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Cinéfest: North Bay doubles as war-torn Europe in powerful film

‘The Boy in the Woods,’ based on the survival story of Canadian holocaust survivor Maxwell Smart, was shot in the North Bay area in 2022

The North Bay area doubles for Second World War-era, Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe in the film “The Boy in the Woods,” which screens at Cinèfest Sudbury International Film Festival on Sept. 22.

The film’s director, Rebecca Snow, said she’s previously done documentaries for the History Channel, including the 2019 documentary “Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust.”

“The Boy in the Woods” is based on the true-life survival story of Maxwell Smart, one of the subjects of the 2019 documentary.

He is one of just 100 Jews from his hometown of Buczacz/Buchach, Poland (in modern-day Ukraine) to survive the Holocaust.

When Snow was filming the documentary, she remarked that Smart’s story should be turned into a feature film.

She said when she visited the woods of Ukraine where Smart hid from the Nazis, “it struck me that it was very similar-looking to parts of Northern Ontario.” (The documentary filming took place prior to the current war in Ukraine).

It turned out, however, to be challenging to find enough old-growth trees in this part of the province for her 2022 shoot of “The Boy in the Woods,” which she needed, as logging is not common in that part of Europe. 

It was also difficult to find urban buildings that could pass for 1940s Europe.

If you’re familiar with the North Bay area, Snow said the scenes in the woods were all filmed on private property in Callander. They also shot at a cemetery in Powassan and a factory in North Bay.

Film shoots in Northern Ontario are not a new concept to Snow. The film’s producer, Robert Budreau, who is also Snow’s husband, filmed the 2015 movie “Born to Be Blue” starring Ethan Hawke in Sudbury. That film also screened at Cinéfest.

“The Boy in the Woods” follows Max (Jett Klyne), a Jewish boy hiding in the forests of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during the Second World War.

Max is an aspiring artist who escapes death when his selfless mother tells him to run away from the Nazi trucks that they are about to board. 

He befriends a farmer, Jasko (Richard Armitage), and his family, who take him in. But with mounting pressure from the police and fear for his own family’s life, Jasko is forced to turn Max away. 

With echoes of a Grimm's Fairy Tale, Max's experience is both terrifying and magical. He inhabits a landscape crawling with Jew-hunters, partisans and haunted by ghosts. 

Then everything changes when he meets another boy in hiding, Yanek (David Kohlsmith). Their extraordinary adventure culminates in the heroic rescue of a baby girl, but it comes at a tragic price.

“The Boy in the Woods” is based on a memoir of the same name written by Maxwell Smart, who is now in his nineties and lives in Montreal, Que.

Snow said Smart visited the film shoot last year, watching the actors play out scenes from his early life. In a touching moment, Smart comforted the actor playing the young Max after a particularly emotional scene.

“They basically both just collapsed into each other's arms in tears,” she said. “And so Maxwell said to Jett, ‘You just became me, I just saw you become me.’”

Smart has also since seen the finished product. 

“He was pretty overwhelmed, but in a good way,” said Snow. “He's very grateful that his story is hopefully going to be reaching a very wide audience, because as someone who survived these events, he wants to make sure that it's never forgotten.”

“The Boy in the Woods” is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, screening at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 9 and at the Atlantic International Film Festival on Sept. 19.

Snow will be on hand for the film’s screening at Cinèfest Sudbury on Sept. 22. The film fills the festival’s 7 p.m. gala slot that day.

“I’m excited for people to see the film,” Snow said.

Heidi Ulrichsen is’s associate content editor. She also covers education and the arts scene.


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