French director Lola Doillon knew that she had three ideas for her third feature film. She wanted to make a road movie, with and for children, about World War II. She just needed to find the right story. Then her producer discovered the autobiography, “The Journey of Fanny Ben-Ami.” It became the inspiration for her latest film.
“Fanny’s Journey” (“Le Voyage de Fanny”) is a compelling, wartime survival tale set in 1943 Vichy France. Its protagonist is 13-year-old Fanny (Léonie Souchaud), who finds herself in charge of a group of Jewish children as they set off on a dangerous journey, traveling through occupied France in order to reach the Swiss border. Away from any trusted adults, they learn resilience, teamwork and independence.
Since its release in France in May, it has screened at film festivals throughout Europe and, in October, was shown at the Haifa Film Festival. “Fanny’s Journey” was the closing gala film at the 20th UK International Jewish Film Festival, which ran in November.
After she had read the book, director Doillon went to Holon, Israel, to meet Fanny Ben-Ami, now 86.
“I filmed her for a few days because I really wanted to know more about the story, the facts, where she lived and the thoughts and feelings she had as a kid,” Doillon explains over the phone from France.
Ben-Ami was very open with her.
“This is a woman who gives talks in schools [about her experience]. She wants to tell her story,” says Doillon.
They realized that they both wanted the film to convey the same message to young people: “Be careful because it can happen again.”
Even though Doillon told her that she would be taking aspects of her life to create a fiction film and not a documentary, when Ben-Ami initially read the script, it was quite strange for her, she says. This was largely because it reflected a part of her story and not its entirety.
To tighten the narrative, Doillon had made changes such as reducing the number of the children in the group from 28 to nine. She had also adapted and incorporated other children’s testimonies and stories into the script. But all the incidents depicted in “Fanny’s Journey” are true, Doillon adds, inspired by real events, recounted by people who lived through that time.
From her Israeli home, Ben-Ami commented, via email, that the film, “gives the feeling of the real story… it is very close [to the true events] but of course it is a movie so it is a little different.”
Ben-Ami has a measured attitude towards being portrayed on screen. She has said that, for her, what is important is that the film is in memory of all the other children who survived, those who did not and the children who, today, are still being sacrificed by adult conflict.
‘When I introduced her to the kids, including the girls playing her little sisters, it was like a huge flashback for her’
Ben-Ami came on set with her daughter during filming, which was, says Doillon, an unexpectedly emotional experience for the cast as well as for Ben-Ami.
“I didn’t know it was going to be so emotional. I was just expecting her to come and be with us. When I introduced her to the kids, including the girls playing her little sisters, it was like a huge flashback for her,” describes Doillon.
“The kids were initially really shy and excited to see her. They had so many questions and so Fanny suggested having time with them alone. I left them with her for about an hour where they asked her what they wanted and she gave them the answers. Until then, the story was something from a long time ago and from that point on, it was true,” Doillon says.
According to the film’s press notes, Ben-Ami had been apprehensive about the set visit but left feeling reassured.
Doillon wrote that, “She understood that we were not digging up her past and that we had the same desire to pass on and pay tribute to her story.”
“Fanny’s Journey” is predominantly aimed at a family audience and viewers experience events through the children’s eyes. Although the film is set during the German occupation of France, Doillon deliberately left out horrific war images. The cast’s extent of knowledge about the film’s context varied according to their age.
‘She understood that we were not digging up her past’
“The little ones didn’t have to know more than what they were reading in the script. At that time during the war young children knew it was the war but not much more. So I didn’t want the kids to know more than they had to when shooting the film. It wasn’t necessary for them,” Doillon says.
The director believes that this approach also gave them a more authentic voice.
However, the older children did more to prepare for their roles. The film — a French-Belgian co-production — was largely shot in Belgium, and when they were shooting in Brussels they chose to visit the Jewish Museum.
As actors, Doillon says, they needed to be more aware of what young people would have known and witnessed, such as their parents’ arrest, the anguish and uncertainty of separation and that there were camps where Jews were sent.
Fortunately, she says, “They did want to know more. They wanted to act with fear and feeling.”
The success of the film relies on its remarkable young cast.
“Thank you kids!” Doillon laughs.
But finding them took some time. She auditioned over 1,000 children, not all of whom had had acting experience, including Léonie Souchaud, who plays Fanny.
None of the children knew each other beforehand and Doillon organized working groups to observe how they interacted with each other. Luckily the group gelled well.
It was important to Doillon that the film accurately reflected the contrasting roles of adults during the occupation: those that complied with the regime, those who fought against it, as well as the role of the French gendarmes, who, she says, were the first people to denounce the Jews in France.
“There are two ways to look at the movie,” she says. “From the perspective of the kids, it was simple — on the surface, many adults could not be trusted. For the adults, it wasn’t so simple. Individuals made their choices.”
However, one significant figure is Madame Forman (Cécile de France), the resourceful but strict matron who runs the home in the Italian zone that the children move to before the Germans raid it. It is also Madame Forman who appoints Fanny to lead the children to the border. Doillon based her character on two women — Nicole Weil-Salon and Lotte Schwarz — who were utterly dedicated to the protection of children during the war.
Doillon says she felt an immense sense of responsibility in bringing the story to the screen.
‘When we were shooting the movie, I turned on the TV and saw the news. I was so shocked because it was what we were filming at the time’
“For me, a huge part of it was because I’m not Jewish. I asked myself, ‘Am I allowed to tell this story about Jewish children?’” she says. Ben-Ami reassured her, and this allowed Doillon to feel justified in her right to tell the story.
“It happened in France, it’s our history. It’s not only about being Jewish, it’s about today and what is happening in Syria. You see all those children escaping from their country,” says Doillon.
There are moments in “Fanny’s Journey” that appear to resonate with contemporary events — in particular, the scenes that show the children approaching the Swiss border and the challenges that they face. But this was coincidence.
“When I wrote the script the refugee crisis wasn’t happening,” explains Doillon. “But once, when we were shooting the movie, I turned on the TV and saw the news. I was so shocked because it was what we were filming at the time.”
To date, Doillon has not had been approached by any of the other surviving “Ben-Ami children.” She says that Ben-Ami had tried to contact them, “maybe 10 or 20 years ago,” but no one came forward. However, other hidden children have told Doillon that the film echoes their experience but that they do not like to talk about it.
“There were so many kids who wanted to forget what happened because it was too hard, particularly after the war when all these kids knew that their parents were not coming back. They didn’t want to talk. That was why it was so great with Fanny. She wanted to share her story,” she says.
The film’s end notes state that Fanny and her sisters stayed in Switzerland until the end of the war. In 1946 they returned to France. They never saw their parents again.
Although it was not her initial intention, Doillon is happy if her film, which tells a story about events that happened 70 years ago, is used as a tool to talk to about current events.
“If it provokes that reaction and it makes people talk, I am only glad,” she says.
‘Fanny’s Journey’ will screen at JW3 on November 29 and at other selected cinemas as part of the French Film Festival UK, which runs until December 7.