The IWM Short Film Festival showcases films responding to past and contemporary conflict across 5 days of screenings, featuring animations, dramas and documentaries
Discover more about some of the films shortlisted for the 2018 festival in our interviews with the filmmakers behind them.
In Shemira by filmmaker Adam Wells. Audiences are allowed an intimate look at the life of Myer as he spends the night saying goodbye to his beloved wife, Leah. Myer recalls moments they shared from the unexpected, to the seemingly insignificant, to the devastating events of the holocaust.
Here Adam discusses how he developed the film and how he cast Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lord of the Rings actor John Rhys-Davies in the central role.
Tell us about the inspiration for producing Shemira
Over 70 years have passed since the liberation of Auschwitz. As each subsequent year concludes, those who lived through this dark time in human history will continue to reduce in number.
I researched individual testimonies, personal journeys and spoke with several survivors, now elderly Jewish men and women. As children, whose lives and families were ripped apart during the chaos of World War II, many emerged from this human tragedy to rebuild their lives in the UK, from nothing, with no-one.
Despite the traumas encountered in Nazi Europe, their message is often positive; of defiance, survival, love, success and hope.
Tell us why it was important that you submitted your film to the IWM Short Film Festival
I moved to London in 1998, spending my days off wandering around the city’s cultural riches. I was amazed to discover the Imperial War Museum, specifically the permanent exhibition on the Holocaust. Growing up within the Jewish Community of North Leeds, so many faces in the photos felt familiar to me and I found myself returning to IWM regularly to learn more. 20 years later, I now take my children. Its historical value for future generations cannot be underestimated.
After making Shemira, it was important I approached festivals relevant to its subject and, where possible, offering a personal affinity.
How much research did you do in order to create such an in-depth character?
As Shemira is set in the present day, researching the Survivors’ stories in the here and now was vital when creating the character of Myer. However, to create Myer’s life story, I read a great deal of personal accounts from Survivors, including well known titles by Ellie Wiesel and Primo Levi and “Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust” by Lyn Smith. Other influential books included The Last Jew of Treblinka and The Road to Hell.
I drew great inspiration from the biographies of little-known Survivors such as Josef Perl and Arek Hersh, both of whom I was fortunate enough to spend time with. Josef and his family supplied me with countless personal mementoes to use on our set, including wedding pictures and photos of family members murdered by the Nazis.
I was provided with reading material by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) who also introduced me to the wonderful Martin Bennett. I spent a great deal of time with Martin and his wife, prior to his death in 2016. These ‘living’ stories were particularly important to my lead character as Josef, Arek and Martin were children at the time of the Holocaust but survived to shape their own lives here in the UK. All three spent recent years recounting their stories to schoolchildren, through the work of HET.
Are any of the experiences based on the stories of real people?
As memory plays a large part in the film’s subject, reading personal testimonies was vitally important, and all aspects of Myer’s life were drawn directly from the real experiences of countless individuals. Sadly Martin Bennett, as well as my close friend (the film’s producer and driving force, Grant Branton), passed away during pre-production, so grief and loss were unfortunately experienced and witnessed by many involved in the film during this time.
From my personal perspective, the most difficult stories I researched and included were the murders of children. Most notably a woman called Hannah who witnessed a young mother have her baby snatched from her arms and executed. Conversely, the way my characters Myer and Leah first meet in the film is a charming encounter of good fortune, taken directly from Martin Bennett’s chance meeting with Priscilla, who went on to spend their lives happily married.
It was vitally important I didn’t stray into fictional stories. Subsequently, Myer is the combination of thousands of real people with shared experiences. It was key that the film provided positive recollections and a sense of some victory, illustrated through determination, an ongoing legacy and ultimately, survival.
How did you engage John-Rhys Davies with the project?
One of the most difficult aspects in advance of making a film with one key character throughout, was finding a commanding actor who fit a very specific brief. He would need to be in the relevant age bracket with a ‘lived in’ face capable of a range of emotions, as well as possessing a confidence and experience to hold the screen from start to finish.
I’m a huge fan of Steven Spielberg. My very first cinema experience was Raiders of the Lost Ark so to me John Rhys-Davies has always been Salah, Indiana’s Egyptian sidekick. When I was looking into actors to play Myer my producer, Grant Branton, introduced me to Paul Van Carter who runs the film production company Salon Pictures. Paul approached John’s management on my behalf and sent him the script, which he expressed an immediate interest in. Despite his age, John is still an incredibly busy actor and workaholic, but stated he enjoys independent productions and personal projects once or twice a year. This subject matter resonated with him because of his friends’ own stories, as well as personal experiences he subsequently shared with me. Once one board, John and I would Facetime between London and his home in New Zealand.
John’s ability to memorise long sections of flowing dialogue, an aptitude to switch instantly from anger to sadness, his ability to hold the silence and his professionalism and warmth to myself and my crew on set was invaluable.
Visit our film festival page for screening times and the full festival programme.