By Mike Collett-White
CANNES, France (Reuters) – A daring new animated documentary follows Israeli director Ari Folman as he tries to piece together memories of the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps.
Folman was a soldier in the Israeli army when it invaded Lebanon earlier that year. It allowed Christian militiamen into the refugee camps and stood by as they went on a killing spree shortly after the assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel.
In “Waltz With Bashir”, in competition at the Cannes film festival this year and screening as Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary, a soldier among those surrounding the camps witnesses the execution of a family by militiamen.
It also features a reporter describing a telephone conversation he had with Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon about rumours he was hearing of the massacre.
Sharon, who resigned as defence minister after a 1983 Israeli inquiry found he bore indirect responsibility for the killings, takes no action.
“Waltz With Bashir” is built around a series of animated reconstructions of real-life interviews Folman conducted with friends and fellow soldiers from the time, as he seeks to remember what his role was in the atrocity.
It portrays young draftees fighting in Lebanon, during which many were killed or wounded, and the dreams and hallucinations that many had more than 20 years after the event.
The only non-animation footage is a short sequence at the end showing news photographs of the bodies of men, women and children lying in the streets of the camps after the killings.
“I didn’t want you as the audience to go out of the theatre after watching ‘Waltz With Bashir’ and think, yes, this is a cool animation film’,” Folman told reporters in Cannes.
“These things happened … thousands of people were killed, kids were killed, women were killed, old people were killed.
“In order to put the whole film into proportion, those 50 seconds were essential to me.”
Parallels with Holocaust
One of the most surprising aspects of the film was the parallels a psychiatrist drew between the Sabra and Shatila massacre and the Holocaust in which millions of Jews perished.
“The response (to the massacre) in Israel was so huge, in my point of view, because immediately after we had the press release of the first photos of the massacre,” he said, when asked about the parallels. “For us Israelis, it was a direct connection to our Jewish history.”
Folman insisted that his film was personal, not political, and did not uncover any hidden truths about the atrocity.
He laid the blame for the massacre directly on Christian militia fighters, although the movie does explore to what extent Israeli authorities were complicit.
“Common soldiers are always pawns in a game … of leaders who play with them,” he said.
The movie is one of 22 films in the main competition in Cannes, which was in its second day.
Reinforcing the sombre opening on Wednesday with Fernando Meirelles’s “Blindness”, the other work to have its premiere on Thursday was “Leonera” by Argentine director Pablo Trapero.
It tells the story of Julia, a woman who gives birth in prison and who faces losing the child when her own mother takes him away.
The film explores Julia’s relationships with her mother, a friend she makes in prison and her former lover Ramiro but it centres on her love for her son.
(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie)
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