'Where is Anne Frank': Using animation to tell the story to the young - review

It uses a device that might have come from a Disney film but it tells a decidedly un-Disney story, albeit in a way that is suitable for children.

 ARI FOLMAN’S latest film, ‘Where is Anne Frank.’ (photo credit: Bridgit Folman Film Gang Ltd)
ARI FOLMAN’S latest film, ‘Where is Anne Frank.’
(photo credit: Bridgit Folman Film Gang Ltd)

Ari Folman’s latest film, Where is Anne Frank, is an engaging, animated docu-drama about the young diarist murdered in the Holocaust, aimed at children, tweens and teens, and it opens at theaters around the country on May 5. 

It uses a device that might have come from a Disney film – Kitty, the imaginary friend to whom Anne addressed her diary, comes to life in contemporary Amsterdam and tries to find her – but it tells a decidedly un-Disney story, albeit in a way that is suitable for children, and it is being shown in both English and Hebrew versions. 

When Ari Folman released Waltz with Bashir in 2008, it changed the documentary filmmaking landscape forever. He used animation to tell a serious story of Israeli soldiers’ memories of the First Lebanon War and made a documentary that was not only thought-provoking and informative, but visually arresting and emotionally intense. It was showered with prizes in Israel and around the world, and since then, animation has become a staple of documentary filmmaking. 

This year’s triple Oscar nominee, Flee, a Danish film about an Afghan refugee, for example, was nominated in the Best International Feature, Best Documentary and Best Animated Feature categories, an accomplishment that would have been unthinkable without Waltz with Bashir. It turns out that animation is good for showing historical events and period stories. It can emphasize details that might have been overlooked in a live-action dramatization and, just as important, it has a gut-level effect on viewers, perhaps because most of us grew up on animation as children. 

Where is Anne Frank, which premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival, marks the first time that Folman has used animation to tell a story for children, and now that the film is here, it seems that this was a perfect combination of filmmaker and subject.

Where is Anne Frank?  (credit: LENA GUBERMAN)Where is Anne Frank? (credit: LENA GUBERMAN)

Folman’s mother is an Auschwitz survivor, who, according to the film’s press kit, joked that it took him eight years to make the movie, twice the time the Holocaust took, and clearly he went to great pains to create a film that would honor her and all those who were Holocaust victims. When he was approached by the Anne Frank Foundation in 2013 to use animation to tell her story, he told the foundation’s representatives he would do it if the film could be targeted for children aged 10 and up, that part of it would deal with the final seven months of Anne’s life, which were not covered by her diary, and that it would be focused on teaching the Holocaust to and fostering empathy in today’s youth. 

The way he accomplishes this last goal is by telling this story from Kitty’s point of view. Through a logic-defying moment on a stormy night at the Anne Frank Museum, Kitty is brought to life and grabs the diary, running away. As a city-wide search for the diary grips Amsterdam, Kitty reads the diary and befriends a number of homeless migrants and begins to understand what happened to Anne. Anne’s story is told through a series of detailed flashbacks, many of which emphasize her gaiety, flirtatiousness and love for life, even as she hid with her family and a family of strangers she came to know all too well. 

These sections emphasize how Anne was just a kid, although, of course, she was an extraordinarily talented writer who was caught up in tragic historical circumstances. Her diary, which was published in English 70 years ago and has entranced readers for decades, has such an enduring appeal because Anne’s personality comes through on every page. 

We often think of victims as somehow saintly, and Anne, who had a wicked sense of humor and was often embroiled in one drama or another, was anything but. She had a stormy relationship with her mother, as so many teen girls do, and all the usual tensions were exacerbated by the fact that they were forced to hide together. Anne found Mrs. van Daan, the matriarch of the other family sharing their quarters, insufferable and developed a teen crush on Peter, the son of the van Daans, and all of us this is mined for comedy and drama that young viewers in particular will enjoy, whether or not they have read the diary. Anne’s more contemplative side comes through as well.

Some will find the emphasis on Kitty’s bonding with modern-day migrants undermines the uniqueness of the Holocaust, but I felt it worked well as a way of drawing in young people today. At times, it seems to be a contrived setup, and adult viewers familiar with the story might wonder why it is necessary, but it is likely to be an effective tool to tell the story in a vivid way to young audiences. Folman is nothing if not a good storyteller. All the visuals and flourishes come together to bring the story off the page and onto the screen. The visuals, by animation director Yoni Goodman and artistic director Lena Guberman, are imaginative and attractive and will engage viewers used to mainstream commercial animated features. 

The film made me think of a couple of elderly Holocaust survivors who my son and I used to see sitting on a bench outside their apartment in Jerusalem and who befriended my son, calling him their adopted grandchild. At a certain point, the husband became weaker and a Filipino caregiver would sit by his side. My son and I sat down with them as usual, and as we chatted, the two survivors made a point of introducing us to the caregiver. I was embarrassed to realize that my impulse had been to ignore him. Theirs was to include him in our conversation, which taught me a lesson and I felt that their graciousness to a foreigner in their midst was connected to what they had suffered during the war. 

I think those who learn about Anne Frank’s story through Where is Anne Frank will absorb the message that the Holocaust was a horrific tragedy and that the way to honor those who lost their lives in it is to never lose sight of the humanity of everyone around us.