When Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman set out to make the animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, his father warned him not to do it.
The movie documents Folman's effort to fill in the holes and piece together his unit's role in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut. Israel's Lebanese Christian allies, the Christian Phalangists, killed the refugees, but Israeli generals engineered it and Israeli soldiers — like Folman — assisted them.
Folman tells NPR's Robert Siegel that his father said "everyone would be furious" about the film, which does not offer a heroic view of the Israeli Army, and that Folman would be "hounded by the government for years."
But Folman went forward with it — as sort of a way of rebelling, he says — in part to convince teenagers to stay away from war.
"For me, it was very essential to bring young audiences to the theaters to watch the film because I thought that if this film could influence even one teenager making the decision not to go the war, it doesn't matter where I did my job, I earned it," Folman says. "All wars are useless ... and sometimes in films we tend to glorify them by making all of those great characters and they show you it's all about bravery and brotherhood of man. And I don't believe in that."
Folman specifically used animation to tell the story, he says, because it gave him creative freedom to move from one dimension to another — "from reality to dreams to subconscious issues to hallucinations to drug influences to war, which is probably the most surreal thing on earth," he says.
An emotion that's depicted strongly in the movie is a sense of fear among the Israeli soldiers.
"You're very young and you're totally clueless," Folman says. "The fear is that you don't know if you'll live the next day. And you don't have any decisions that can change it."
Along with reconstructing memory, one of the main points of the movie is chronology, Folman says. During the mass killings, Israeli soldiers like Folman launched flares to assist the Christian Phalangists.
"For us what happened during the massacre in the camp was something that was taken out of our systems because we are not eyewitnessing it," Folman says. "We did ourselves an easy life by saying we didn't know that it was going on. The responsibility was much more a government issue, and us as common soldiers, we were clueless."
But when did the Israeli soldiers realize their role in the massacres? This is something Folman aimed to address.
"When do you realize everything you hear and see ... second- and third-hand information, when do you put everything into one frame and you say, 'OK, there is something very bad, there is mass murder going on just around the hill,'" he says. "And then what do you do in order to prevent it? It's more about chronology of events than about anything else."
To Folman's surprise, the film was received "too well" in Israel.
"I was expecting at least a kind of debate — at least a controversy, something," Folman says. "And then I was hugged dearly by all of the political spectrum, the government took it as a project and they keep sending the film all over the world on their expense. I considered myself this really cool rebel and now I'm the government's darling, so it's kind of problematic for me."
He says the experience shows that Israel is a tolerant country and "in Israel you can say whatever you like." And he kind of enjoys the attention.
"In a way I'm sorry that my father doesn't live to see it," Folman says.