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Ari Folman brings Anne Frank to life in new animation

By HANNAH BROWN
Photo by: Bridgit Folman Film Gang Ltd

Stories about the Holocaust have loomed large in Ari Folman’s life and that was part of what drew him to make the animated docu-drama, Where is Anne Frank, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and is currently playing in theaters around Israel. But, he wants you to understand something: “It’s not a Holocaust movie.”

The film tells the story of Anne Frank and of Kitty, the fictional friend to whom she addressed the entries in her famous diary, who, in an unexpected conceit, comes to life on a stormy night in Amsterdam at the Anne Frank Museum and wonders what happened to Anne. The film weaves together the stories of the two girls, one hiding from the Nazis, the other who finds herself taken in by migrant families in contemporary Amsterdam. Anne’s final chapter – she died of starvation and disease at the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp not long before the end of World War II – is gradually revealed.

“It’s a coming-of-age story about two girls. A drama about love and relationships,” he said in a recent phone interview. But of course, the Holocaust drives much of the story. “Yes, 40% of the film does take place during the war,” he said. The rest shows Anne’s life before the war and Kitty’s journey through 21rst century Amsterdam to understand what happened once Anne could no longer write in her diary.

His mother, who is 100 years old and survived Auschwitz, said to him, “‘It took you twice as long as the Shoah took to make your film,’” he said, laughing, explaining she was referring to the fact that it took him eight years to make the movie.

It sounds as if a wicked sense of humor runs in the family. Those who have seen his previous movies, especially Waltz with Bashir, The Congress and Saint Clara (which he directed with Ori Sivan), are familiar with his darkly funny world view. There is quite a bit of comedy in Where is Anne Frank, notably in the sequences when Anne gets fed up with the pompous Mrs. Van Daan, who shared their cramped hideout. But, he said he thought that, “If I inherited anything from my mother, it’s storytelling.”

 ARI FOLMAN at the screening of ‘Where Is Anne Frank’ at the Cannes Film Festival, last year. (credit: JOHANNA GERON/REUTERS)

His parents were the last couple to marry in the Lodz Ghetto and both were deported to Auschwitz and reunited after the war. Trained as a pianist before the war, his mother became an ophthalmologist in Israel, but the storytelling came in when she would tell him about her wartime experiences. “She never stopped talking and he never talked,” he said about his parents. “I was much too young and it was too much information.”

But, these stories made an impression. His second feature film, Made in Israel (2001), was an off-kilter story about assassins hired by a Holocaust survivor’s son to bring one of the last living Nazis to Israel for a show trial.

“I got criticized for not being respectful to the Holocaust in that,” he recalled. He did not think he would deal with the subject again, he said, but after raising children, he became incensed by what he calls, “the stupidity of how they teach the Holocaust in Israel... They don’t make the kids really feel anything, it’s all about quoting [facts] and frightening them.”

THINKING ABOUT the day, not so far off, when there will no longer be any Holocaust survivors alive, he was enthusiastic when he was approached by representatives of the Anne Frank Fonds, the foundation started by her father, Otto Frank, with a request to tell Anne’s story through animation.

Animation has been important in much of Folman’s work. He directed the innovative 2008 documentary, Waltz with Bashir, about his and other Israeli soldiers’ experiences in the first Lebanon War, which used animation to tell their stories. The movie was one of the most successful ever made in Israel, garnering an Oscar nod, winning a Golden Globe and more than 40 other awards.

But, just as important as the awards was its influence and many documentary filmmakers have since used animation to tell stories, most notably the recent Danish film, Flee, about an Afghan refugee. He is proud that Waltz with Bashir is used to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder today. “They can relate to this film more than to live-action movies, they felt protected by the drawings... I think tough stories especially can be filtered through animation... and they can break your heart.”

Otto Frank wanted to get his daughter’s diary out into the world, “and he wanted to use the diary as a tool to create compassion.” While it is a story by and about a child, previous adaptations were not geared toward children and he wanted to make a film that would resonate with children. His film captures Anne’s playfulness and her youth, through the device of her interactions with Kitty.

As he worked on the movie, he was impressed by “the quality of her writing. As I was reading it with my kids, I was struck by what a genius she was and how well she observed the adults around her... As a teen, it’s a nightmare to be trapped with your family and this family you don’t like and this dentist.” All the usual teen conflicts were heightened by the situation, he noted.

The updated part of the story, with Kitty, “is a bridge between the past and the present,” in a way that he hoped would help children connect Anne’s story to the suffering they see around them today.

But, telling the story through high-quality animation, which Folman felt was necessary to tell the story in a way that would appeal to children, was not simple and as his mother noted, it took the better part of a decade to make the film a reality. “It took more than 160,000 drawings to make this film, by 150 artists from 12 countries,” he said, giving special praise to his animation director, Yoni Goodman and his art director Lena Guberman.

“The pandemic did not help us,” he said. Some of the financial backing dried up and although you might think the work could be done remotely, his artists who were home with their children became less productive, as did lonely single artists. “In 2020, I had this feeling I’ll never finish. It’s like The Magic Mountain and I’m trapped.”

But, finish it he did and he wants it to be shown as widely as possible, especially to children and teens. To that end, he has repeatedly offered the Education Ministry the opportunity to show it in schools across the country. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett saw the film a couple of years ago when he was education minister and Culture Minister Chili Tropper was at the movie’s world premiere at Cannes, in 2021. But, since Yifat Shasha-Biton became Education Minister, the ministry has not been responsive to his offers to show it to pupils on a large scale. There have been some screenings for school children and administrators, and he hopes there will be many more.

“I just want children to see it,” he said.

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