Director, producer and screenwriter Véra Belmont is in town to screen her latest film "Survivre Avec les Loups" ("Surviving With Wolves") at the Cinemania Film Festival. The film tells the story of a young Jewish girl living in Brussels named Misha (played by Mathilde Goffart), whose parents are arrested by the Nazis and she is sent to live with a Catholic family. Not happy with her situation, at the age of eight she picks up and takes off on a voyage across Belgium, Poland, Ukraine, and Germany searching for her parents. Along the way on this almost 2,000 kilometer trek she is 'adopted' by a band of wolves and becomes part of the pack.
The book written by Monique De Wael was based on her experience during World War II; she was the young girl in question. It became a bestseller that made the author a rich woman. After reading the novel Véra Belmont was so moved that she decided to make a film based on it. Just after the film was released earlier this year it came out that the story is almost entirely made up. Mme. De Wael was not adopted by wolves, did not travel across several countries and is not even Jewish. Despite all this the film is an excellent one about never giving up regardless of your situation.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Mme. Belmont to ask her about this film, her entire career and what she thinks of films, in general.
Orcasound: Is this your first trip to Montreal?
Véra Belmont: No, I have worked on a film here before.
Orcasound: What film?
Véra Belmont: I shot my film "Milena" (released in 1991) here. It was the story of a Czech woman who becomes a writer after her association with Franz Kafka. She begins to write for a Marxist paper, confronts the Nazis during World War II and eventually ends up in a concentration camp.
Orcasound: Did you enjoy your time working here?
Véra Belmont: Yes and no. Yes, because Montreal has many different types of backgrounds to shoot against. You have the cityscape and then the rural one as well. No, because there is too much paperwork here. Everything is very difficult to accomplish. There are too many rules. Unions, Film Canada and the like all want form after form filled out. We are not like that in France. We just want to make films and don't have as many rules. The population in France is roughly 64 million and we made about 270 films last year. That is not a lot. We don't have money like in the United States, so when we do get the money to make a film we don't want red tape holding up the production.
Orcasound: It has been about 12 years in between this film and the last one you directed. Obviously, you take your time choosing films.
Véra Belmont: It's hard to get money to make a film. I always wanted to do a film about the Holocaust being Jewish, but it had to be the right film. When I read the book "Survivre Avec les Loups" I realized that this was a film I wanted to make. Many films have been made about the subject, but very few have spoken to young people. Most are too horrible for them to see. I wanted to make one that wasn't to traumatic for them. That spoke to them and they could learn about it through. That there were some positive things that happened around this period.
Orcasound: So you wanted to make a film along the lines of "Life is Beautiful".
Véra Belmont: Yes, there are some similarities. The fact that it is a very human story and that the father would do anything for his boy. It was a great film that made me laugh and cry. Family is the essence in both films.
Orcasound: Were you affected by the controversy surrounding the validity of the story? Did it affect the film? Has there been a backlash?
Véra Belmont: Look, there are all types of people in this world. There might be some who now refuse to see the film there is nothing I can do about that. What really affected me was that this woman lied to me. I have met her a half dozen times and she never told me. I told her just not to lie to me that I didn't really care if the story was fact or fiction. All I cared about was that it was a great story and that it was real for her. In many ways it is a true story because there were many children in her situation. This story is their story. Their parents were taken away or killed and they had to learn how to survive by disappearing into the forests. At a young age they had to grow up very quickly due to the circumstances they found themselves in.
Orcasound: You direct, act, write screenplays, and produce films….
Véra Belmont: I have never acted. I often get mixed up with an actress who has a name similar to mine. Funnily enough she is a porn actress and it was my husband who told me that. I just laughed and say, "Look at me! Who would want to see me in a porn?"
I have never done anything in front of the camera. No one has ever asked me to. I like being in control behind the scenes. Coming up with ideas and making them happen.
Orcasound: Have you ever wanted to act?
Véra Belmont: No. I don't think I have any talent for that.
Orcasound: Was making films what you always wanted to do?
Véra Belmont: Yes, ever since I was very young. You see, when I was young films were all that were available to lower income families as entertainment. I went to films and was amazed. They opened up a whole new world for me. I was bowled over and knew what I wanted to do from then.
Orcasound: You have worked with some big actors like Sophie Marceau…
Véra Belmont: That was a mistake.
Orcasound: How? Why?
Véra Belmont: Because she is a known actress and a talented one, but she was not big enough for the role. She is supposed to play a famous actress who was friendly with Louis XIV and she was not well known enough to carry off the role.
Orcasound: You seem to like working with young talent. Why?
Véra Belmont: Because they are not tainted. They are more pure and don't bring any excess baggage to the roles they undertake. It makes the performance more believable. Like the young girl in my latest film Mathilde. This is her first role and she is marvelous. There is something inside of her that makes her magic onscreen and very sage for her age. It is just something about what she was able to convey with just one look. We saw 130 girls for the role, but Mathilde's audition just kept coming back to me.
Orcasound: Yeah, it is hard for someone like Angelina Jolie because even though she is extremely talented people cannot separate the performance from the personality.
Véra Belmont: Yes, it is finished for her. Too much publicity. That is why I like someone like Hilary Swank better because she is private and keeps her personal life away from the public allowing her to be more believable in her characters.
Orcasound: You are quite brave with your willingness to work with children and animals (wolves) in your films. How was it working/filming the wolves in this film?
Véra Belmont: It was great! Scary, but great! You had to always remember that they are wild animals. During the shoot we had to keep them within electric fences or they would just take off. I worked with an excellent animal handler, though. We used five different wolves for the various scenes.
Orcasound: How did Mathilde get along with the wolves?
Véra Belmont: Too well! After the shoot she wanted to take them home. Thankfully her father was allergic, so there was not question of keeping them. During the time in between shots she would play with them and they would lick her face with me cringing the whole time hoping they would not turn on her. You have to remember they are wild animals and not dogs.
Orcasound: It is a beautiful film to look at with plenty of pretty exterior shots, but it must have been a hard shoot due to the weather.
Véra Belmont: Yes, it was really cold at times. The winter scenes in the film were shot up in the mountains were it was freezing. We shot the film in Germany, Belgium and France.
Orcasound: What are you working on now?
Véra Belmont: I am working on an adaptation of the Cinderella story. I like the whole idea of this poor girl and what she had to go through to come out with the love of her life. I'm thinking of casting a young Métis girl in the lead role. It won't be completely like it, but rather based on the idea behind the story.
Orcasound: How do you feel about the state of film today?
Véra Belmont: I am not discouraged. I am not a fan of the big studio films, but there are still many good films and young directors out there. There will always be a good young director we can discover. There always will be surprises. Also small films waiting to be discovered. For instance, my favourite film recently was "Little Miss Sunshine". I really enjoyed it, the characters were all great and it really made me laugh.