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Ari Folman’s newest film takes pride of place in Jerusalem’s newly renovated Tower of David Museum
The award-winning Israeli filmmaker tells Jewish Insider how he summarized the 3,000-year-old history of the holy city in just three minutes
How do you capture thousands of years of history in just three minutes?
Ask award-winning Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, who undertook the near-impossible task of creating a short, animated film telling the entire story of Jerusalem from the time of King Solomon’s First Jewish Temple up to the modern day.
The quirky, colorful visuals, replete with jolly priests, angry warriors and even a steam train chugging gaily through the Jerusalem hills, serves as the first exhibit at the recently renovated and revamped Tower of David Museum. Folman’s film offers visitors a short history lesson with a modern twist, not only capturing 3,000 years of the holy city’s history but also winning over the hearts of visitors immediately upon arrival at the new-look museum.
“Every second counts,” Folman, best known for his Golden Globe-winning animated feature film, “Waltz with Bashir,” told Jewish Insider – before noting that the film is actually 3 minutes and 1 second.
“When I go into a project of any kind, it does not matter if it’s three minutes or 90 minutes, I try to be clueless – I don’t come into it with any agenda or plan,” Folman, 60, continued, who first turned down the project after curators suggested that the film be displayed with a small monitor beaming the images on a standard white wall.
“That was just not interesting,” said Folman, who pushed the museum’s artistic director to utilize the building’s ancient Jerusalem stone and project the film inside on the “big, fantastic wall that they have there.”
It was a complicated project, Yoav Cohen, once a student of Folman’s and now the museum’s artistic director, told JI. Together, the pair had to work to map the wall – literally measuring the rough, protruding stones – so that Folman’s illustrator could then fit her drawings perfectly in and around them.
“We wanted the images to interact with the stones themselves because each stone has its own content,” said Cohen, a visual design graduate from Bezalel School of Art and Design. “The stones tell the history too; they are physically part of the museum, and they are the same stones that are found in the Western Wall.”
“Jerusalem stone has a lot of history,” he emphasized, describing a process of 3D scanning, and digitalizing them for the illustrator to use.
Cohen said that Folman’s work, which is the first to greet visitors at the newly reopened museum, is among the most important. Not only does it incorporate modern technologies to tell the well-worn story of an ancient city in a new and fresh way, but it also gives visitors a taste of what is to come in the $50 million museum redesign.
Eilat Lieber, the museum’s director and chief curator, said the goal of the redesign was “to tell the stories of Jerusalem in a multidisciplinary approach.”
“Some visitors are intrigued to see ancient authentic artifacts, others models, but for a whole generation, multimedia is a language that can be understood and can create an active engagement and exploration of Jerusalem,” she explained. “The creativity of artists has allowed us to produce and illustrate actual scenes from the past and make them relevant to younger visitors.”
Lieber added that “through video mapping, we were able to use the authentic citadel as a canvas with no need for intervention, connecting the past with the present.”
“The museum is very didactic, and I wanted there to be a fun, cool entrance where you walk in and have a feel-good atmosphere,” said Folman of his creative process.
“I didn’t want there to be this heaviness where we’re going to teach you about the history of Jerusalem,” he added. “It’s a welcome and if you come with kids, they are attracted to the wall and can watch it in loops – this was the idea.”
To boil down Jerusalem’s long, intricate story into just over three minutes, Folman started by examining the visuals from each period.
“You know, there’s the First Temple, the Second Temple, the Romans, the Byzantine, the first Muslim era, the Middle Ages, and I needed the curators to think in visual icons as well,” explained the filmmaker. “I had them flood me with visuals from each and every period and slowly this started a process where I too could think of the different periods of time in elements of visuals.”
Then something curious happened – Folman noticed a pattern.
“I saw repetition,” he went on. “Something is dictated, then there’s a new invasion, then there’s a war, then they take over, sometimes they take over for 400 years and sometimes for 80 years. Then you need to make the separation from one period to another and to categorize in order to make everything special.”
Folman is no stranger to turning well-worn histories and even controversial matters into stories that speak to a visual savvy generation. In “Where is Anne Frank?,” released in 2021, Folman takes on Frank’s imaginary friend, Kitty, whom he brings to life in contemporary Amsterdam as she tries to find out what happened to Anne and the rest of the Frank family.
In contrast, “Waltz with Bashir” is an animated documentary that explores Folman’s own experiences as an Israeli combat soldier during the first Lebanon War. The film, which initially drew criticism from both Israelis and the Arab world, follows the protagonist as he questions the role of his army unit in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982.
In interviews at the time, Folman said the goal of the controversial film, which won Israel a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008, was to influence young Israelis not to go to war.
“All wars are useless,” he told NPR in an interview at the time. “Sometimes in films, we tend to glorify them by making all of those great characters and they show you it’s all about bravery and brotherhood of man. And I don’t believe in that.”
Folman does not see his work at the museum, which is a celebration of Jewish life – as well as other religions – in the long and storied history of Jerusalem, as contradicting his more critical position in “Waltz with Bashir.”
“Why would I see a contradiction?” he said when asked if there might be a contrast. “I’m not anti-Israeli. ‘Waltz with Bashir’ is my account of being a soldier – it is a very personal movie – but I’m very connected to this place.”
“I don’t see [the film at the museum] as a patriotic kind of work, it just portrays the history of Jerusalem as best I could, because it’s a fascinating history and we cannot ignore that,” he said.