Waltz with Bashir director aims to bring Anne Frank to new generation: ‘It’s important we use the past to tell the story of today’

Ali Folman conjures up Kitty from the pages of the famous diary in his first family animation

Anne Frank and her family had been hiding in a secret annex — or Achterhuis — for two months when the Dutch-German diarist first mentioned Kitty.

For Anne, Kitty was part of a cast of fictional characters — including Pop, Phien, Conny, Lou, Marjan, Jettje and Emmy — who exercised her imagination.

Of these, Kitty, “a nice 14-year-old girl”, quickly became Anne’s firm favourite. In October 1942, a month after Kitty’s debut, Anne conjured the two girls on a skating trip in neutral Switzerland.

Anne’s second diary, the one she kept from December 22nd, 1943, onwards, is exclusively addressed to “Dearest Kitty” or “My Darling Kitty”.


“Dear Kitty,” she once wrote, “I like writing to you most, you know that, don’t you, and I hope the feeling is mutual.”

Where is Anne Frank?, a new animated film from Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman, magics Kitty from the ink of Anne’s diary. Kitty, accordingly, appears in the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, unaware that 75 years have passed and that Anne no longer resides in the secret annex.

“I think everything about our Kitty is in the diary,” says the film-maker. “Anne described her lips, her eyes. The only thing I added for sure was the red hair. This was a tribute to my younger daughter, but apart from that Kitty is pretty accurate to how Anne wrote her.”

Folman’s Kitty (voiced by Ruby Stokes) sets out on a quest to find Anne (Emily Carey). Aided by a dashing street kid called Peter (Ralph Prosser), Kitty encounters a shelter for undocumented refugees where she befriends a Malian family. There are chase sequences around Amsterdam as the authorities hunt the “stolen diary”, unaware that the document has transformed itself into Kitty.

The closing credits note that 17 million children were forced to flee war zones in 2020. Their plight is, at least, visible. From the outset, Kitty is baffled by the many places and buildings named for her friend Anne in a city where: “Everyone knows who she is, but no one talks about what happened to her.”

“I didn’t want to make a straight adaptation of the diary,” says Folman. “I was looking for a new way into the story. The most important thing is that young children will watch the movie. And that it will be educational in schools. That we use the past as a tool to tell the story of today. We cannot compare what is going on today with the past. I mean, one and a half million Jewish children were murdered in the death camps. They were not lucky enough to be refugees. Nobody was fighting for them.”

Anne Frank continued to chronicle her life under German occupation until August 1944, when the Frank family were discovered and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Folman’s film is “dedicated to my parents Wanda and Mordechai Folman who arrived at the gates of Auschwitz on the same week as the Frank family”.

“My parents met in the Łódź Ghetto when they were 15,” says Folman. “They got married there when they were 19 and they were sent to Auschwitz, just the day after their marriage, where they were separated like all the men and women. They lost all their families there. But they both survived. I found during my research of the Anne Frank story, this very unique fact: that the Frank family arrived at Auschwitz on the same week as my parents. It’s hard to trace the exact date. But within four days, maybe even the same day. I found that pretty incredible but not that surprising.”

Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl has sold more than 30 million copies, translated into 60 languages. Two years of entries begin on Anne’s 13th birthday, when she received a diary with a red-and-white plaid cover, detailing life in the warren of rooms where Anne’s family, along with four of their acquaintances, hid from the Nazis.

It’s a daunting proposition for adaptation. Anne’s father Otto Frank was criticised for omitting passages concerning her sexuality and various sharp comments concerning Anne’s mother. Broadway legend tells of a production starring the much-derided actor, Pia Zadora, in which an audience member loudly alerted the Nazi troops on stage: “She’s in the attic!” The difficulties of working with a sacred text have not deterred Folman, who previously co-created 2019′s Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation.

“I think she was a very funny person,” says the Israeli director, who, in Where is Anne Frank?, switches between Anne’s life and Kitty’s contemporary adventures. “She could also be mean sometimes. But she did have a great sense of humour. All of that was in the original diary and in the short stories which were not originally published with the diary. I tried to put as much of her as I could in the movie to show her as the really rounded, complex, and amazing person that she was.”

Folman’s previous animated features include Waltz with Bashir, his Oscar-nominated account of the 1982 Lebanon war, specifically the Sabra and Shatila massacre, recreated from his own experiences as a teenage soldier.

He subsequently directed The Congress, a partly-animated science fiction based on Stanisław Lem’s 1971 Polish novel The Futurological Congress, featuring Robin Wright, Paul Giamatti, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Where is Anne Frank? is the film-maker’s first family film. The Nazis, when they appear, are stylised death-heads so as not to alienate younger viewers.

“That totally changed everything,” he says. “My kids were complaining. I’m asking them so many questions. But because the film took so long, they were growing up with the script and then the film. I was checking with them all the time, if it’s working or not. I’m looking for advice from all of them because there is an age difference and then I had to check again and again as they got older.”

That proved a considerable time span. Nine years have elapsed since the Anne Frank Fonds — the foundation set up by Otto Frank — first approached Folman with a view to adapting the diary. Reuniting with Yoni Goodman, the animation director on Waltz with Bashir, Folman’s hugely ambitious Anne Frank project required 2D characters set against stop-motion backgrounds, 1,100 shots, and processing through 12 different studios around the world.

“It was a nightmare,” says Folman. “We started with five countries, which is enough: Israel, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Luxembourg. And then London, where all the stop motion came from, a great team from Passion Studios that I’m so honoured to work with, the same team that worked with Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs. And once Covid and lockdowns started hitting really hard, we ended up with 14 studios and 12 countries. Everywhere on the globe, including Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Malaysia, Canada, Spain, Martinique. Anywhere there were animators who were animating during lockdowns, they were working on Anne Frank. You can count on that.”

We expect nothing less audacious from Folman, whose films to date are as unique as they are painstaking. For all the plaudits Folman has picked up along the way — Waltz with Bashir was the first animated film to receive a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Congress won Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes — his business remains as labour-intensive as ever.

“I remember when I made Waltz with Bashir I was asked if this is going to be a genre in cinema and commentary and that always made me laugh because of the contradiction between animation and documentary. I can’t think of tougher opposites than these two.

“All the spontaneity and all the beauty of making a documentary in a very intimate setting, film-making with a small crew and coming very close to the subject you’re interviewing. And then the opposite: a process of painting 160,000 drawings. And nobody sees the movie. You don’t have animated box-office crackers made for a five-million budget. This doesn’t happen. The last real successful low-budget animation movie was My Life as a Courgette. It was fantastic. But I never saw anything like it in the past. That teaches you something about the medium. Animation is such a big business with merchandise and everything. The development of technology has helped live action tremendously. You can shoot a feature film in 4K with a Sony A3 camera costing $2,000 easily today. But in animation, that’s impossible.”

Where is Anne Frank? opens on August 12th

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic