” he said. “But this film brought to light how we often forget about how so many of these things we see on the news have tremendous impacts on many individual people.”
“I think the film was just trying to be honest – not necessarily political.”
Honesty was a key issue for Polonsky during his work on the film, he said, as he struggled to create images, locations and emotions that were truthful and real.
“I was most concerned with what people in Beirut would think” of his depiction of the city, he said, given that he had never been there before making “Bashir.” In the end, he said, his portrayal of Beirut passed the test, even if his representation of a snowy winter in the Netherlands did not.
“Someone from Holland came along and told me it hadn’t snowed that much in Holland in 500 years,” he said.
Polonsky said “Bashir” has spoken to many viewers’ particular experiences despite the film’s focus on Folman’s own history.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon in Israel where soldiers are going to see the film as a kind of therapy and a course of treatment,” he said.
Polonsky, who arrived at Brown on Feb. 9, will stay on campus for three months. He will teach classes and workshops and give lectures to Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students and members of the Providence community.