In San Diego this week, the Jewish Film Festival is offering an incredible number of films. Some target coming of age or sports or history and war. I selected three because of location and time, but of course first perused the content of the offering.
So there I stood at Claremont last Sunday noon, wondering if Fanny’s Journey would deepen my understanding of the holocaust. Years ago I had taught Eli Weisel’s Night to Grade 11 students, a few insisting that it was only a story, denying that the holocaust had ever taken place. Any many many years earlier I had sunk into the leather couch at the library, eager to read more and more about plight of children during that time.
Like other films based on the events of history such as Amistad, John Adams, Victoria, or Queen of Katwe for example, the film maker fills in details, in some ways making them more vivid than in a book or script, by adding a physicality to the presentation. In Fanny’s Journey, we may have known the story of Jewish children secreted in foster homes or institutions throughout France to save them from the Nazis, but the faces of the no nonsense Fanny, the nightly cries of her sister Erika and the innocence of the eyes of Georgette sear your mind with the palpable terrors of children caught in a drama we can hardly imagine.
Fanny is fourteen and all ready responsible not just for her sisters but for a gaggle of others who must depart their safe haven when reported by a local cleric. When their most recent lodging in Italy becomes a threat, they must endeavour to reach Switzerland. Fanny and Eli, a kitchen worker, are responsible to lead the children to safety,, but when Eli bolts at the train station, Fanny must navigate by herself.
Based on Fanny Ben-Ami’s autobiography, we move with Fanny’s harrowing journey through forests, shacks, dangerous situations and chance meetings that result in lucky moments that preclude the children’s arrest. We hold our breath as the Nazi commandant approaches the shed where the children have rested, relieved that abruptly another officer calls him away at the very last second to attend to an official matter.As the terrified children, eyes huge and tongues frozen in terror, holding their breathe, acknowledge the moment of capture has passed, their bodies soften, and so too do ours.. Similarly when a recluse takes them in for only a night and explains the red berries the young children have eaten are not poison, we gulp and wonder if in deed, they will make it through to safety.
Director Lola Doillon has retained, in spite of the dire circumstances, a lapse into childhood fun. When Maurice’s money flies from his pouch, the children chase the floating notes as if they were butterflies, giggling, jumping delightedly as if there were no harm surrounding their every turn. When they chance upon a creek with water, they engage in water fights, splashing one another, just a passel of ordinary kids, fooling around. This balance of childhood behaviour balances the extreme tension of the seriousness Life and death situations in the film. Will the dolly given by the lady with the baby herald disaster.? Will the children provide their new names when questioned by police? Who is a friend and who is a traitor? These are issues that Fanny, the leader of the children, must discern. She is the Pied Piper, the hardheaded combatant of the group.
We are in awe that an adolescent manoeuvres the group to safety. Towards the end of the film, when she willfully decides to return to danger for the safety of one child fallen behind, we gasp, cogitating with her, weighing her own freedom against another’s. Would we, each one of us, be so brave in dangerous circumstances o recross a no man’s land? I fear not.
The movie although set in wartime is connected to the plight of refugees, especially today. We have only to recall the scathing photos of the 3 year old Syrian boy fleeing with his family, lying lifeless on a Turkish beach. The children, the future of our world , chess pawns by ruthless governments is a deadly game.
At the conclusion of Fanny’s Journey, the film reveals the real life Fanny. She is a marvel, magically alive, vital and beautiful, presented relaxed and smiling. We are in awe.
The story is true, the heroine has survived and one person has changed history , especially for the others she has saved.
We as audience have shared a moment, a promise that humanity can be better, that people are courageous, that children are invested with the power to make the world better. In deed, we wish for a world where children can engage in tea parties, play with their stuffies, eat sweets, roll on the grass and be children. For children of war, their innocence is stolen, their days as carefree impossible. To keep them safe and unaware of the travesties of horror should be the mission of all.