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Israel animation blooms

'Bashir,' '$9.99' on Oscar's short list

LONDON You wait years for an Israeli animated film and then two come along at the same time.

Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” and Tatia Rosenthal’s “$9.99” are both set to hit U.S. theaters in the coming weeks. Sony Pictures Classics bows Folman’s powerful animated doc on Dec. 25 and Regent Releasing is opening “$9.99,” based on celebrated Israeli author Etgar Keret’s short stories, on Dec. 12.

Both pics are included on the 14-title longlist for the Academy Awards animated feature category.

That’s an impressive strike rate for a country that had never even produced an animated feature before this year.

“I can’t even remember an Israeli animated film before these two,” says Keret, who also co-wrote the screenplay for “$9.99” with Rosenthal. Both films, on the surface at least, couldn’t be more different.

“Waltz With Bashir” is an excoriating autobiographical account of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, leading up to the massacre of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps at the hands of Christian Phalangist militiamen facilitated by the Israeli army.

“$9.99,” on the other hand, is a surreal, multi-stranded musing on the meaning of life featuring disparate characters including a disgruntled guardian angel.

The two films, however, share more in common than just their animated status.

“Even though Ari’s film is a documentary set in a specific time and place, while ‘$9.99’ is very surrealistic and takes place in an archetypal city outside of time, in essence we’re both telling stories about young people finding themselves in a world they did not make,” says Keret. “We’re both from the same generation who are seeking a better future but are surrounded by people too pessimistic to believe such a future is possible.”

Keret had spent years turning down offers from producers wishing to adapt his popular short stories — often no more than four or five pages — because he felt that live action wouldn’t do them justice.

“There was something special about the connection between Etgar’s work and the stop-motion style we used,” says helmer Rosenthal about how she finally managed to persuade Keret to collaborate on the film.

Both films also struggled to ever get made. Keret and Rosenthal spent eight years trying to raise the coin for “$9.99,” finally raising the majority of financing from Australia and the rest from Israel. The actual production of the film, which uses stop-motion silicone puppets, took place in Australia with post-production in Israel.

Similarly, Folman spent years working on “Waltz With Bashir.”

The lack of animation infrastructure in Israel meant in 2003 he even had to build his own studio, the Bridgit Folman Film Gang, and invent specific animation techniques — a combination of Flash, 3-D and classical animation techniques — to complete the pic.

“Bashir,” which veers between the past and present, hallucinatory dreams scenes and sometimes spectacular battle sequences, has proven a critical hit ever since its world preem at Cannes. Pic brought in 100,000 admissions in Israel, an even more impressive figure given it was only released on nine prints in the country.

And while the animation in the film is often visually gorgeous it is the harrowing ending — which switches to live-action documentary footage of the Sabra and Chatila massacre — that pummels viewers into confronting the horrors of that tragedy.

“I didn’t want you to leave the theater just thinking this was a cool movie, with beautiful animation and a great score,” says Folman. “I wanted you to realize that behind those drawings there were people slaughtered. Children, women, old people in their thousands, real people, died there.”

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