The most glittering event in Hollywood’s crowded calendar, the annual Academy Awards ceremony, takes place on Feb. 26 at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles. David Shamoon, a Canadian screenwriter, is likely to be in the audience as the Oscars, the golden statuettes presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are handed out by a procession of movie stars.
One of the Oscar contenders is In Darkness, a feature film conceived by Shamoon. A Canada/Poland/Germany co-production, it is scheduled to open in Canadian theatres on Feb. 17.
In Darkness, Poland’s official entry for best foreign language film of 2011, is competing with four other movies: Monsieur Lazhar from Canada, Footnote from Israel, A Separation from Iran and Bullhead from Belgium.
“I have no idea who will win,” said Shamoon in an interview last week. “The academy is very unpredictable. But I’m relieved and grateful we were chosen as one of the finalists.”
Directed by Poland’s Agnieszka Holland and produced by Canada’s Eric Jordan and Paul Stephens, In Darkness is set in the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov. It tells the true story of an antisemitic sewer-worker-cum-thief who saves a group of Jewish men, women and children.
Based on a book by Robert Marshall, it opened to favourable reviews in New York last December and has already broken box-office records in Poland.
Still more amazing, this was the first script Shamoon – a 64-year-old former advertising art director – has managed to turn into a film.
Shamoon embarked on his quest after reading a 2003 Toronto Star article about a book by Sir Martin Gilbert on Righteous Gentiles. The article mentioned Leopold Socha, who hid Jews in exchange for payment. Eventually, he refused to be paid as humanity triumphed over opportunism.
“I immediately wanted to know more about this person,” explained Shamoon. “I was intrigued by the idea that a petty criminal, or anyone else for that matter, would risk his life and his family’s to help complete strangers. It seemed so unlikely.”
Shamoon’s next step was to read Marshall’s In the Sewers of Lvov, which electrified him. Brimming with drama, it had all the ingredients of a compelling story: a flawed hero, suspense, romance and tragedy.
And as the son of Iraqi Jews who had survived a 1941 pogrom in Baghdad known as the Farhud, he was deeply touched by Marshall’s tale.
“My parents, Joseph and Leonie Shamoon, who could trace their ancestry back to the Babylonian captivity, were saved just in the nick of time.” His father’s aunt, however, was murdered in her bathtub. Altogether, 200 or more Jews were killed during the Farhud.
Reading the handwriting on the wall, the Shamoons, who were related to the famous Sassoon clan, left Iraq and resettled in Bombay (Mumbai), India, where Shamoon was born. He arrived in Toronto, via Iran and the United States, in 1970.
Deeply impressed by Marshall’s account, Shamoon optioned the film rights to his book, researched the period and, in a risky move, wrote a script on spec.
The screenplay emphasized the universal human drama rather than the Holocaust itself. “I asked myself, ‘What makes someone, like Socha, do the right thing?’”
Wary of being saddled with a maudlin script, Shamoon decided not to sugar-coat any of the Jewish characters, some of whom had been con artists and black marketers. He also limited the portrayal of atrocities, assuming that audiences were inured to wanton Nazi violence.
In 2005, he presented the first draft to Jordan and Stephens of The Film Works in Toronto.
Believing it could be transformed into a powerful film, they worked on it with Shamoon for two years, polishing and refining the script. Then they showed it to Holland, who had directed Europa, Europa, a film that unfolded during the Holocaust, and whom Shamoon admired as an accomplished cinematic storyteller.
Holland agreed to direct only if In Darkness was told in the original languages: Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian. “I really wanted it to be in English,” recalled Shamoon. “But she was right. Her commitment to authenticity was unwavering.”
Until then, Telefilm had provided funding. But once the decision was made to shoot in four foreign languages rather than English, Telefilm pulled out, temporarily imperilling the entire project.
With Holland at the helm, the script went through many more rewrites. Shamoon was not offended by her demands. As he put it, “Collaborating with her was like getting a PhD in writing for the movies.”
In Darkness was shot in Berlin, Leipzig and Lodz in the winter of 2010, one of the coldest in memory. “It was incredibly hard, sometimes backbreaking work,” he noted.
In retrospect, the making of In Darkness was extremely difficult on every possible level, from acquiring financing to shooting it on location under taxing conditions, he observed
Definitely a shoestring production, it cost $6 to $7 million, a pittance by Hollywood standards. “Holland had to use every trick in her playbook to make it as terrific as it is,” said Shamoon, whose next movie, Taking Off, a comedy about a duelling couple on a road trip, is due to be shot in Los Angeles in the early autumn.
For now, though, Shamoon is focusing on In Darkness.
“My main hope is that Socha’s example will inspire others as much as it has inspired me. He was no saint, but an ordinary man who made some crucial decisions that led to extraordinary deeds.”