Meet Director and Writer Rebecca Snow

Share
Share
Share

May 27, 2024

Rebecca Snow

Rebecca Snow is a filmmaker, director and writer. On June 2, her new film The Boy in the Woods will be screening as part of the 2024 Toronto Jewish Film Festival. We asked Rebecca about creating the film, telling the stories of survivors, and drawing inspiration from natural beauty.


Kultura Collective: Hi Rebecca! Can you please tell us a bit about you and your work as director and writer?

Rebecca Snow: Hello! I have been in Toronto for 16 years, I moved here from London, England, early in my career as a documentary filmmaker because I have a lot of Canadian family (my Mum, Ann MacMillan, was a reporter for CBC news). I always loved visiting Canada as a kid and I thought it would be fun to try working in Toronto. There is a very vibrant TV industry here, and I’ve spent a lot of my career working on documentaries about history, and more recently social justice issues. Toronto very quickly became home not just because my career took off here, but because I fell in love with a Canadian, Robert Budreau, with whom I now have two wonderful (and energetic!) kids.

KC: On June 2 you will be premiering the film The Boy in the Woods as part of the 2024 Toronto Jewish Film Festival, congratulations! Tell us about it.

RS: Thank you. It is extremely special to be screening the film in my hometown of Toronto, with what I’m sure will be very engaged and responsive audiences. The Boy In The Woods tells the extraordinary true story of a young Jewish boy, Max, who survives the Nazi genocide by hiding in the dark and mythical woods of Eastern Poland. The film is based on the best-selling memoir by Montreal-based survivor Maxwell Smart.

KC: The journey for this film began over five years ago with a feature length documentary you produced for the History channel about child survivors of the Holocaust. How did you approach adapting the story to move into a narrative format?

RS: Yes, in 2019 I wrote and directed the documentary Cheating Hitler: Surviving The Holocaust which features the story of 3 child survivors of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Making the documentary was a profound and inspiring process, and I remain deeply connected to the survivors and their families who let me help tell their stories. One of the survivors was Maxwell, and I remember realizing pretty early on as I researched and interviewed him for the documentary, that his story really should be told through dramatization. A year or so after the documentary aired I still couldn’t get it out of my head, I could literally see his story play out as a movie, so with his permission I put pen to paper and adapted his memoir into a screenplay. It was my first time writing a movie script, but somehow it felt so natural. The core of his story – the truth – was so compelling, so charged with drama, beauty, pain, courage and sacrifice that I knew audiences would be enthralled.

KC: Tell us more about Maxwell Smart, the real-life subject of the film, who will be joining you in discussion following the screening on June 2.

RS: I first met Maxwell in Miami where I interviewed him for the documentary. He strode into the intimidating 3-camera studio we had set up with total confidence, long white ponytail and distinguished walking stick, and proceeded to command the undivided attention of my entire film crew for the next 4 hours. He is a wonderful, tireless storyteller. I know it takes a toll on him to recall the trauma of his youth, and yet he has been so generous and open during the entire process from documentary to movie. He is an abstract expressionist artist – he still paints every day, and so he really understood and appreciated the creative process of dramatizing his survival story.

Rebecca and Maxwell Smart at Yad Vashem for the documentary filming

KC: How did you incorporate Jewish themes, such as Yiddish folklore, into the writing of the screenplay?

RS: I wanted to explore the way that Max, as a child, would have processed the trauma that he was experiencing throughout his journey. In his memoir Maxwell talks about finding an escape from the horrors through his own imagination and dreams. Max’s story is reminiscent of European fairytales – an orphan who loses his family and takes refuge in the woods, where he is pursued by the forces of evil. The woods are a deeply mythical place in that part of the world, and I wondered what associations and reference points a Jewish child might have with the landscape. So I started reading Yiddish folktales and Polish children’s stories, and found a few themes to play with. For example, the belief that the souls of the dead take refuge in trees, and the association of sparrows with the dead. I folded them into the film gently. I am a big fan of magic realism and films such as Pan’s Labyrinth (about a girl during the Spanish Civil War), but I was very conscious of not pushing the magic too far. I wanted the truth to be the driving force of this film, given that it is a real Holocaust story.

KC: The woods and forest landscape play a big role in the story. Can you tell us about the filming in Northern Ontario and how the landscape plays into the storytelling?

RS: More than half the film takes place in the woods, and it is an incredibly important part of Max’s story. I always imagined it as a character rather than an environment. When I was filming the documentary I actually traveled to the very woods in (modern day) Ukraine where Max hid, along with a team of forensic experts who document the Holocaust in the east (the so-called Holocaust in bullets). The forest floor is still strewn with German bullet casings dating back to the 1940s. Locals showed us 80-year old bunkers and holes in the ground where Jews took refuge. While I was there I noticed that the landscape isn’t unlike that of Northern Ontario where I spend a lot of time (my husband’s family is from North Bay). That’s when I realized that we could recreate Max’s story here in Canada. Northern Ontario has a strong financial incentive for productions that film up there and so we took advantage of that and the amazing natural landscape that doubles convincingly as eastern Poland. There are only have a couple of scenes in the film that take place in town, and we scoured North Bay for old buildings that could work. I think we did quite well! We also used a replica logging camp and dressed it to look like a Ukrainian village. Our production designer did an amazing job. All of the crew and cast up north (and those that we took up from Toronto and brought in from Europe) were so moved to be working on this important story. There was a real sense of drive and purpose to the entire production.

KC: How do you find balance when working with such intense subject matter?

RS: It’s tough! I think the year working on the documentary was the most challenging for me. I remember coming home from shoots in Lithuania and Poland completely shattered by what I had seen and heard while traveling with survivors and their families. It’s particularly hard as a mother. I have two kids, and so many mothers during the Holocaust had to make unthinkable choices, demonstrating extraordinary strength in moments of desperation. My movie actually starts with the moment when Max’s mother has to make the unbearable decision to save her son. Whenever things got too much, I took comfort in the fact that by making this film I am helping Maxwell reach as wide an audience as possible with his story, as well as the stories of everyone around him who didn’t survive.

KC: What creative references did you look to when creating this film?

RS: I spent a lot of time studying Maxwell’s art. He still paints a lot of forest landscapes and magical cosmic skies in the abstract expressionist style. I’ve also always been a fan of historical war movies and so I went on a deep dive into some of the best war films, particularly about children. Come and See is a harrowing, unforgettable depiction of the cost of war on children. I also found myself re-watching most of Terrence Mallick’s films, he has such a wandering, curious eye and fascination with the natural world that I find inspiring.

Rebecca on set of The Boy In The Woods. Credit: Gerry Kingsley

KC: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

RS: That compassion, courage and hope must always triumph over dehumanization, fear and hatred.

KC: What other films are you looking forward to seeing at TJFF 2024?

RS: I’m excited for the opening night film Midas Men. And I’ll be checking out as many of the documentaries as possible.

KC: What else are you working on right now?

RS: I am working on two feature-length documentaries right now, both about contemporary social issues. And I’m reading lots of books and histories, searching for the next story to tackle as a drama. I’d love to keep telling inspiring human stories through both documentary and drama. 

KC: What is inspiring you in Toronto right now? 

RS: I live in the Beaches and I draw huge inspiration from the large body of water right on our city’s doorstep. We get so caught up in our busy, urban, plugged-in lives that it’s easy to forget how closely connected we are to Lake Ontario! I love walking down there every day to take in its energy and natural beauty.  

KC: Lightning round question!

  • Poppy vs sesame seed bagels? – can I go off-piste? Coconut bagels are my current favourite!
  • Raisin vs plain challah? – plain challah. We buy it at least once a week from our local neighbourhood grocer!
  • Shawarma vs falafel? – falafel. I will never forget the BEST falafel wrap I had in Jerusalem, near the Western Wall, when I was filming for a documentary over a decade ago!  

Rebecca Snow
Born in London England, Rebecca caught the film bug while working as researcher and script supervisor on a BBC drama series about ancient Rome. Since then she has worked in both Los Angeles and Toronto with broadcast writing/directing credits that include NBC’s Emmy-nominated documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? CBC’s Nature of Things, and History Channel’s Hunting Nazi Treasure, Museum Secrets, Perfect Storms, and Hitler’s Last Stand. In 2018 she won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Direction in her documentary Real Vikings: Viking Women. Her feature length documentary Pandora’s Box: Lifting the Lid on Menstruation had its world premiere at Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2020 and won the Alliance of Women Film Journalists Special Jury Award at Whistler Film Festival.
Her first narrative feature ‘The Boy In The Woods’ screened at Toronto Film Festival 2023, Atlantic Film Festival, Whistler Film Festival, among others, winning the Torchbearer Award at Miami Jewish Film Festival and Audience Choice Awards at Manchester Film Festival, Forest City Film Festival and North Bay Film Festival. It is based on the best-selling memoir written by a Canadian Holocaust a survivor who appeared in Rebecca’s 2019 feature-length documentary Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust. The documentary made world news and was nominated for 6 Canadian Screen Awards.

Learn more at www.rebeccasnow.ca 

THE BOY IN THE WOODS follows the true story of Max (Jett Klyne), a Jewish boy escaping Nazi persecution in Eastern Europe. After he is separated from his family, Max finds refuge with a Christian peasant Jasko (Richard Armitage) who hides him in plain site until a tense stand-off with some Nazi police. Afraid for his own family’s life, Jasko sends Max to live in the woods where he learns to survive alone. With echoes of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Max’s experience is both terrifying and magical. He inhabits a landscape crawling with Jew-hunters, partisans and haunted by ghosts. Then everything changes when he meets another boy in hiding, Yanek (David Kohlsmith). Their extraordinary adventure culminates in the heroic rescue of a baby girl, but it comes at a tragic price. Based on the best-selling memoir by Canadian Holocaust survivor Maxwell Smart and inspired by the award-winning documentary Cheating Hitler: Surviving The Holocaust.

Watch the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjgmGiq_IzA
Instagram: www.instagram.com/boyinthewoodsfilm 

The 32nd Edition of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival is coming from May 30 to June 9, 2024.

TJFF 2024 will feature the best in Jewish-content film from Canada and around the world including 82 films from 15 countries, 64 feature films, and 18 short films. Screenings will be offered in-person and online (Ontario). TJFF also includes a scholar in-residence, special guests and free programing!

Want to see the lineup ? Check tjff.com/tjff2024-festival-lineup/Learn more about the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and our year-round programming, visit tjff.com/

Follow us to know everything about our events:
Instagram : instagram.com/tjffgrams/
Facebook : facebook.com/TorontoJewishFilmFestival/

Related Blog Posts

July 5, 2024

Summer is here and the Toronto Holocaust Museum wants you to dive into history through inspiring stories and meaningful dialogue.

June 10, 2024

Since the Toronto Holocaust Museum opened its doors one year ago, the Museum has been an essential space for dialogue, reflection, understanding, and remembrance.

June 7, 2024

A path to celebrating and understanding the Jewish experience in the arts.