‘I got two lines by email: Do you know the story of this Tunisian Jewish boxer who won the World Championship and finished his life in Auschwitz?” recalls Jacques Ouaniche, the director of the new feature film, Victor Young Perez, which tells this story, and which recently opened all over Israel.
“I didn’t know anything about him. It’s an astonishing story and it was as if everybody had forgotten about him. Even in France [where he lived for many years prior to his deportation by the Nazis]. So I thought, it’s important to tell his life story.”
As he researched the tip he received, he became fascinated by the details of Perez’s life.
“For this young Tunisian guy, to actually come to France, to become French was like a dream. It was something to be the World Champion.”
The compact Perez became the World Flyweight Boxing Champion twice in the early Thirties, and enjoyed living the high life in Paris, along with his brother, Benjamin (Steve Suissa), a fellow boxer. Perez became the lover of a glamorous actress, Mireille Bain (Isabelle Orsini).
But when Hitler came to power and the Nazis invaded France, all his new friends abandoned him, and he was deported in 1943. He worked as a slave laborer at Auschwitz and was forced by the camp commander to fight in more than 100 boxing matches, nearly all of which he won. He died during the death march at the end of the war, in 1945.
Finding an actor with the right look and the talent to play Perez wasn’t easy. “We looked at 400 or 500 kids from the suburbs of Paris but no one was right.”
When Ouaniche met Brahim Asloum, he knew he had found his star. The French-born Asloum had won a Gold Medal in the Light Flyweight Boxing competition at the Olympics in Sydney.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I am a French Muslim and I am proud of it.’ He has the same kind of pride in his heritage that Perez had in living in France and winning the world title. And Brahim immersed himself in learning everything about Perez and the Holocaust that he needed to know to play the role.”
He also threw himself into the role, physically. “He lost 12 kilos in three weeks to play the part,” says Ouaniche. And he got himself into shape quickly.”
Ouaniche had to work hard with Asloum and the rest of his mostly young cast to teach them to portray characters from the Twenties and Thirties convincingly.
“We had coaches for everything. Boxing was done in a very different way in the Twenties, so we had a coach for that.”
They also had an art and production design team to recreate the look of almost three decades in beautiful detail.
The shoot for the final section of the film, in Auschwitz, took place during an extremely cold winter in Bulgaria.
“It was minus 15 degrees, Celsius, and it’s not so easy to shoot in that, but the crew kept in good spirits.”
Shooting the boxing scenes at these raw temperatures was especially grueling. The actors playing the Nazis kept separate from those portraying the concentration camp inmates while on the set, to keep up the intensity.
It was also a challenge “to figure out how, in that horrible setting, to stage a boxing match in a way that people will want to watch it.”
But audiences do want to watch the film. The audience reaction wherever it has been screened has been “incredibly positive. It’s been very moving to watch the film with different groups, and see their emotions.”
Currently at work on a sequel/updating of the film The Samurai, a gangster movie which will star Alain Delon, he is enjoying his visit to Israel.
“It’s great to be here again, especially with such a film,” he says.