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Josef & Aiméea short film directed by Ben Shirinian, is the story of a friendship that is ravaged by World War II, but perseveres through the power of everlasting imagination and hope. Josef & Aimée are two Jewish children, however their story is representative of the longing and survival that was perhaps felt by many children during the Holocaust.

Shirinian’s moving short film recently screened during Cannes as part of the Not Short on Talent programme. The Canadian director talked with TFS about his film.

Why did you tell this story?

We chose to tell this story because both my Producer/Co-Writer Leslie Gottlieb and myself have family that survived two devastating times in history, the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. Growing up within this context, along with hearing stories from both of our families, it was very important to us to tell a story that explored themes of struggle, family and survival, so that the current generation and generations to follow will never forget the atrocities that took place.

In addition, we wanted to tell a universal story about the innocence and strength of childhood friendship.  We wanted to celebrate and explore the honest way in which children relate to each other. We have found that as we grow up, the world around us changes our perspective, but when we are children we have the ability to form bonds that are based on pure and honest motivations. This theme fascinated us and we wanted to explore and showcase it within the film.

Why is the film told from Josef’s perspective?

We wanted the audience to have a very close connection to Josef, his thought process, and his overall experience in the story. By keeping the story from Josef’s perspective, the audience is let into his magical world- a world that is seen through the eyes of an innocent child.  By crafting the story in this way, we hoped audiences would further identify with Josef’s character, his life changing decisions, and the struggles he faces on his quest to reunite with his best friend, Aimée.

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This is a story about World War II, but it focuses mainly on the lives of two children. Were you drawn to the stories of Jewish children, and why?

We were drawn to stories about Jewish children because many of our family members that perished during both the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide were only young children at the time. We were moved by the stories of innocent children and the tragedies they endured. In addition, there are very heroic stories about Righteous Gentiles who were able to save children during the war, and we wanted to honour these stories as well.

Though this story is set during WWII, it is a story that explores universal themes and struggles experienced by many children during times of oppression and war.

How did you cast Josef and Aimée?

This was a unique, challenging and in the end, rewarding process. As we were looking for French children from France to play the leads, we knew this would not be easy to find in Toronto. After some brainstorming, Producer/Writer Leslie Gottlieb reached out to various French schools in Toronto and met with multiple Principals about the project and the upcoming casting. From there, we held a four day casting session and this is how we found our lead actors.

From a performance perspective, we were looking for French speaking children to play Josef and Aimée, who could relate to and appreciate the story, and were able to connect with each other and the magical nature of the story.

There are a lot of figures of authority in this story, but the audience never really sees them. They feel like an ominous presence in the lives of the children. Was this intentional, and why?

This was intentional. We wanted to illustrate that because of the war, the feeling of authority and oppression was something these children lived with on a daily basis. It wasn’t something that had a definitive source, ie. a teacher or a soldier, that could go away as quickly as it showed up. But rather, it was an ever-present feeling that surrounded them.

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In your opinion, what does the caterpillar represent?

The caterpillar has multiple meanings and symbols in this story. He represents the magic that Aimée possesses that she imparts on Josef before she is taken from the orphanage. The caterpillar also represents a type of father figure to Josef as he journeys to find his beloved best friend. And finally, the caterpillar represents Josef’s maturity, growth, and inner self. The feelings Josef experiences on his quest are reflected in the caterpillar’s physical and emotional state throughout the film.

Have you thought about what happens to Josef and Aimée?

We know what happens to Josef and Aimée, however we intentionally left the film open ended so that audiences could draw their own conclusions on what happens. We also felt that the uncertain ending is characteristic of the experiences and stories from that time period.