Moving pictures

With the acclaimed Waltz With Bashir coming to the IFI this month, Michael Armstrong caught up with the film’s art director David Polonsky.

With the acclaimed Waltz With Bashir coming to the IFI this month, Michael Armstrong caught up with the film’s art director David Polonsky.

Through films such as Syriana and The Kingdom, we’re often shown Hollywood’s version of the conflicts in the Middle East. Only very rarely in Ireland do we have the opportunity to get the perspective of those who have lived through war and chaos, and have the scars to prove it. When Ari Folman, director of Waltz With Bashir, set out on a personal journey to remember his experience of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War, he was faced with the problem of how to combine the talking head documentary footage he had compiled with his own surreal memories of the events.

His unorthodox solution was to animate both the documentary footage and the fantastical recollections of the war described by his comrades. The result was a stunning work of cinema, and a contender for the Palme D’or at this year’s Cannes film festival.

All this was made possible, however, by the work of illustrator David Polonsky. On his first ever trip to Dublin, I had a chat with the film’s art director. A friendly and intelligent man, I recommended a few of the city’s better pubs, and we began by talking about what first attracted him to the project.

“I found the possibility of bringing to life other people’s memories and hallucinations a very juicy topic. To be frank, the opportunity just to make an animated feature was also a consideration, as in a small scene like there is in Israel, it comes only once in 40 years.” Jumping at the chance to give his illustrations are bigger audience, Polonsky began the long process by which Folman’s investigation could be transformed by his vivid imagination.

“The whole film existed as a straightforward talking heads documentary before we started animating. We had the sound as a basis, but we animated the interviews based on the video. Not drawing on the video, but looking at it and trying to catch the character, so that the film wouldn’t consist of two different realities.

Regardless of the topic you are working on, you get absorbed in the work. Even if you are drawing images of war, you’re still just making drawings

“There were two teams, I was the head of the illustration team, and Yoni Goodman the head of the animation team. The technique of the animation is cut-out animation, which means animators don’t draw each frame anew, they manipulate existing drawings which are broken into hundreds of little pieces, and then move them about. So the drawings are as they are when the originals were produced. I practically drew physically most of the drawings, around 80%, which as you can imagine was hundreds and hundreds.” Unsurprisingly then, the project took over four years to complete, and halfway through the process life imitated art in the most tragic way, with a new war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006.

“That was just a crazy moment, as regardless of the topic you are working on, you kind of get absorbed in the work. Even if you are drawing images of war, you’re still just making drawings, so you escape out of your daily political reality. But then it comes up again. It was crazy, as part of my job was collecting references, and I knew these buildings and these places and here they were again being bombed on TV. It was a very claustrophobic feeling, seeing the same stupidity repeating itself.” I asked if he believed the new war gave added pathos to the movie, much in the way that thinking of the current war in Iraq is unavoidable in films such as Jarhead, but Polonsky believed the Israel-Lebanon conflict to be even more tragic: “You know the saying of history repeating itself, but what do you call it when it’s the third time around? How long can you go on when it’s becoming more and more absurd?”

Thankfully, the team kept going throughout the war, but the creative process was far from easy. The differences between the 2005 original pitch and the finished film depended as much on the frailty of Folman’s memory as they did on artistic licence. “His recollections of the period are really very vague. So we focused on his pursuit of stories from other people. Naturally we were more committed to conveying their stories as exactly as possible, as Ari is still trying to make sense of what he remembers and what he doesn’t remember, so a lot of his input was shifted about during the process of the film.

“The first half or two thirds of the film are concerned with Ari’s personal experience. Then everything gives way to something that is trying to be a hardcore documentary, as much as that can be acheived.” In fact the film climaxes with real documentary footage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, a decision that was taken as early as the script stage. Throughout the film however what stands out are the moments of imagination and surrealism in the tales of the Isreali veterans, and I asked how he settled on the eerie and beautiful look of the film. “For me the interesting thing always is to come up with a new mechanism of visual narration for each project, for the text. Here, however, it was pulling in two different directions.

One was extreme artistic expression, and that was the way Ari was pushing, trying to make it as expressive as possible. I was trying to pull it in a more impressionistic direction, trying to keep it as real as possible, to have as much compassion as we could in the film.”

This compassion stemmed from his personal understanding of the peoples and cultures of the region. Born in Kiev in 1973, Polonsky emigrated aged 8 from what was then the USSR, starting a new life like many Jewish people in Israel. I asked how this affected his development as an artist, but he found it hard to pinpoint exactly where his passion for drawing came from.

“It’s kind of like asking ‘what if?’ I’d say the immigration itself had much more of an effect on me on a personal level, I have no recollection of the war even taking place because I was busy in my own little world with the kids at school, with this new world to play in. My experience is always of the personal, not the political, but it’s very hard to look at yourself from the outside and say how ideological indoctrination affects you as an adult. It’s a big issue, and as you come to terms with it you form a sense of greater responsibility for how you live your life. This is an interesting time for Israeli culture right now, as we have to deal with pressing issues. In order to be a good artist you have to be honest, and in Israel you can’t be honest if you’re disregarding the politics of the situation. So that’s always in the background, and sometimes it makes for better art, as it prevents you from focusing on form. “For me, going to art school, I always learned from the West, learning from European and American illustrators, and often it’s always focused on the form. But when I come to make a drawing for an article, I feel compelled to relate to my immediate environment, to the conflicts in my culture. Truth be told, there are no conflict free cultures. The difference in Ireland is your possibility to avoid the pressing issues, or the complications. It’s an economic question, as if your market is big enough, and there’s enough prosperity, you can do nice drawings and spend your life that way. But when the market is smaller, eventually you’re going to run into something difficult.”

We’re living in a time where things are changing, the old dogmas are obviously not holding on, but there’s both hope and conflict. The best we can hope is that this is the darkest hour before dawn

I made the point that Ireland isn’t exactly facing economic prosperity anymore, and has a history that can hardly be described as conflict-free, but Polonsky saw the problems in the Middle East as much more difficult to solve. “Unlike here, where the Troubles lasted at most 50-70 years, in the Middle East it’s more like 500. The people there have existed side by side for a very, very long time. The history of Israel is only 100 years old, so you can see the introduction of what might be called the Jewish people to the Middle East is very new, and very controversial. “I think that we are living with all our past conflicts, maybe even too much. I’m not advocating forgetfulness or whatever but I think that what I take away from making the film is realising how important it is to try to reach the personal level. For one scene, trying to draw some Palestinian kids in an orchard, I had to dress them right. Because it’s 1982, one would have a Star Wars T-shirt, another would have fake Adidas shoes. When you’re feeling compassion for what you do, you realise that if there is any hope it is on that personal level. “Having said what I said before I really don’t think there is a strong distinction between personal and political, I think I’m a bit Marxist that way. Of course the only solution that there will be will be political, but the deeper issues, what lies behind the tensions, will require much more, and it’s hard to imagine how they will be resolved.”

Polonsky didn’t care to speculate more on what solution he would propose, but as a teacher of both animation and illustration at both the Shenkar School of Design and Bezalel Academy, he gave his professional advice to any young artists at Trinity:

“Don’t look for personal style. It’s a must to copy. The idea is not about drawings themselves, but to draw people and places, or ideas and situations, and not be bothered about the motivation to make something new. The only way you can innovate is if you go to places that really bother you or move you, and that can never be achieved through stylistic means. There’s no point trying to draw a character in a different way, because there are no different ways. The story is what is changing.”

From our brief discussion, I got the sense that the story of Polonsky’s career may only be at the beginning. After years working on Waltz With Bashir, there are several authors waiting patiently for him to illustrate their novels. Most interestingly however, he is currently in talks with Ari Folman about another animated collaboration, this time taking on one of the science fiction stories of Stanislaw Lem. The work of the Solaris author would be a complete change of tone from Waltz With Bashir, but there are similar themes to explore, notably the idea of hallucination.

Polonsky has also been working on a graphic novel adaptation of the film, reusing and editing the same frames in a different form. “It’s a very interesting experiment, as you learn much about the two storytelling mediums, especially the importance of sound, or the lack of it. In cinema you own the audience, but with books it’s completely reversed, you are at their mercy, constantly trying to recapture the reader’s attention.” Polonsky seemed confident that his talent for creating provocative images will help with his new projects, however different they may be, and is also relatively optimistic about the future of the world, despite how bleak things may seem. “We’re living in a time where things are changing, the old dogmas obviously are not holding on, but there’s both hope and conflict.

The best we can hope is that it is the darkest hour before dawn. But it’s still dark, you know?” A fair point, but if artists such as he can continue to be creative in the most difficult of circumstances, it may not be long before we’re all a little bit more enlightened.