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Thirteen years after he came to Cannes with Waltz With Bashir — which would go on to win a Golden Globe and land both Oscar and BAFTA nominations — Israeli director Ari Folman brings another lusciously animated, politically poignant and hugely ambitious feature to the South of France.
Where Is Anne Frank — eight years in the making from a global team that Folman orchestrated from his Jaffa studio — gives the contents of the famed diary a truly unique twist, bringing to life Frank’s imaginary friend Kitty in a groundbreaking children’s adventure that spans an arc from her 75-year-old story to the present day and draws parallels between those hiding from the Nazis during WWII and the current plight of refugees in Europe.
Folman talked to The Hollywood Reporter about why it took just the right push from his mother — an Auschwitz survivor — to take on the project.
There have been several retellings of Anne Frank’s story over the decades. What was your inspiration for wanting to give it your own unique spin?
When I was approached by the Anne Frank Fonds [the foundation set up by Frank’s father, Otto Frank], I actually didn’t want to do it at all. I thought there were too many adaptations and she was too iconic. But I read the diary again, the first time since I was a teenager, and I also went to visit my mother — both my parents were Holocaust survivors. She said, “look, we never interfered in your choices, but if you don’t take this project, I will die over the weekend, you can come and collect my body on Sunday. But if you do it, I will stay around until the premiere.” So this is probably one reason why it took us so long! And then in my research I found out that my parents arrived in Auschwitz the same week as the Frank family.
One of the major themes running through the film is that somehow the meaning of Anne Frank has been lost and she’s now a name that’s put on buildings and as a tourist attraction. Where did that come from? Was it something you felt yourself?
I think it struck me hard when I went to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam again. The way everything is conducted — I thought it was very commercial. But in general I think if you want to make a movie for children, it’s super important to consider what they learn from the Anne Frank story — how does is impact their lives, what awareness does it give them about what is going on, and what does it mean about kids in war zones today? So this connection was important for me.
Given that you were working with the Anne Frank Fonds, were they fine with this angle you were taking?
Otto Frank always insisted on making her memory a universal thing, not to focus only on the tragedy of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the family. So what I tried to do is just to spread his legacy, and they were very supportive.
Personifying the diary and bringing Kitty to life was a really lovely way into the story. Where did that idea come from?
I was looking for a new dimension, a new way to tell the story. And I tried to figure out how to bring it to the youngest audience I could. And when you start a movie with with a miracle, like with this creation of Kitty, you build the fairytale. Also, Anne Frank in her diary gave very precise instructions about how Kitty looked — it was obvious that she was her alter ego. Also, the voices are so important, and for Kitty we had Ruby Stokes. She was only 16 when she recorded this but I think her actual character really helped influence everything.
You depict the film’s Nazi soldiers in a very evil, caricature-like way — almost like giant Death Eaters from Harry Potter. What was the decision behind this? Is it not important that we remember that it was actually humans who committed the atrocities of the Holocaust?
My designer and I were stuck for a very long time on the design of the Nazis. So I called my mother and asked her, as a teenager in the camps, how did she see them? And she said something really interesting — she said she thought they were huge, but with perfect proportions and almost beautiful. And then at the Nuremberg Trials, she saw a picture of Mengele’s assistant — who had specifically tortured my mother — and in the camp she said she looked like this incredible, fatal blond. But she was so surprised to see a small, ugly woman. And she realized how she saw them. This is what inspired me — I basically took her imagination and drew it into the movie.
Has your mother been able to see the film?
Yeah, she saw it a month ago at home. We planned to bring her to Cannes, but I think it’s too risky — she’s 99 now. But because she promised me she’ll live until the premiere, I’m going to be really worried!
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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