Five years ago, Ari Folman’s striking animated documentary Waltz with Bashir made a triumphant run through festivals worldwide, winning several significant international prizes and garnering something of a surprise Oscar nomination in the foreign-language category. The film, which depicted the author’s search for his lost memories of his service in the 1982 Lebanon War, was grim, moving, and fiercely original in execution. Five years later, Folman returns to Cannes with The Congress, which opened the festival’s Director’s Fortnight section. Partly based on Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi novel The Futurological Congress, the film, given its radical, some would say uncertain, aesthetic, has understandably divided critics and audiences alike. Slant had the chance to talk with Folman from the Croisette about The Congress’s fascinating origins, its reception thus far, and the future of film.
What is it about animation you’re so drawn to?
It’s really addictive. You either have to be very stupid or very brave to do classic animation in 2013. And I’m both. The freedom you have in animation is fantastic.
How long after completing Waltz with Bashir did you start thinking about this project?
Five years ago I came to Cannes with Bashir and it was exactly the moment when I started thinking about this one. I optioned the rights for Stanislaw Lem’s novel two days before coming to the festival. I wanted to declare that I was doing it here, when I had my film in the competition. It’s been exactly five years since then, out of which four-and-a-half years was constant work. It’s been tough.
Tougher than usual?
Yes. The live-action part went really smoothly. We shot it two-and-a-half years ago in Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert. But the animated part was very complicated, because it’s all classic technique, hand-drawn. The European system of financing films made us do it whenever and wherever somebody was willing to give us money. Even if there was no studio, we had to establish one. The work was split between Israel, Luxemburg, Brussels, Liege, Hamburg, Berlin, and Poland. Then we got stuck with the assist work: Philippines, Ukraine, Turkey, and India. This is 55 minutes of material [made in] 10 countries—only because of budget reasons.
It must have been very stressful.
Believe it or not, but when it all started I had black hair. And yesterday, during some business lunch, a German journalist approached me and said, “Wow! I interviewed you two years ago and now you look so old!” [laughs] My hair turned gray because of the animation part. It was very complicated technically, but also artistically sometimes it felt like a nightmare. Every studio has a completely different philosophy and approach. For example, in Luxemburg they do everything manually, paper on the light table, like Disney 80 years ago. Then they scan it with fax machines. Really old school. Then I noticed that what they did with Robin Wright’s part, the movements and everything, was very feminine, fluent, soft. And the works from Israel—of course!—or Germany were very masculine, hard. So I had to bring a team of the best animators from Brussels to Tel Aviv just to shllajf all of it, so the characters would be consistent. It took us a year to accomplish that.
Why do you think it was so difficult to gather the money? Waltz with Bashir was an amazing international success; one would think such accomplishment makes everything easier for a filmmaker.
It’s because people don’t want to invest in animation for adults…
...unless it’s erotic.
True. You naughty girl! I still feel lucky that this crazy idea got made after all. I was expected to do Waltz with Bashir 2, or take my mother, who survived the Holocaust, to Auschwitz. Making another dark animation—that would’ve been a lot easier for me. When you come from where I come from and tell people that you want to make a sci-fi film with Robin Wright and Harvey Keitel, they’re like, “What’s your problem, man? You did so well last time. Can’t you find something in the Middle Eastern part of the world, there are so many interesting things here! Why get out of the ghetto? Stay put!”
So the idea of a film about an aging actress and her struggle to protect individuality seemed more interesting to you?
Like I mentioned before, I was here in 2008 and I’d already optioned Lem’s novel, but I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with it, apart from knowing I wanted to combine animation and real life. And one day I went to visit my sales agent in the festival market and saw an old lady there. He asked me whether I recognized her, and I didn’t. He told me her name and I was shocked. She was a film goddess from the ’70s, top of the tops! But no one identified her as such. Her face was completely done. It was really sad. I thought, she’s an old woman coming to the mecca of cinema, and her films, specifically two or three, will stay great forever. Thanks to them she will be forever young, a 25-year-old goddess. But here she is and nobody knows it’s her. And I thought, okay, Ijon Tichy from the book is an actress now. I had this image of an aging actress, her young face immortalized on celluloid. This is what you see when Robin’s character arrives at the Hotel Miramont in the animation part. She enters the lobby, and her son, with whom she’s talking, asks her whether people recognize her as the new trailer is all over the media! And she says, “No, nobody. I’m just an old lady to them.” This place, the lobby, is like Cannes: a market. I just copied the scene I saw five years earlier and put it into wild animation, but the idea is exactly the same.