Ari Folman on The Genius of Stanisław Lem
George Krammer talks to award-winning director Ari Folman about his latest production, "The Congress" exclusively for Culture.pl
Production on the film was launched in Los Angeles earlier this year. It is based on Stanisław Lem's dystopian short story of the same title, originally published in 1971. Starring Robin Wright and Kodi Smit-McPhee, with cinematography by Michał Englert, The Congress is planned for release in 2013.
Georg Krammer: What stage of production is the film at currently?
Ari Folman: We are slowly finishing shooting the first part of the film, which is a fictional tale set in the modern world. I think that work on the second part of the movie will commence in the autumn - it will be animated and set in the future, in the early thirties of this century.
G.K: Would you outline the film's storyline and plot?
A.F: The film is the story of an actress who has sold her image to a certain film studio. She has been scanned electronically, using special studio techniques. Preserved in this way, her character somehow began a new, virtual life. After acquiring the rights to use this character, the film studio can produce movies, using its electronic actor's archives. Here, real actors are no longer needed at all. This is what the first part of the film is about. In the second part, we move twenty years into the future. The plot takes place in a world of animation, in a fictional city where the headquarters of the film studio company are located. The company has expanded into a huge conglomerate, not only dealing with entertainment, but it also has interests in other branches, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. The film studio produced many films with the use of computer technology, using an electronic image of this actress. The films become hits, and she's a star. Still, she hasn't had any part in this success. Now, at 65 years of age, she has changed physically and no one, no longer recognises her. The actress is unable to cope with this situation. She feels deceived and attempts to find her true identity. She takes part in the congress organized by the futuristic film production studio.
This is the part of the film inspired by the text written by Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress. It is set in an enormous hotel with one hundred floors - the heart of the congress. Just as in Lem's book, the action of the film moves to the hotel basement and the entire city. Similarly to Ljon Tichy from Lem's novel, in seeking her identity, the actress is on a hovers between the state of her own mental delusions and the real world. In this imaginary world, hallucinogens are widely available and used to meet human needs. This is a story about the search for truth and one's own personality in the next world.
G.K: The role of the woman is played by Robin Wright? In addition, she plays herself.
A.F: She performs under her own name. In addition, it turned out that she has personal experiences in film in where she had recorded a number of shots using her image designed for use in the future. When I proposed this role to Robin two years ago, I had not known about this. At the time, I was in the US with my previous film - Waltz with Bashir. I had only twenty pages of the script ready and was wondering if maybe Cate Blanchett would be interested in the role. I met Robin, however, at an event and I immediately decided that she was the actress who perfectly fit my film. I offered her the role the following day, and she immediately agreed, telling me about her previous experiences on the spot. I experienced a real surprise a bit later, when in the course of the film's production, my producer discovered a film studio located in Los Angeles working in a similar way to the imaginary film studio I created. We shot part of the film at this location. Fiction turned into reality. This should not be of a surprise, because we all know that Avatar was created using computer techniques. And the film Avatar was a source of inspiration for me.
G.K: From your description, it appears that the resulting film is very loosely connected with the story written by Lem.
A.F: Well, yes and no. There is certainly nothing based on Lem in the first part of the movie. The second part is definitely different, but I used Lem's, The Futurological Congress more as a source of inspiration, rather than the basis of the screenplay. I present my vision of the future, which is, however, heavily influenced by my reading of Lem.
G.K: Stanisław Lem was not especially satisfied with the film Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky, which was based on his book. What do you think - how would he evaluate the idea?
A.F: I do not know. But I am convinced that Lem understood that his visions and did not necessarily have to be taken literally, and can in turn be a source of inspiration. I've always thought of Lem as a genius.
G.K: When did you first come in contact with his writing?
A.F: When I was nineteen. I was then serving in the Israeli army. I devoured everything that was available from the science fiction literature in Hebrew.
G.K: Did you not attempt to read Lem's works in Polish as it is your parent's native tongue?
A.F: My parents emigrated from Poland after the war, a few years after the creation of Israel. I was born in Haifa and grew up among Polish immigrants. I have a Polish passport. Moreover, in this sense I am a Polish citizen, a country where my ancestors lived for ten generations. I use it quite often. I do not speak Polish, but I understand almost everything. I seldom visit Poland, but keep in touch with people there and it seems to me that I know quite a lot about the country. When I was there recently, to present Waltz with Bashir, I replied in English to questions asked in Polish. I have read Lem's works, however, in Hebrew.
G.K: Are you familiar with Polish cinema?
A.F: Absolutely. I know Polish cinema legends such as: Roman Polański, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Andrzej Wajda. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to meet any of them.
G.K: Do you make use of their experiences for your own projects?
A.F: In various ways. I use their experience on an everyday basis. The director of photography of my current film, Michał Englert, uses the so-called Roman lens. This is a lens with a focal length of 42 millimeters, which is Roman Polański's favourite. That's something we agreed upon.
G.K: Did knowing and being familiar with Polish reality help you in reading Lem?
A.F: I regard him as a visionary writer and philosopher. I consider Solaris to be the most outstanding novel ever created. Lem wrote The Futurological Congress in the late sixties, but predicted many events that followed later on. He depicted the world, in fact, as it is today. Also, some incidents like the assassination attempt of the Pope, which is described in The Futurological Congress. I am wondering now, how to weave this specific element into my film...
Lem announced the creation of virtual reality, universal access to hallucinogens and psychotropic drugs. He wondered where the boundaries of human identity in this type of world lie. Where reality ends and where a world of delusion and imagination begins? These questions have always fascinated me. I realize that the circumstances in which Lem's literature arose, were satire, in a sense, referring to the reality of a totalitarian state. I suspect that the writer could not write everything the way he probably wanted to. He often used metaphors, which most likely, I understand better than those readers who are not familiar with the conditions under which Lem wrote his works.
G.K: Is the world of the future going to be a world of richness in the material sphere, where the standard of living will improve considerably, but at the expense of intellectual poverty? That is another way of how we can come to understand Lem.
A.F: I do not think that from an individual perspective, much has changed. The rich will be richer and the poor even poorer. In this sphere, technological progress does not change much. My vision relates to changes in the functioning of a unit drained in a world of increasing complexity. Take, for example, universal access to information. People use it every day. This information is not censored, but in some way, however, developed, prepared and served in the majority on a selective basis. This leads to changes in behavior and perhaps even to some mental laziness. My parents knew a few languages, which they used almost every day, enriching their knowledge somehow from the source. At the moment, this is no longer necessary, but is this better?
G.K: Is your film a manifest towards progress and development?
A.F: I do not feel nostalgic, I do not miss the past. I appreciate the technical possibilities offered by progress. I use a computer and I'm glad that I do not have to write on a type-writer. This in itself is a great convenience, but we all know, that this computer in itself destroys people contacts and co-relations. A simple example. If we had benefited from all the new opportunities, our meeting in this cafe would never actually come to be. We would be able to somehow meet virtually, using the Internet. But such meetings are weaker and less rich in emotional experience. They lack true direct emotions and immediate, spontaneous reactions. But this is where the world is heading, something which is inevitable. My intention is not the turning back of time, but I wish to draw attention to everything we are getting rid of, what we're losing, and what creates a new quality of social and political life.
G.K: Is this the message of your film?
A.F: That is the way in which it may be perceived, but I avoid moralising and making such obvious and simplistic generalisations.
G.K: So far, you have made political films, set in the realities of Israel. Is The Congress also a political film?
A.F: In a sense, it certainly is. But with this film I am leaving the context of affairs of the state and the region where I grew up for the first time. After Waltz with Bashir and many journeys with this film almost all over the world, I came to the conclusion that it's time to rest from that particular subject. The world of fantasy is my method of relaxation.
G.K: Does your personal experience gained from the war in Lebanon, and generally the world seen from the perspective of Israel, a country caught up in armed conflict with its neighbours, make you a pessimist in the perception of the future?
A.F: I was a lifelong optimist when it came to political affairs. However, events in recent years have changed my point of view. This does not mean that I've become a pessimist, but I look more critically at the future. To what extent this will be reflected in the The Congress, I find it hard to assess.
G.K: When will the movie hit the big screen?
A.F: I think we will make in time for the festivals in Cannes and Venice in 2013. The entire animation sequence still awaits, which will be made through classic techniques. This is a very time-consuming job. The main part will be made in the studio in Israel, the same one in which we made Waltz with Bashir. Other parts will be the work of animators from Hamburg, Belgium, Luxembourg and, of course, studios in Bielsk.
G.K: Where is the first part of the movie being made?
A.F: Mainly in the United States - in Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert in California - as well as in Berlin and Dortmund, where we shot some scenes in the abandoned industrial complexes. My film is a co-production of many countries including: USA, Germany, Luxembourg, France, Belgium, Israel and Poland. When deciding where we shoot our scenes; obviously, the facilities needed for the film are taken into account first and foremost, but also financial contributions from partners throughout the project. That is the reality.
G.K: The working title of the movie is simply The Congress. Are you going to keep it?
A.F: I cannot imagine a different one. This is a direct reference to Lem and will certainly remain so.
G.K: Your film Waltz with Bashir paved the way to fame. Did you have a problem with getting financing for your newest work, The Congress? Andrzej Wajda once attempted to make this film adaptation. He even found the right hotel, in which he intended to situate the plot. The project, however, collapsed due to a lack of funds.
A.F: Contrary to what some may think, I am not a big celebrity or famous filmmaker. However, Waltz with Bashir did open doors for me which were previously closed. For this reason, I was able to attract such celebrities as Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel and Paul Giamatti.
Ari Folman interviewed by Georg Krammer in March 2011.