A Call to Spy
by director Lydia Dean Pilcher
I am captivated by the inspiring yet little known stories of Virginia Hall, Vera Atkins, and Noor Inayat Khan, who played a significant role in the French Resistance fighting the Nazis during World War II. Interwoven into a compelling original screenplay by Sarah Megan Thomas, the stories of these women speak to many of the themes that drive my own creative story: working on a multi-cultural global landscape, probing the human condition, and leading with themes of identity and perspective in female storytelling. Bringing my fingerprints and vision to the story of these women, has been an incredible opportunity to draw a parallel of relevancy to the terrifying and confusing surge of nationalism, extremism, hatred and racism that challenge us in our world today.
The beating heart of this movie is the raw emotional core of these women. Vera Atkins is hiding her Romanian Jewish heritage as she recruits women to become spies in Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). She leads with a strategic mind amidst the spectre of anti-Semitism at a time when a lot of fear arose around refugees flooding into the UK. Virginia Hall is an American with a bold desire to give service to the Allied Forces as she moves around France building Resistance networks, with the difference of having one leg. Noor Inayat Khan is a pacifist who communicated through creative stories and now through coded messages via the pulses of radio waves. She is an idealist and imbues a national pride for the values-driven role that an Indian can play on the world stage, as India begins a movement toward independence.
One of the things I loved most about directing this movie was building the world of this time and creating a visual style that was narratively muscular and emotionally heightened. I travelled to Lyon to trace the paths of our women and then I burrowed deep into the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London. The stories, details and textures I found became layers of visual frame constructions in my mind. We began the production in Philadelphia where we enter Vera’s world inside the Special Operations Executive under Churchill’s Ministry of Economic Warfare in London. Digging out from the Blitz, London is battered, controlled, linear, and subversive as the nexus of strategy and resources. In Budapest, we created Lyon as the heart of the French Resistance, a desperate yet emotional landscape; and then occupied Paris, on a grander scale, as the most dangerous city of all, where Noor is sent in a highly charged decision.
In creating a character-driven thriller, I was interested in building on the psychology of these fearless, uniquely privileged, educated, and world-savvy women. The construct of what it means to be a spy is the perfect metaphor for a question that anyone can ask of themselves—how do we connect our external and internal personas to become one whole person? Can we escape the traps of our own character, the inertia of the system—and control our own destiny? The unique motivations that drive Vera, Virginia and Noor, also illuminate many different aspects of the female experience including the best of masculine and feminine: adrenaline and emotion. Remarkably, Churchill, Gubbins, and Buckmaster recognized that women had a role to play in SOE’s mission, ultimately revealing transformational leadership skills that were well-suited to navigate the arduous conditions.
“Army of Shadows,” a 1969 film by Jean-Pierre Melville, was influential in my thinking around the experience of the Resistance fighters. Significantly, Melville, a Resistance member himself, embraced the international fabric of the French Resistance in a way that reflects our current world dynamics. As we are living conduits to history, the connections between the caste systems of Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow laws and racial injustice in America today are in the foreground of our current moment of cultural reckoning. My deepest hope is that the journey of our story will help illuminate how much we have at stake with the challenges of globalization and authoritarianism. We all have the choice to do nothing, to collaborate, or to resist. Noor brings it home to our hearts when she avers, “we’re only here for a short while….”