Toronto-based journalist heads to Oscars for short documentary

TORONTO -- Oscar-nominated director Adam Benzine bristles at being referred to as a filmmaker.

The Toronto-based journalist notes he only has one film under his belt, albeit one that will compete at this Sunday's Academy Awards.

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"For now I consider myself a journalist who made a film. But it's going pretty well so far," admits the 33-year-old Benzine, born and raised in London.

"I'm a little reluctant to embrace the term filmmaker. I mean, I guess now that I'm an Academy Award nominee I have to. But I still think of myself as a journalist first and foremost."

Benzine's film, "Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah," examines the story behind Lanzmann's 1985 documentary "Shoah," a nine-and-a-half-hour portrait of the Holocaust as told by those who witnessed, survived or committed its atrocities.

The film took Lanzmann more than 12 years to make as he painstakingly tracked down interview subjects including a former Nazi who he surreptitiously recorded, resulting in a brutal beating that landed him in hospital for a month.

Overall, Lanzmann shot 225 hours of footage and spent five years editing. Benzine says the project left him with "a very deep wound."

"My sense is he still is recovering and may never recover," says Benzine, who came to Canada in 2011 and became a permanent resident in 2015.

"It takes a toll on him emotionally, financially, physically, mentally. It really pushes him to his limit. He could have died making the film. He contemplated suicide whilst making the film.

"He seemed to understand, or felt, there was only one correct way to make the film -- that it had to be this epic behemoth of a film. And he was getting a lot of exterior pressure from financiers who thought that, frankly, he was never going to deliver a film, that he had lost his way, that this was never going to be finished."

What resulted was a shattering account of the Holocaust, says Benzine.

"It's relentlessly upsetting. And the overpowering rhythm of details, details, details, details, sometimes really minute details -- how wide the corridors were, what colour the gas vans were, how many steps it was from the train to the platform -- paints an image in your mind that means that at the end you really have a very different understanding of the horror of what these people went through."

Benzine completed the documentary in April 2015, almost 30 years to the day "Shoah" premiered in Paris.

"Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah" is one of two films with Canadian ties in the running for the best short doc trophy. Benzine faces competition from "A Girl In the River: The Price of Forgiveness," directed by Pakistani-Canadian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

Benzine said he was looking forward to bringing Lanzmann to the Academy Awards as his guest.

"He is 90 years old, so it's quite a big deal for him to fly from Paris to L.A.," he said.

"But I'm really just very pleased that he'll have the opportunity to walk the red carpet alongside Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg and all the other great filmmakers and have this moment of appreciation."


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