There have many documentaries about D-Day, but French filmmaker Pascal Vuong’s D-Day: Normandy 1944 is the first to give the landmark historical event the 3D treatment for Imax and digital cinemas — and the film’s soaring aerial sequences alone are worth the price of admission.
Narrated by veteran newscaster and Second World War buff Tom Brokaw, the doc opens with glorious 3D footage of the beaches and the vast Allied cemeteries in Normandy, France.
“For many, this was the end. For many more, it was the beginning. But all of us changed on these sands,” Brokaw intones, as rousing music by the London Symphony Orchestra plays in the background.
So begins the retelling of the epic story of the Allied landings in Normandy on June 6th 1944 that helped end the Second World War. U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower called the massive amphibious assault a "Great Crusade" and more than 9,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives in the effort to seize Normandy’s coast.
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The new documentary is aimed at a younger generation and for Vuong, whose mother experienced the Nazi occupation, it’s a "duty of memory, a duty of gratitude" to keep the spirit of June 1944 alive.
Q: Why did you want to make this documentary about D-day?
A: As a Frenchman and a European, I was raised — as a child — hearing stories about the Second World War and the occupation under the Nazis, about the trauma it engendered and then the immense renewal unleashed by liberation. In my youth, I saw films about the war and D-Day and they blew me away — films such as The Longest Day and then later, Saving Private Ryan.
About three years ago, I thought about doing my own film about D-Day after making my first successful film for Imax theatres, Sea Rex: Journey to a Prehistoric World. I was inspired to do this project thanks to such exemplary directors as Darryl Zanuck and Steven Spielberg.
Q: So the documentary is, in some ways, a tribute?
A: The 70th anniversary of D-Day this year may be one of the last commemorated with the veterans themselves. What better moment than now to show them our gratitude? It’s because of them that we and our children live in a world that’s relatively peaceful. What better occasion to recall that — because they went to war — we have our liberty.
Q: The film seeks to engage a new, younger audience. Why is this so important?
A: My own kids consider the war a distant event. But their grandparents lived through it, so it really wasn’t so long ago. Today, on the 70th anniversary, it’s a good time to gather generations and remember the event together.
My mother used to describe the German occupation to me. All French suffered during the occupation. That is why everyone, not just those in Normandy, remains grateful and respectful of the liberators. When you are a Canadian in the streets in Normandy, it’s not unusual that people might walk up to you and say "Thank you very much."
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Q: What's new about your documentary’s account of D-Day?
A: Movies like The Longest Day and later Saving Private Ryan were so good, with excellent actors. And so I had to find my own way to tell this story for family audiences. That’s why I came up with this cocktail: mixing animation and live action, archives and CGI maps, animated models and re-enactment.
For example, by using sand animation — moving grains of sand with a brush, frame-by-frame — I found an emotional and sensitive technique to depict war to kids without shocking them.
History is very connected to geography, especially during the Second World War, and that’s why there are so many animated maps in the film.
Winston Churchill called the race for electronic superiority the "Wizard War." The Allied victory was in no small part due to new technologies, engineering and science. That’s why there are many sequences devoted to these breakthroughs.
The film was shot and produced on a scale never before seen for this particular topic. It’s like no other film to date. The 3D aspect enhances viewers’ sense of being directly in the Normandy region of both the 1940s and today, while the all-encompassing sound literally envelops them.
Q: It’s intended for families, so that must have shaped the content. Tell me about that.
A: The main goal was to make a film for families. That meant I couldn’t be too graphic or show a lot of violence. I needed to convey the drama of the event without violence. But at the same time I wanted to convey to children that sometimes you need war to keep peace.
Q: What comes across strongly in the documentary is this idea that the French have not forgotten the great sacrifice of the Allied soldiers.
A: In Normandy every single day, people live alongside these memorial sites and they are deeply respectful of them. You can feel it when you are there. It is very moving. When you walk the beaches, you can easily picture the men who were so young and think about what they experienced and how many died. You cannot help but shed tears.
Q: How are you taking part in the commemorative ceremonies this year?
A: We are screening our film in the largest theatre in Normandy (the Zenith de Caen) today. Yesterday, we were on Juno Beach with La Maison des Canadiens at Bernières-sur-Mer. Today, we attend the French American Commemoration in Colleville, the site of the American cemetery.
In Canada, the documentary opens today at the Imax theatre at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., and is currently playing at the Imax theatre at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria as well as at the Telus World of Science Imax 3D theatre in Edmonton, among other North American and international locations.
D-Day: Normandy 1944 will continue screening in Gatineau, Victoria and Edmonton through the fall, with the potential for additional Canadian locations.