Modern anxieties: Ari Folman on Israel, digital acting and his plans to film ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

Ari Folman has followed up his Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir with an even more extraordinary piece of work – “We’re going to break your mind. You’re going to enjoy it”

Ari Folman has arrived to talk about his extraordinary new film The Congress. There's plenty to discuss. Adapted from a story by Stanislaw Lem – author of Solaris – the picture stars Robin Wright as a testy actor who, years after selling her image for digital exploitation, attends a Futurological Congress in a universe akin to that through which the Beatles' Yellow Submarine travelled. Part live-action, part animation, the picture deserves substantial unpicking.

Unfortunately, given Folman's background and the nature of his previous work, he knows that certain unrelated, ugly issues must be discussed first. Waltz with Bashir, his hugely praised 2008 animation, addressed the director's early years as a conscript in the Israeli Army. In particular, it concerned his platoon's reluctance to intervene during the Lebanese Christian militia's slaughter of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982.

As we meet, new levels of mayhem are at work on the streets of Gaza. He knows more about the dynamics of these slaughters than most.

“My personal feeling is that I am very depressed,” he says. “For me, on a personal level, it is like a déjà vu. Every time there is a military operation, I get flashbacks to the time I was a soldier. Any waste of life is horrific. And the leaders on neither side respect human life. Nobody is trying to find a solution. Human life is the same.”

Has anything changed since he was in the army?

“A lot has changed,” he says. “When I was in the army, doubt was not an option. Today, doubt is part of life. It was a stupid war – like all wars – that I fought. But nobody doubted. Now I think soldiers ask themselves a thousand times: ‘is this necessary?’”

Sadly, Folman doesn't believe that this questioning extends to the general public in Israel. Indeed, he asserts that the nation is now more right-wing than ever. One wonders how Waltz with Bashir went down in Israel. Politically, it's a curious beast. The film's main source of outrage may not be violence by the Israeli state. But it is loaded with sympathy for the Palestinian people. Despite securing a place in the main competition at Cannes and winning an Oscar nomination, the picture remained controversial in his home country.

“There were people who thought I had betrayed my country,” he says. “I was a collaborator. But a lot of people thought I was doing something that was opening young minds. It was split. It’s not like that now.”

That’s depressing. He means that there is less tolerance? That the country is more rightwing?

"You know that's the case! It's getting more and more right-wing. You are writing for The Irish Times? Well, you know that."

No Israeli, however hard-line, could question the integrity of Ari Folman’s heritage. Born in 1962, he is the son of two survivors of Auschwitz. As he tells it, his father spoke somewhat too little and his mother somewhat too much about their experiences in the camp. (There are lessons there about the different ways men and women deal with extreme trauma.) “By chance”, his mother managed to escape from the death march out of Auschwitz in February 1945.

"She is 92 and in the autumn we are going to do the same walk that she did in Poland. Me, her and my sister," he says. "She's not going to do the whole thing obviously. It was over 100km. She's been to Poland many times."

Is he able to explain how that background has affected his approach to life? Few of us get to grow up with those sorts of stories. Few of us would want to.

“It would require three years of lecturing at university to answer that,” he says. “Not one semester. That’s how long it would take.”

Folman is a busy man. He makes documentaries. He composes scores. He was head writer on BeTipul, the Israeli TV series that became the Gabriel Byrne vehicle In Treatment. But Waltz With Bashir remains the defining work in his filmography.

He would not deny that the film – a personal history told through animation – involved the exorcism of many personal demons. The Congress, for all its creepiness, feels like a fresh, relieved exhalation. The cartoon world in the film's later stages positively nudges its viewers towards chemical enhancement.

“It’s a trip! We want to take you on this rollercoaster with Robin Wright. We’re going to break your mind. You’re going to enjoy it,” Folman laughs.

It took a while to make its way onto screen. But, considering the rampaging oddness, it’s perhaps surprising that it didn’t take longer. We begin in fairly sane fashion. Now living out by the airport, the actor “Robin Wright” finds herself out of work after indulging in erratic and unreasonable behaviour. A studio named Miramount (work it out, movie fans) buys her image on the condition that the she never again appears on screen in person. The young, idealised “Robin Wright” will live forever as a sophisticated animation.

How the heck did Folman talk the financiers into it?

"It would have been easy to make Waltz with Bashir II," he laughs. "To come out of Waltz with Bashir and make a science fiction film with an American actor was tougher. I think everybody expects you to make the same stuff again. That's only natural."

So how was Ms Wright with playing a vile version of herself? The character works through many of the most unpleasant excesses associated with movie stars: she is difficult, spiteful and hopelessly erratic.

“She was super-dooper relaxed,” he says. “She didn’t make any attempt to change the character’s biography in the script. She is not playing herself. She is playing another actor who just happens to have the name Robin Wright. It is the general story of every actor. This sort of digital imaging has been happening for years. This is here, now.”

The film debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival to largely – but not universally – positive reviews. Since then, it has travelled the world gathering up an increasingly fervent following. Stanislaw Lem fans rate it. Confused students rate it. We have a cult waiting to happen.

In the meantime, Folman is setting out to tell the most precious of Jewish stories. One admires and fears for any film-maker tackling The Diary of Anne Frank. Ari will be using animation to construct a film that, he hopes, will appeal to younger teenagers.

"In this case the word 'responsibility' is not a cliche," he says. "My parents arrived in Auschwitz the same day as Anne Frank: the third of September 1944. So, for me, this film could hardly be more personal."

You’re a braver man than me, Ari.

The Congress is out on limited release in theatres and online from August 15th

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