ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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InterviewI wanted 'to raise awareness about children in war zones'

In Sarajevo, Ari Folman talks genocide, animating Anne Frank and pleasing his mother

Speaking with ToI at the Sarajevo Film Festival where he screened ‘Where is Anne Frank,’ the Israeli director dishes on an array of complex topics – just like his movies do

  • Israeli director Ari Folman speaks during a master class at the Sarajevo Film Festival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 2022. (Sarajevo Film Festival/ Obala Art Centar)
    Israeli director Ari Folman speaks during a master class at the Sarajevo Film Festival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 2022. (Sarajevo Film Festival/ Obala Art Centar)
  • A still from director Ari Folman's 'Where is Anne Frank.' (Purple Whale Films)
    A still from director Ari Folman's 'Where is Anne Frank.' (Purple Whale Films)
  • A still from director Ari Folman's 'Where is Anne Frank.' (Purple Whale Films)
    A still from director Ari Folman's 'Where is Anne Frank.' (Purple Whale Films)
  • Israeli director Ari Folman speaks during a master class at the Sarajevo Film Festival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 2022. (Sarajevo Film Festival/ Obala Art Centar)
    Israeli director Ari Folman speaks during a master class at the Sarajevo Film Festival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 2022. (Sarajevo Film Festival/ Obala Art Centar)
  • A still from director Ari Folman's 'Where is Anne Frank.' (Purple Whale Films)
    A still from director Ari Folman's 'Where is Anne Frank.' (Purple Whale Films)

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — When Ari Folman was offered the chance 10 years ago to make a film about Anne Frank, the award-winning Israeli director initially turned it down. Then came his mother.

“My mother told me, ‘If you don’t make this film about Anne Frank, I will die over the weekend, and you can come and collect my body next week. But if you go ahead with it, I will stay around to see the premiere,’” the 59-year-old director told The Times of Israel during a recent interview at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

Folman’s mother, Wanda Rein, had a personal investment in the story: She met Folman’s father, Mordechai Folman, in the Lodz ghetto in Poland at the beginning of World War II. The couple married on August 17, 1944, and were deported to Auschwitz shortly afterward, roughly at the same time as the Frank family. The Folmans were separated at the extermination camp, but one year later they reunited, and in 1950 they immigrated to Israel.

Folman obviously listened to his mother’s advice, and last week he was at the festival showcasing “Where is Anne Frank” — his latest film — as part of a cultural-historical cinematic program titled “Dealing With the Past.”

Folman was born in Haifa in 1962 and was educated at the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University. He began his career producing documentaries.

His graduate film in 1991, “Comfortably Numb,” was co-directed with Ori Sivan and won an Ophir Award, a Jerusalem Film Festival Prize, and multiple international film awards. “Saint Clara,” also directed with Sivan in 1996, won a special award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and won best film at the Haifa International Film Festival.

Israeli director Ari Folman speaks during a master class at the Sarajevo Film Festival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 2022. (Sarajevo Film Festival/ Obala Art Centar)

Folman wrote and directed “Made in Israel” in 2001, which was nominated for an Ophir Award for best director. He also featured as one of the original leading writers on the mid-2000s Israeli series, “BeTipul,” later adapted by HBO as “In Treatment.”

The Israeli filmmaker came to widespread international prominence with his 2008 animated film, “Waltz with Bashir,” which received an Academy Award nomination and picked up numerous other international awards. The film recalls Folman’s own personal experience serving as a member of the IDF during the 1982 Lebanon War.

Most of “Waltz with Bashir” takes place via a series of conversations between the director and his former IDF comrades. They attempt to come to a collective understanding about the Sabra and Shatila massacre they witnessed as young soldiers nearly a quarter of a century earlier. For three days between September 16 and 18, 1982, Lebanese militiamen from the Christian Phalangist movement embarked on an orgy of rape, murder, and mutilation in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. Israeli soldiers were not directly involved in the massacre. They were, however, stationed a few hundred feet away where they stood by and did nothing to intervene.

Red Cross workers looking at a body, covered with a blanket, shortly after bulldozers started cleaning up the area in Sabra Lebanese refugee camp, on September 20, 1982. (AP Photo/Nash)

At the 2008 Sarajevo Film Festival, “Waltz With Bashir” struck a chord with viewers still scarred by their own war which had ended barely 13 years earlier. This year’s festival hosted a retrospective screening of the film.

“It was a very emotional screening in an open-air cinema with 4,000 people in attendance,” Folman said. “Many people in the audience that night burst into tears as soon as the opening scene came on the screen.”

The Times of Israel had the pleasure of sharing a morning coffee with Folman in Festival Square in the center of Sarajevo shortly before he caught a flight back to Israel. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: Judging by the reaction to the screenings of your films here this week, the audience here in Bosnia and Herzegovina seems to have an almost visceral connection to your films.

Ari Folman: There is still a very strong memory here in Bosnia about the genocide that happened [during the 1990s] and, of course, the legacy of genocide is a topic that plays [an important part] in the history of my own country, Israel. In fact, these topics define me, in a way, as a filmmaker. But every time I visit Sarajevo, I’m reminded of this fact.

The closing credits to your latest film, “Where is Anne Frank,” include a dedication to your parents, who survived Auschwitz. What did your mother make of the movie?

She loved it. But she loves everything I do — she thinks I’m a genius, so don’t count on her for criticism. She’s a Jewish Polish mother. It’s a lost cause. She also pointed out the fact that it took me a very long time to complete the film, eight years — twice as long as the Holocaust!”

In fact, you’ve said that your mother persuaded you to make this film. You initially turned it down. What did she say to make you change your mind?

My mother told me, “If you don’t make this film about Anne Frank, I will die over the weekend, and you can come and collect my body next week. But if you go ahead with it, I will stay around to see the premiere.” She didn’t make the premiere. But I showed her the film at her home in Haifa.

Did it feel like a cathartic experience making a film about the Holocaust?

That would be exaggerating because the process was so long. You cannot go through a cathartic experience for eight years.

What aspect of Anne Frank’s story did you feel you touched upon in this film that has been overlooked thus far?

I wanted to tell the story of the last seven months of Anne Frank’s life, which isn’t really explored in the standard narrative. But I also wanted to make connections between the past and the present, to memorialize the Holocaust and to raise awareness about children in war zones around the globe.

Did you read “Diary of a Young Girl” as a child?

I did read it, as it was mandatory in [school in Israel], but I don’t have any recollection of that.

When Otto Frank originally published his daughter’s diary in 1947, he omitted several unflattering passages that Anne wrote about her own mother, Edith. What made you want to focus on that uneasy relationship in the film?

Well, obviously Anne’s relationship with her mother was troubled. This is a very strong part of the diary. But it’s very common for teenage girls at that age. But Anne was dealing with it in-depth in her writing, so I thought it should have a place in the film. She was also analyzing the relationship between her parents excessively.

Audience members listen as Israeli director Ari Folman speaks during a master class at the Sarajevo Film Festival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 2022. (Sarajevo Film Festival/ Obala Art Centar)

The target audience for “Where is Anne Frank” is young children. Did that influence how you approached the film creatively?

Yes. It influenced every decision I took with the film. Especially the dialogue and my approach to design. My own children were very much involved in it as well, because they grew up during the years I made the movie, which took eight years. So they were always the test target audience.

The film was made in partnership with Anne Frank Fonds, the Swiss nonprofit founded by Otto Frank. At the screening here, you mentioned approaching other Jewish foundations for financial assistance.

I did, but most of them didn’t even offer a courteous reply. I would rather not mention their names. But there were many of them. I did get some support. But it was probably, like, one out of 50 that we approached. I was pretty shocked, to tell you the truth.

Still from Ari Folman’s 2013 ‘The Congress,’ based on Stanisław Lem’s 1971 Polish science fiction novel, ‘The Futurological Congress.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)

From an artistic perspective, what is the advantage of making animated films?

It just feels like the natural way to portray subjects like the subconscious and dreams.

Would you agree that memory, or more specifically the deception of memory, seems to be a recurring theme in your films?

I guess so. I do seem to only make films either dealing with the past or dealing with the future

Robin Wright stars in Israeli director Ari Folman’s sci-fi drama ‘The Congress’ (photo credit: official promotional trailer screen cap)

Music plays a crucial role in your films. Are you always matching sounds with images?

When I’m in the writing process every day, I’m always thinking about what soundtrack I should choose, and about certain music that can be used to emphasize the emotional aspect of a particular scene.

The British composer Max Richter wrote the score for “Waltz with Bashir.” How did you make that creative and professional connection?

It was very easy to get Max Richter on board for that film. He was not very famous then. And he is a humble guy. I think it was the first feature film score he ever wrote. And we had a lot of common interests. I remember when I first met him, we talked for, like, two hours about the first seven albums that Bob Dylan made in the first six years of his career.

A scene from Ari Folman’s ‘Waltz with Bashir.’ (Screenshot from YouTube)

Did making “Waltz with Bashir” bring you to a deeper understanding about the Lebanon War in 1982?

When I made that film, I was disconnected from my younger self. But once I finished it, it was something complete for me. I don’t think about it anymore.

After the film was released, many Arab critics pointed out that the film focused on the impact the events had on Israelis, rather than on those who truly suffered — the Palestinian refugees and the Lebanese. Is this a fair criticism?

I think the narrative of the atrocities at Sabra and Shatila from the Palestinian or the Christian side should be coming from their side. It’s their narrative. It’s their story, I cannot tell it.

Was 1982 a crucial turning point in Israel’s history?

The big turning point in Israeli history and society comes from the Six Day War. Zionism as a movement — which is an unbelievable, incredible movement — peaked during the first seven or eight years of Israel’s [existence]. But once the occupation started, the morality of Israel started to descend on a downward spiral. The Lebanon War in 1982 was another stimulating force for bringing down that morality. So we are in a constant dive, in terms of humanity and morality, in Israel. That’s how I see it anyway.

Israeli director Ari Folman speaks during a master class at the Sarajevo Film Festival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 2022. (Sarajevo Film Festival/ Obala Art Centar)

Do you see any long-term workable political solution on the horizon to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

I used to be a believer and be optimistic, but people in Israel don’t care anymore. The left-wing parties in Israel don’t even care anymore. As for the Zionist parties in the [Knesset], this is a non-issue. [The fate of the Palestinians] is a done deal as far as they’re concerned.”

Do you have anything new in the works?

I’m currently making a film adaptation of “Death and the Penguin,” by [Russian-born] Ukrainian novelist, Andrey Kurkov. I really love this book and I’ve been chasing the rights to the film for many years, so I’m very happy and excited about it. But it’s a terribly stressful business making a film. Every time you begin, you feel like you are starting from ground zero all over again.

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