Defying Expectations; Ed Zwick Brings Small Stories to the Big Screen

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 16, 2009 | Go to article overview

Defying Expectations; Ed Zwick Brings Small Stories to the Big Screen


Byline: Sonny Bunch, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The story of the Bielski brothers is one fraught with heroism, peril and personal drama and set against a historical backdrop that lends itself to the telling of a great tale with implications for modern life. In other words, it's perfect Ed Zwick material.

I'm telling a story, and inevitably, in telling that story, it resonates to larger themes, Mr. Zwick says.

Defiance, based on a 1994 nonfiction book by Nechama Tec, chronicles the survival of a group of Jews in the Belarussian forests; as Nazis advance across Poland, brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) form a community determined to live in as normal a manner as possible while avoiding the concentration camps that have claimed friends and family.

Like past productions helmed by Mr. Zwick - think Glory, "The Last Samura "or"Blood Diamon "-"Defiance" uses the backdrop of war to expound on themes of personal heroism and the competing natural urges all men feel during times of duress.

I do believe that the dialectic in Nechama Tec's book that she articulates between revenge and rescue is certainly at the heart of this movie as it was vested in the characters of Tuvia and Zus, he says.

But the story runs deeper than that.

I've come to believe, as I've gotten to know many of the survivors of this group, the title 'Defiance,' to my mind, bespeaks their absolute refusal to give up the life force, Mr. Zwick explains. To give up their things that defined them as humans - love and joy and marriage and humor and sexuality and family and community and all those things.

Mr. Zwick says that since completing the film, he has talked to dozens of survivors from the forest villages. I'll be sitting there, he says, and someone will have been recognized in the audience, and they'll stand up and rather than ask a question, they will feel obliged to bear witness, to testify, to say, 'I was there, I never believed my story would be told, I'm so proud that now ... my grandchildren will understand it in a way I've never been able to explain it'"

The hardship endured by these survivors is hard to imagine, though Mr. Zwick and company tried to bring their pain to the big screen, shooting on location in a Lithuanian forest in the dead of winter. You can't fake that breath, he says, noting that "those faces start to look mottled and hardened and cardboard.

The trailers were very far away, and once we were in that forest, we were there. No one was running off the set. …

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