The weirdest film you'll see this month, or year

Gravitating away from reality is The Congress – half live-action, half animation. We dig into the warped world of Israeli director Ari Folman

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Ari Folman is one animated guy, and this doesn’t just apply to his chosen film medium. Constantly roaming the stuffy hotel suite where we meet, the 50-year-old Israeli filmmaker is like a gruff but generous-natured shaggy grey bear, forever gesticulating, glugging water, interrupting questions and asking his own. This restless, curious nature is no surprise if you’ve seen the two features that have made his international reputation. 2008’s Waltz With Bashir, a singular, surreal, multi-award-winning flash/CG-rotoscoped animation based on his own horrific combat experiences as a young man; and now its follow-up, the even more striking live-action/animation hybrid The Congress

Loosely based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 sci-fi novel, The Futurological Congress, Folman’s film stars Robin Wright as: Robin Wright; former Hollywood star of The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump and now a washed-up single mother, berated by her agent (Harvey Keitel), for her poor professional choices. Luckily, technological redemption is at hand. Agree to sell the rights to her digital image and Wright can be scanned, sampled and reborn as an eternally youthful actress. Years later, the elderly Wright enters the cartoon world of Abrahama, where her action alter ego Agent Robin is the era’s biggest digital star – and that’s where things get Prozzäk trippy.

The result is a staggeringly ambitious one-off that genuinely needs repeat views to fully digest. Despite his huge previous success, it took Folman five years to realise his vision, requiring funding and piecemeal animation from 250 animators across 10 countries. Acclaim is far less unanimous than for Bashir but despite that film’s autobiographical nature, it’s The Congress that Folman has cheerfully and proudly described as his most personal film.

There’s a line in the film where the cartoon world it depicts is described like “a genius designer on a bad acid trip” – was that you getting in ahead of the critics?

Ari Folman: No, I didn’t think that far! But animation is so much work, so much detail. Did you notice that in the (Abrahama) fish tank, it’s like fish porn?

I did not… I guess it’s more proof that you need to this see more than once…

Ari Folman: Most people don't see what’s going on in the frame! We worked so hard on the fish tank. One guy was working on that porn for six months…

Was the plan always to mix live-action and animaton?

Ari Folman: Yeah. You have Robin Wright in the live-action part of the movie, and I thought, 'Okay, you’re going to feel for her, to go with her' – but suddenly she becomes a cartoon. For me the biggest challenge was that the audience would still follow her. I had to create a justification. Honestly, I had the format before I had the story.

Most movies that have mixed live-action and animation haven’t worked so well. Who Framed Roger Rabbit maybe –

Ari Folman: I wish I was Roger Rabbit at the box-office… No, it doesn’t gel – so the crucial decision I took here was to separate them, to go from one dimension, live-action, to another, animation. It works in Roger Rabbit though. I like it a lot. But it’s really an exception. 

What draws you to animation? You could do this story with special effects…

Ari Folman: No… Well, maybe with $200 million… I love animation because it gives me the freedom to execute what I think about life in general and films more specifically: the idea that we live all the time in a parallel universe. We have real time going on and then our mind, our subconscious – and real conscious, daydreaming, everything is happening in the meantime.

And animation evokes that best?

Ari Folman: It doesn’t have to be animation. A good movie like a good David Lynch movie, or a Fellini or Hitchcock movie, can combine both of them. I just found animation the perfect tool for me. But most adults think animation is just for kids, they don’t want to see it for adults, so it’s difficult to raise the money.

Hence producing this across so many different countries…

Ari Folman: I had to make it piece-by-piece, raise money in different countries. In the European system you have to spend where you raise the money.

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Yet the animation looks consistent.

Ari Folman: Basically, it’s classically hand-drawn animation, a tribute to the Fleischers (of Popeye and Betty Boop fame) of the 1930s. During development we tried to impose the Waltz With Bashir style on this movie and it didn’t work out. At all.

Why not?

Ari Folman: In Bashir my obsession was with making it a realistic story, a documentary feel. I didn’t need that here. It’s a world controlled by drugs – why go for realism? Realism is the biggest enemy for animators. Why do you think they make so many films with talking pigs and dogs and mice? Because it’s easier to imitate.

Robin’s body-scanned avatar says, “It’s not science-fiction, it’s documentary.” Did technology overtake your film during its lengthy production?

Ari Folman: I must say I wrote that (body-scanning) scene as being like a CT scan – 30 seconds in and out. It was ironic. Then we were told there’s a real scanning room in California. It’s like they suck your soul out of you. Robin says that when (Robert) Zemeckis made Beowulf, he told her that in 20 years time, he won’t need her anyway. She’s in a chip in his file! 

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You increasingly see TV commercials starring, say, ‘Audrey Hepburn’. Is there any appeal for you to work with, for example, Bogart or Marilyn Monroe?

Ari Folman: Are you kidding me? You know how much fun it is to work with real actors?

But when I look at my kids, who grow up with an iPad in one hand and a joystick in the other, I don’t think they will give a damn in 15 years if the movie character is scanned or not.

Why Robin Wright? And was it easy to convince her?

Ari Folman: Listen, sometimes in life you meet people and it’s like love from (sic) first sight. We met at an awards ceremony in LA and I knew she was the one.

That was the easiest thing of this whole tough process. But I mean, who would refuse a role like this? She’s playing an old version of herself, the coolest ‘Agent Robin’, she’s singing a couple of songs, doing so many things. There aren’t enough good roles for women anyway.

“Robin says that when (Robert) Zemeckis made Beowulf, he told her that in 20 years time, he won’t need her anyway. She’s in a chip in his file!” – Ari Folman

There’s an increasing trend for actors playing themselves onscreen. What’s your take on it?

Ari Folman: When we came to the Cannes premiere, Robin and I did interviews together and she said, ‘Listen, it’s not me in the movie. I gave Ari my name, the two [film] titles I’m best known for, the fact I have two kids. But other than that, it has nothing to do with me.’ And then I realised that the way she dealt with the idea of playing herself was to do the twist of playing someone else who, by chance, is also called Robin Wright. 

Does that make sense to you? Or is it a cop-out?

Ari Folman: After five days in Cannes, I started believing her! I was watching her and said, ‘Yeah, fuck, she’s right!’ She doesn’t walk like Robin Wright in the movie, she doesn’t eat like her, she is playing this ‘Robin Wright’ in the movie! And, of course, she’s more persistent on this idea.

I’m not a gamer-

Ari Folman: Me neither. I tried but I got bored. For me Facebook is more influential than video games.

Right. But it seems to be a similar concept you’re exploring, the way we construct or fragment our identities in virtual worlds.

Ari Folman: This is true. It’s based on this novel where Lem predicted many things, from the iPad to the 3D TV. The celebrity pill. In my country this is what it’s all about. One step ahead, what does it mean? Being someone means being this guy on TV.

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Waltz With Bashir was about your life, so why do you consider this film to be more personal?

Ari Folman: This one represents my personality better than anything else I’ve ever done in my life. Not as a filmmaker. As a human being. Bashir was the good pupil, the best in class, winning everything… it’s not me! When I went to the Oscars and everyone was gambled on me, I knew I will never win. It’s a karmatic (sic) issue. Although Bashir is autobiographical, The Congress is more complex and intense and I see myself much more in everything about it, even the reaction.

It was probably more so on Waltz With Bashir but even on this film, do you get questioned as if you’re a spokesman for your country and its politics?

Ari Folman: I was never asked on this one. Thank God. But on Bashir, timing-wise we had this stupid, horrible government operation in Gaza. So I was stuck. For Israelis I was this left-wing liberal selling my country for prizes. But travelling abroad here or France I was this Israeli representing a crazy government. It was so complex, because the film was embraced by the government eventually.

If you can’t beat ‘em…

Ari Folman: I only found out afterwards but in places where I couldn’t travel, the ambassador would speak on the film! I came to Japan, where they’d distributed my first film but not Bashir and I asked the distributor. He told me, I saw your film in Denmark and the Israeli ambassador introduced it. So I thought ‘Fuck you, this guy became a collaborator.’ And I didn’t know!

What’s next? More animation?

Ari Folman: Maybe animation for kids. But I’ll go crazy if I do only animation. I was on the jury in Venice last year and I met [Congress co-star] Danny Huston. He told me everyone thought I ran away with the footage I shot with them 2½ years ago. He told me, ‘I’ve made so many films since then and they’re already out on DVD!’ So I’d like to do live-action - something fast and doable.

The Congress is out on August 15th

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