This Animated Life: An Interview with David Polonsky

An interview with David Polonsky, the artist behind the Oscar-nominated film and graphic novel Waltz with Bashir.

A few simple descriptions would suffice to understand just how rich and strange an artwork Waltz with Bashir truly is: an animated documentary film. A war movie that is primarily about the machinations of memory. A historical narrative that feels painfully relevant. Now, after winning the Golden Globe for best foreign film and receiving an Academy Award nomination in the same category, the story of director Ari Folman's struggle to recall his experience as an Israeli soldier in the 1982 war in Lebanon once again unfurls, this time as a graphic novel.

Just don't call it a bit of merchandise, said David Polonsky, the artist who illustrated both book and film; even though the novel—of which he and Folman are co-authors—comes on the heels of the movie's critically acclaimed run, it provides, Polonsky insisted, a very different take on the same tale.

"In film," he said, "you, the artist, have the audience in your hands. You control the flow of time. In comics, the reader holds you in his hands, and he controls time. Another difference is that the film appeals more to the heart, while the book appeals more to the mind, because the reader is expected to use his imagination much more. So the book, I think, is more suitable to convey the information, to tell the story in details, and the film has more of an emotional impact. I think people cry in the end of the film, and I don't expect anyone to shed tears after reading the novel."

The discrepancies between the two media became immediately clear to him when, following the film's success, he began to adapt his original artwork into graphic novel form.

"The drawings were all made especially for the film," he said. "We did not originally think of turning it into a graphic novel. The book, then, turned out to be much more of a learning experience for me. I learned a lot about the medium of comics. The main thing I hope I gained as an artist is the ability to give up a strong image in favor of a strong story line: I already had the drawings, the building blocks, but the goal of the book was to convey the story as a whole, and I sometimes had to let go of beautiful artwork in favor of the narrative. For me, that's a very important lesson."

It was one lesson among many Polonsky would learn during the four years of working on the project. Another had to do with bringing to life a story that consisted of Folman's own personal memories: Polonsky, who was born in Kiev, emigrated to Israel as a youth, and was eight years old when the events depicted in the film took place, had to find a visual language with which to animate places he'd never seen, people he'd never met, and situations he could hardly imagine.

To that end, he said, he applied an intricate process that began with a meeting between himself, Folman, and Yoni Goodman, the film's director of animation; Folman would share his vision for each scene—often based on his dreams, hallucinations, or feverish recollections—and Goodman would design storyboards accordingly. Then, it was time for Polonsky to reach deep within his own mind and find inspiration.

Take, for example, the fiery orange hues that dominate the film's most memorable scenes, such as the opening shot of rabid dogs dashing through the streets of Tel Aviv, or the one, toward the end of the film, of the night sky above the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps as Christian militiamen slaughter thousands of Palestinian refugees under the watch of Folman and his comrades.

"The script said there were flares over the camp," said Polonsky. "I remembered the flares from Haifa, where I grew up. The navy would always hold maneuvers, and they would shoot up these flares into the sky that painted the whole town dark orange. So this was my starting point, this memory. I later developed it into a motif, with the same orange flame appearing in the eyes of the mad dogs and in the sky. Then, in the end, when the flares burst out and take over everything in Sabra and Shatila, it's like a repressed memory of violence erupting and burning everything underneath the sky."

Other memories he drew on, Polonsky added, were more mundane. "I was mostly just trying to reconstruct some atmosphere," he said, "to draw from my own experience and try to convey situations I wasn't physically present in. Take the coastal road in Lebanon, for example. I thought about it a lot, and finally realized that it was just an extension of the coastal road between Haifa and Tel Aviv, a road I've been on thousands of times in my life. I thought of my childhood, of a special light I like, of the mountains and of the hills, and literally drew from my own experience."

Still, he added, two rules guided him as he created the often surreal world of Waltz with Bashir.

"The first guideline," he said, "was to create a feeling of authenticity. There's an emphasis on the feeling, because, for all of the reasons we just discussed, like the fact that I wasn't there, you can't create something that is truly authentic. The second guideline, put simply, is compassion. I wanted to draw people, not caricatures. I wanted to try and load up everything—the cars, the people, the animals—with a real sense of existence."

And yet, for all of Polonsky's efforts, the scenes that are likely to have the deepest impact on audiences are not of his doing: As the film draws to an end, once Folman finally succeeds in remembering the night of the refugee camps massacre, the story's animated world collapses, and novel and film alike switch to archive images of widows howling in grief and blood-splattered corpses piled up in the streets.

The move from the illustrated to the real, Polonsky said, was one that had initially made him uncomfortable.

"There was an ongoing debate about the ending," he said. "Ari had this idea, of switching to live footage, from the beginning, and I was feeling a bit awkward about it. But reading the reactions of the crew, even those who had initially been opposed to the idea, made me understand that Ari was right: beside the impact, making the point that the massacre really happened and that we can't look away from it, there's an artistic effect I wasn't aware of until I started seeing people's reaction. This change of medium is very powerful: the viewer gets accustomed to the medium, and then he is suddenly and forcefully drawn out of his comfort zone. Just this change in and of itself, even without the horrible images, does something. I understood that later on."

Another thing Polonsky had realized only once work on the project was complete, he added, was just how culturally significant Waltz with Bashir had become all around the world.

"As we were working," Polonsky said, "the only thing we were thinking about is completing the film. We were sure we were making an art house movie, the kind of film that people go to cinematheques to see. We had no idea that it would go that far and affect so many people."

And while he is positively giddy about the Academy Awards nod, and thrilled with the honors the film received everywhere from Tallinn to Tokyo, one recent screening means more to Polonsky than all the accolades in the world.

"There was a screening in Lebanon not long ago," he said. "They managed to somehow get around the law that forbids screening Israeli films, and they managed to arrange a screening for ninety people. It sold out. For me, it's one of the most exciting things I've ever heard. People there really wanted to see it. I don't know how they received it. I hope they were moved by it. But just the fact that they wanted to see it was enough for me; the most important thing is that they really wanted to hear our story."

Not all geopolitical developments, however, were so auspicious. In 2006, as Polonsky, Folman, and their colleagues were completing their film, Israel once again waged war on Lebanon, a conflict that strongly and strangely resembled the events depicted in Waltz with Bashir. And on the very week that the film began its American theatrical run, Israel once again became enmeshed in war, this time in Gaza; once more, news broadcasts eerily reflected the nightmarish world of violence and loss Polonsky so ably created.

"Waltz with Bashir wasn't made as a political statement," he said. "We did it because we thought it could be a good film. It reflects Ari's beliefs that, to the extent that you're an honest artist, you must say what's on your mind. But two years ago, while we were working on the film and the second Lebanon war broke out, it was a very claustrophobic feeling. As engaged as we were in the film, it was still work, and we expected to be able to leave it behind at the end of the day and get away from it for a little while. But then when you go home and the things you're drawing are appearing on the TV just as you work, you feel like you have nowhere to run and hide. It was very overwhelming. The war in Gaza is another round of the same attitude: It doesn't influence the work directly, but it makes you think differently about what you're doing. You can question the contemporary situation as we're repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and right now it seems it's bound to happen again and again and again."

Given all that, Polonsky said that while he's happy for his community of Israeli illustrators and animators, and thrilled that his success may make it easier for them to find collaborative projects with artists all over the world, he doesn't see himself as a cultural ambassador of any sort, Oscar nomination be damned.

"We're trying to shy away from representing anybody," he said. "The film has become a cultural agent for Israel, and it's getting a lot of help from Israeli embassies all over the world, and that's very nice. But, again, this is not something we are aiming for. It's not who we are."

And so, as Polonsky prepares for a trip to the United States, a stint as an artist-in-residence at both Brown University and the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, and one nervous evening watching the festivities at Los Angeles's Kodak Theatre, he has one final word for audiences about to discover Waltz with Bashir in either film or book form.

"I think if you liked the film, you should read the book," he said, laughing. "And if you liked the book, go see the film. They're different aspects of the same thing. Each, in its own way, focuses on the message and reinforces something I think I already knew but feel more strongly about now that both book and film are complete. It's about the power of the story. That's the only important thing, the only thing that matters."