This review of Where is Anne Frank comes from the screening of the film at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Stay tuned for more information when the film becomes available to the public.
Ari Folman’s creative animated film Where is Anne Frank follows in Folman’s colloquial style of using memories to explain current trauma. His best-known film, the anti-war animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, accurately analyzes the human toll of the war in Lebanon by exploring the filmmakers’ own memories of the events. The director attempts a similar route in Where is Anne Frank, a fantasy that dramatizes the events in the life of the most famous young Holocaust columnist, but filters them through the prism of her imagination. In the near future, long after Frank’s death, lightning strikes his famous diary, bringing the spirit of his imaginary friend Kitty (Ruby Stokes) to life. Kitty, to whom Frank has sent diary entries, must then come to terms with what happened to her creator decades earlier.
Kitty springs from the pages of Frank’s diary in the form of a beautiful spiral of colorful string and ends up in the Anne Frank House, the museum built from the factory where Anne and her family hid during the war . She discovers that each building around the house bears the name of her friend: the cinema, the library, etc. She also discovers that while she is in the museum, no one can see her, including the tourists who commute. But she becomes a real girl every time she takes the journal with her to the outside world. Kitty goes in search of Frank, and as the police chase her for stealing the newspaper, she falls in love with a local boy and becomes involved in the refugee crisis plaguing Europe.
With Where is Anne Frank, Folman aims to educate children about the Holocaust through lively animation and a teenage girl protagonist. It’s an admirable goal, but it falls victim to the cliché of a white savior tale. Through much of the movie, Kitty is a number. She doesn’t know what happened to her good friend, what followed after WWII, or how little the world has changed. For young children unfamiliar with Frank’s story, his explorations become a great learning tool. To find out what happened to Frank, Kitty reads her diary, which takes her to 1942. In the past, Frank is not the deified figure she became after her diary was published. She’s a normal, somewhat temperamental teenager who enjoys the attention she gets from boys and watching her idols Clark Gable, Bette Davis and Cary Grant on the big screen.
Frank designs Kitty in an intriguing way, like a freckled redhead with a hint of Ava Gardner and a touch of Frank’s own sparkle. She doesn’t imagine Kitty as Jewish, however – she codes her as white. Partly that’s because Frank wants Kitty to be safe, and in Frank’s new and increasingly threatening reality, the Jews are clearly not. Kitty has to promise Frank that she believes in the legacy and fate of the Jewish people before Frank can accept her as such. Folman, thankfully, doesn’t put a layer of self-hatred in Frank, but it’s easy to see how the narrative could go in Toni Morrison’s way. The bluest eye.
Through Kitty, the spectator witnesses the descent of the Netherlands under the Nazi occupation: Frank’s family is forced to hide in the attic of his father’s factory. Another snobbish family, the Van Daans and their sick son Peter (Sebastian Croft), move in and their food slowly dwindles. These flashbacks, aside from when Kitty comes to life, provide the best animation in the movie, especially in the color scheme. When Frank recalls his pre-war life, the pink glow of an MGM-style musical heats up the screen. When Folman represents his family during the war, a green and red color combination takes over. And the Nazis are portrayed as pale gray, gruesome-faced bogeymen, dressed in long black suits and blood-red badges.
In current footage, Folman tries to relate Frank’s ordeal to the current refugee crisis. Again, Kitty is used as a number. She sees the horrors of forced deportation and the graffiti-covered factory where dozens of immigrant families are hiding. She meets a today’s teenage pickpocket named Peter, and ends up falling in love with him, in a relationship that doesn’t work tonally with the rest of the film. As Folman tries to craft a love story between Kitty and Peter akin to classic Hollywood romance, the boy’s fiery words of love are too heavy for children, even in a movie dealing with such a dark subject.
And just like Frank had to escape the Nazis, Kitty is also being stalked, as the police stalk her. His escape and the refugee crisis come together in the final minutes of the film. While Folman doesn’t cleverly use the argument that countries should welcome refugees because any of them could be the next Anne Frank, Where is Anne Frank puts all the work of saving hapless victims on Kitty’s shoulders.
When Kitty stands up against the establishment to protect these victims, the scene is meant to answer the question, “What if someone stood up during WWII to stop the genocide?” But when a little brown-faced boy hugs a white girl and says, “You are my hero.” I will love you forever ”, good intentions are lost in the uneasy feeling of marginalization and loss of autonomy.
Forman is close to the subject: he dedicated this film to his parents, who survived Auschwitz. And the recent rise in global anti-Semitism, along with anti-refugee sentiment and the rise of white nationalism all make the film’s arrival even more relevant. The well-placed message and imaginative animation will appeal to the target audience of the film: young children. But the movements Where is Anne Frank using it to convey this message can do as much harm as it helps.
Where is Anne Frank does not yet have a US release date.