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Montreal nominees in Oscar documentary race keep things in perspective

Alice Herz-Sommer from the film

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Alice Herz-Sommer from the film "The Lady in Number 6" is shown in a handout photo. The film tells the story of 110-year-old Herz-Sommer, described as the world's oldest living pianist and the oldest survivor of the Holocaust. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Kieran Crilly

MONTREAL - Director Malcolm Clarke is keeping a level head about his Oscar nomination for the inspiring documentary "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life."

"I try not to think about it," he says cheerfully in an interview, although he stresses he's honoured by the nod.

But does he have any superstitions or rituals he's following in advance of the March 2 ceremony in Los Angeles? He says no, he's not superstitous. Except ....

"Someone said to me yesterday, 'have you written your speech?' The last thing I would do is write a speech. I think it would jinx it."

Clarke already has one of the coveted golden statues, winning the best documentary short category in 1989 for "You Don't Have to Die," about a child battling cancer who inspired other youngsters with the disease.

When he accepted that Oscar, he thanked the Academy for continuing to honour documentaries at a time when there was a strong push to exclude them from the awards.

"The Lady in Number 6" tells the story of 110-year-old Alice Herz-Sommer, described as the world's oldest living pianist and the oldest survivor of the Holocaust.

It's impossible not to be captivated by the bright-eyed, joyful woman whose frail hands still manage to tickle soul-touching music out of the piano in her London apartment.

Her sunny outlook and especially music, she says, helped her survive her darkest moments.

"Music saved my life and music saves me still," she says in the film.

It's a philosophy that was crystal clear during the two weeks the film crew spent talking to Herz-Sommer in her tiny apartment.

"She says in the film there's beauty even in the bad things in life, you just have to know where to look for it," said executive producer Frederic Bohbot, founder of Montreal's Bunbury Films.

Clarke, who is British but has lived in Montreal since the mid-1990s, was initially reluctant to make the film on Herz-Sommer because he'd already made a film on the Holocaust.

"I had had enough of dealing with Holocaust material," said the director. "When you sit with that material for any length of time, it can get to you. It wears on you psychologically."

Clarke was nominated for an Oscar in 2003 for "Prisoner of Paradise," which chronicled Kurt Gerron, a German-Jewish performer who was interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic and forced to make a now-infamous propaganda film for the Nazis.

But a meeting with Herz-Sommer, who was interned with her young son at Theresienstadt, a feeder camp for the Auschwitz death camp, changed his mind.

"I only sat with her for an hour, an hour and a half — we had a cup of tea together — and at the end of that meeting, I realized that . . . we should do it because she was so remarkable and her story was much bigger than just being a Holocaust story.

"I don't think of this film as a Holocaust film at all. It's certainly important in Alice's life. It forged who she became afterwards (but) it's a film about much more than that."

At the risk of being "highfalutin," he says "The Lady in Number 6" is about the indominability of the human spirit.

Bohbot agreed and the team decided to get cracking because everyone was conscious of Herz-Sommer's advanced age. Things began rolling before financing, which eventually came from U.S.-based producer Nicholas Reed, was even secured.

"Everyone worked on the film for nothing," Clarke said. "Everyone who contributed to this film did it free of charge because they felt she was an amazing woman and she was worth it."

The crew was given blocks of time with Herz-Sommer so she wouldn't get fatigued.

"She was great," said Bohbot. "She was very open and welcoming and she just opened up her door and let us in without question. I think she enjoyed having us there."

The sprightly centenarian did pose a few challenges.

"In the first couple of days, it was hard to get her to really open up because she was constantly turning the questions around to us," Bohbot said, explaining that Herz-Sommer was just as interested in the crew's lives as they were in hers.

Clarke said that mental acuity is probably one of the reasons Herz-Sommer has lived so long.

"She's got a really inquiring mind and she never tires of asking questions and being very penetrating in the types of questions," he said. "She really wants to know. She's not a gossip. It's a kind of really strong intellectual curiosity that she has and that's incredibly impressive in a woman of that age."

Born in Prague in 1903, Herz-Sommer was raised in a cultured and loving family which counted composer Gustav Mahler and writer Franz Kafka among its friends. She grew up to become an acclaimed concert pianist and married another musician. The couple had one son, Raphael, who gained renown as a cellist.

Her mother and husband had already been sent to Auschwitz when she and her then-five-year-old boy were deported in 1939 to the Theresienstadt camp, where she performed in more than 100 concerts and Raphael sang in a children's opera which is seen in footage from Gerron's film.

Among those who occasionally attended the concerts was Josef Mengele, one of the most monstrous of the Nazi regime who was known for experimenting on humans and selecting 400,000 people for execution in the gas chambers.

Herz-Sommer's story is framed in the film by recollections from two friends who are also survivors, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and Zdenka Fantlova. A bit younger than Herz-Sommer, both of them also show remarkable resilience.

"The three women got to me," said Bohbot. "I was totally enchanted with all three of them. I fell in love with these three ladies and that was surprising to me. You don't meet people like this every day. They give you this perspective on things. It's hard to describe."

The filmmakers sent Herz-Sommer a copy of the film but they aren't sure if she's seen it. Although confident about their documentary, they say they've been surprised by the reaction of people who have seen it, including many who say it changed their lives.

Clarke said even his 13- and 14-year-old kids couldn't stop talking about the movie when they saw it.

Bohbot says he thinks the film has a good chance on Oscar night and hopes it does well because it will put a spotlight on the documentaries being made by Canadians.

Other Canucks involved in "The Lady in Number 6" include director of photography Kieran Crilly, editor Carl Freed and composer Luc St-Pierre, who are also Montrealers.

Bohbot also believes an Oscar win would prompt more people to check out Herz-Sommer's philosophy.

"I think the message of the film is that our lives aren't nearly as complicated as we think they are," he said.

Clarke says he sees another message in the film as well.

"It would be nice if we could pay a little more attention to what elderly people have to say because I think we could learn a lot."

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