Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Journalist relives nightmares of war


The film gets its title from a style of firing a gun. Clips courtesy of Artificial Eye

By Liam Allen
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

"I thought, 'this is something murky, I don't trust this kind of experiment - only bad things can happen', and I refused."

When Israeli war journalist Ron Ben-Yishai was first approached to feature in animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, he "simply didn't want to take part".

Bodies lie in rubble at the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut on 19 September 1982
The killings are considered the worst atrocity of Lebanon's 15-year civil war

But director Ari Folman won Ben-Yishai over. And his role, while lasting only a matter of minutes, is pivotal.

In September 1982, Ben-Yishai was the first journalist to go into two refugee camps in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, after at least 800 Palestinian civilians had been killed there.

Lebanese Christian militiamen, allied to Israel, carried out the killings in the Sabra and Shatila camps in revenge for the assassination of their revered leader Bashir Gemayel in a car bomb attack.

The militia had been allowed into the refugee camps by Israeli soldiers who had sealed them off after they had occupied western Beirut.

Ron Ben-Yishai - in animated and human form
Ron Ben-Yishai - in animated and human form

The story of the massacre is told by Folman, a young Israeli soldier at the time, in real conversations with friends - including Ben-Yishai - and former soldiers.

Their story is brought to life by often surreal animation.

"For me, animation meant children's films that you let them watch in order that they will leave you alone," says Ben-Yishai, 65.

After seeing how Folman had used lucid, hallucinogenic animation to convey the other-wordliness of war, Ben-Yishai was immediately converted.

"The animation is adding a layer, a psychological layer of his trauma. In a normal documentary film you couldn't have documented all these things - like the dreams."

Dog nightmare image from Waltz with Bashir
It looks like a nightmare
Ron Ben-Yishai on Waltz with Bashir

The film begins with a darkly disturbing sequence which shows a snarling pack of vicious dogs chasing through the night - a recurring dream of one of the director's friends.

"It looks like a nightmare," Ben-Yishai says, becoming suddenly animated.

"Believe me, I have a lot of nightmares of this kind. After being in war situations... it comes to haunt you."

The dog chase nightmares came to the director's friend, Boaz Rein Buskila, 20 years after he served in the army.

But Ben-Yishai says his dreams are "more instant".

"Perhaps, that's my way of working it out - of coping with these things," he says.

Rediscovered memories

Ben-Yishai has more experience than most of coping with "these things".

It is a way that the body and the psyche are working out trauma - even if you are not ready to recognise the dreams as trauma
Ron Ben-Yishai on nightmares

He has been wounded three times while reporting from the front line during a 40-year career which has taken in stints in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dreaming vivid, disturbing nightmares, related to traumatic experiences of war, "is something that takes place remotely", he says.

"You can say this is a metaphor or an expression. It is a way that the body and the psyche are working out trauma - even if you are not ready to recognise the dreams as trauma."

The film documents director Folman's journey of rediscovery as he tries to remember how he originally experienced the Sabra and Shatila massacre as a member of the Israeli military.

Art director David Polonsky on making Waltz with Bashir - clips courtesy Artificial Eye

Folman - who has said the making of the documentary was "four years of therapy" - used its interviews to try to regain memories of a time that he had completely blanked out.

Ben-Yishai suggests that, because he has seen the horror of battle so many times as a war correspondent, he has been better placed to deal with it than Folman.

"Inhibition - the ability to inhibit, is a very powerful defence mechanism," says Ben-Yishai.

"You see horrible things, you inhibit, you store it somewhere. I believe if it doesn't come back and if you don't work it out early - it is there and it might explode."

Waltz with Bashir is in UK cinemas now.

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