Selecting a film for the Opening Night at a festival is no easy task especially for a young, up and coming independent festival. The aim is to bring something unique, cultural and inspirational to cinema goers while of course entertaining and exciting them. In its short time in existence the Fingal Film Festival have premiered an impressive range of films such as Paulo Sorrentino’s This Must be the Place, Danish thriller A Hi Jacking and Sofia Coppola’s Palo Alto
With this year’s premiere of Jacques Ouaiche’s powerful and harrowing Surviving Auschwitz, distributed by High Fliers Distribution and Picture Tree International, the festival’s momentum is showing no signs of diminishing.
The film is based on a true story, documenting the life of Victor Young Perez, a Jewish Tunisian boxer who travels to France with his trainer brother and becomes world Flyweight champion in 1931 and 1932. The boxer’s ascent from a modest Tunisian background to the heady life of a celebrity in a sophisticated Paris of the thirties is sympathetically portrayed by Brahim Asloum. The French actor, himself a renowned boxer, gives a heart-warming performance as the protagonist who remains likable throughout despite his rise and inevitable fall. The “rags to riches” vibe is emphasised all the more by the brief relationship Perez has with beautiful French actress Mireille Balim(Isabella Orsini). The plot moves along 10 years during which time Perez has succumbed to excesses such as drinking and gambling and has lost his the respect he earned as a boxer in Paris. In 1943 he is arrested and sent to Drancy internment camp before finally being brought to Auschwitz. Perez’s reputation comes to the attention of one of the commandants and he is forced to fight for the entertainment of the Nazis and their families.
What was surprising about a film entitled “Surviving Auschwitz” was the length of screen time given over to Perez’s life before he is even taken to the concentration camp. About three quarters of the film is spent mapping out the boxers life; this makes the film feel over long despite a running time of only 103 mins. However, the viewer is given an in-depth insight into Perez’s character and this makes for a more uplifting experience compared to other depictions which centre entirely around the horrors of the Holocaust.
The bond between Perez and his older brother Benjamin ‘Kid’ Perez (Bruce Payne) also a boxer who has trained Perez since he was 14, is very touchingly and naturalistically portrayed. Unfortunately, the love scenes between Asloam and Orsini lack this same naturalism and verge on the tacky and mawkish; the relationship merely serving as a device to highlight how out of depth the young boxer is within his new lifestyle.
Even if too much time is spent in Paris before Perez’s arrest, the quality of the scenes set in Auschwitz make up for the lack of quantity especially in the cinematography department. The scenes in Tunisia and Paris are imbued with a warm glow which contrast dramatically with the cold blue-grey palette of the concentration camp. These scenes are almost colourless except for the red Nazi banners on the buildings; clearly a nod to Spielberg’s iconic red coat. With very subtle yet effective makeup Perez fresh vibrant complexion has given way to emaciation. The combination of excellent direction, cinematography and production design results in a disturbingly real depiction of a man who, now, is literally fighting for his life.
The contrast between Perez’s thrilling fight scenes as free man in Paris and the ones he is forced to participate in at Auschwitz is particularly heart-rending. His brothers’ previous ring side encouragement to never give up has been replaced by desperate pleas to lie down and give in. In a cruel irony the Nazis allow their children to watch as a form of amusement before they are taken away when the violence becomes too extreme. Indeed, some viewers may find it too disturbing to watch as Perez is beaten to within an inch of his life or some may dismiss with incredulity that a starving prisoner could even survive such ordeals. In fact, in reality, Victor Young Perez fought 140 fights in Auschwitz and won 139 of these and he didn’t die in the ring either.
Surviving Auschwitz is a remarkable film which is at times harrowing, at times uplifting, dealing not only with the disturbing reality of Nazi cruelty but with cultural and racial issues, a stirring brotherly bond and a determination to survive.
Surviving Auschwitz will have its official release in 2016