British-born writer-director Ben Cookson seemed an unlikely choice to helm “Waiting for Anya,” a dramatic tale of Jewish refugees and the underground resistance fighters who aided them in the French countryside during the Holocaust.
His previous film, “Almost Married,” was a bawdy rom-com. Yet, when the project landed in his lap, Cookson — who spoke with the Journal by phone from his home in London — said it spoke to him on many fronts, including its topicality and contemporary parallels, specifically “[t]he daily headlines dominated by the continuous movement of people across borders, refugees risking their lives to flee conflict zones and persecution. Now with the rise of the far right and anti-Semitism, the film feels frighteningly current and its themes more poignant than ever.”
Based on the young adult novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, the film centers on a 15-year-old shepherd named Jo (Noah Schnapp) who joins forces with a quirky, somewhat intimidating village widow (Anjelica Huston) who is harboring Jewish refugee children and smuggling them in the dark of night into Spain. Jo has a particularly touching relationship with Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt), an ambiguous Jewish figure who is waiting for his lost daughter Anya to surface. Hence the title, “Waiting for Anya.”
Cookson said he was drawn to viewing war through the eyes of a youthful protagonist as he comes of age and makes stunningly brave decisions without the benefit of critical thinking or political persuasion. It’s in Jo’s nature to help those in need even if his actions pose great risk to his own safety.
And then there’s the theme of occupation. Cookson lived in France for five years and was keenly aware that it was and, to some extent, still is an informing historical event, especially among the elderly, he said. He recalls an elderly woman in Brittany, France, telling him about two brothers in her village. One joined the resistance while the other was a collaborator and ultimately informed on his brother who disappeared and was never seen again.
“Occupation brings out the best and worst in humanity,” Cookson said. “Occupation fascinates me.”
“Never had we sat in a movie theater that was so quiet and at the end it was clear the film’s message had gotten through.”
— Ben Cookson
In casting 15-year-old Noah Schnapp (as Jo), best known for his role in “Stranger Things,” (the sci-fi web series in which he plays a youngster who has been captured by a monster,) Cookson said he knew the youngster would draw an audience. More importantly, Cookson said, Noah was raised as a Reform Jew in Westchester, N.Y., and grew up hearing about World War II and the Holocaust. He knew it was an important topic, especially in light of the burgeoning anti-Semitism worldwide, and his parents wanted him involved in the project.
In a separate phone interview from his home in New York, Noah spoke about how he immersed himself in the subject through intense research. “[Jo’s] a young kid learning about everything and I can relate to that, but he’s very different from me in terms of being super brave and courageous,” Noah said. “The character inspired me. I knew very little about the resistance. I previously thought everyone was against the Jews. This movie opened my eyes. It also made me more connected to my Jewish culture. After we finished the movie, my family and I went to Israel.”
Although Cookson isn’t Jewish, other cast members are, as are a fair number of Cookson’s friends, with whom he discussed the significance of this story for Jews. Throughout the filming, it was an ongoing topic of conversation. However, Cookson said you needn’t be Jewish to appreciate the story.
“Morpurgo is not Jewish either,” Cookson points out, “but he has a keen sense of right and wrong, a keen sense of humanity. How can anyone fathom why an army would want to hurt children?”
Indeed, it’s the fate of children that helped Cookson land Oscar-winning Huston (“Prizzi’s Honor”) to play the widow. Huston is also a Francophile who speaks French fluently. But in the end it was her political and humanitarian sensibilities that brought her on board. “The idea of innocent kids being hunted with guns resonated with Anjelica, especially with the shootings going on in America,” Cookson said.
Asked why the actors speak English as opposed to French, Cookson admitted that to attract an international audience (translation: an American audience) English is the way to go. The novel also was written in English. Yet wherever possible (in the smaller roles anyway), he cast Germans to play the Germans and French to play the French. Adhering to the novel and maintaining authenticity was his goal.
Still, cinematic adjustments were made, including the introduction of a voice over narrator, an elderly Jo (Jean-Francois Balmer) reflecting on his experience through the prism of recollection.
Even more dramatic was Cookson’s revised opening scene at the train station where Benjamin shoves his daughter Anya through an open train window in an effort to save her life. In the novel, they are not among commuters, but rather refugees on the roadside, and the entire snippet is referenced as an event in the past. It’s back story.
At the train station — inspired by a real one in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny — something even more horrible (it’s subtle and nuanced) is thrown into the mix.
“It struck me that when we talk about that period, we talk about the collaborators or the resistance,” Cookson said. “But there’s also a third group, those who do nothing, like the Bobigny commuters who were using the trains to visit friends and family, to go on a shopping trip at the very same station where deportations were taking place. They turned a blind eye.”
Cookson soon will be working on another Jewish-themed project, an eight-part miniseries that deals with the inception of the “43-Group,” a band of Jewish ex-servicemen who joined forces in East London after World War II to fight the rise of fascism in the U.K.
In large part thanks to his involvement with “Waiting for Anya,” Cookson spends a great deal of time thinking about that period, most forcefully on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27), which this year also marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
“That was the day we screened the movie for 250 children, ages 11-14, at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England,” he said. “We had children from the Jewish Free School and Pakistani Muslim kids in the audience. Michael Morpurgo introduced the film and we waited to see the kids’ response. Never had we sat in a movie theater that was so quiet and at the end it was clear the film’s message had gotten through. One Jewish girl said she felt very lucky. A Muslim kid said it made her feel very sad. Many youngsters were crying.”
“Waiting For Anya” will open Feb. 7 at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica and will be available Feb. 7 on Video on Demand on DirecTV, Dish and Spectrum, and digital download on Apple iTunes.
Simi Horwitz is an award-winning reporter and film reviewer.