Director Edward Zwick discusses WWII drama

What: Variety screening of “Defiance”

Where: ArcLight Cinema, Hollywood

Who: Director Ed Zwick, producer Pieter Jan Brugg, co-writer Clayton Frohman and cast members Alexa Davalos and Mark Feuerstein

“Defiance” director Edward Zwick eloquently introduced his new film before Monday night’s Variety screening at the ArcLight by relating the personal journey the filmmaker went through in discovering the story in a 1995 New York Times obituary.

The obituary related the story of Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber), who along with his brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay), survived the Nazis and their local collaborators by escaping into the Belarusian forest. In the woods they joined other partisan fighters who helped them resist the Nazis and save 1,200 Jews from extermination.

“What I learned is that victims could have strength; that they could define themselves and the word ‘defiance’ not with revenge but rather with a refusal to let go of those things that make us human — whether that’s love, sexuality, humor, brotherhood, family or community,” said Zwick.

Following the screening, Variety’s Brian Lowry moderated a discussion with producer Pieter Jan Brugge, co-writer Clayton Frohman and cast members Alexa Davalos and Mark Feuerstein.

The film was shot in Vilnius, Lithuania and the forests surrounding the city that was once a center of Jewish life before the Germans came. Lensing on the soil where so many were slaughtered was a moving experience for the cast and crew.

“Vilna was called the Jerusalem of the north and it was pretty powerful to be shooting in what was the great center of learning for the Jews,” said Feuerstein. “There’s these monuments — literally a block from where we were living for 2½ months– where thousands of Jews were killed and it was just a bizarre experience to be shooting this movie about this story in a place that is just fraught with history.”

The reason Frohman felt compelled to write this movie was because the story of the Bielski Brigade and other Jewish partisans is such a unique and mostly unknown part of Holocaust history.

“We knew the history of the European Jews and we grew up with it. It’s a tragic story of powerlessness and passivity,” said Frohman. “So with this story, just from the photograph in the obituary, here’s a guy who clearly was wearing a captured (German) outfit. That was a new thing. The idea of a Jew who picks up a gun and fights back against what we all know to be the enemy.”

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