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Q&A: Director James Kent Discusses the Vision Behind WWI Movie 'Testament of Youth'

Emma Goddard
by Emma Goddard Published on June 2, 2015

Stories of war are devastating and traumatic. Many of us have loved ones in combat, knew the fallen, or are quite literally battling through it. The pain and suffering of these events are ever-present throughout history, and numerous stories of this kind are recalled through firsthand accounts from survivors and their families. On Friday, June 5, Director James Kent will be revealing such a story nationwide with his new film “Testament of Youth,” starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington.

A harrowing true tale about a passionate romance and the First World War, Kent’s first feature film focuses on English writer Vera Brittain, a renowned pacifist of her time. Brittain, who published her memoir in 1933, experienced tragedy during WWI but through this found strength and learned to overcome loss. “Testament of Youth” illustrates her story in a profound way. On Tuesday, we sat down to speak with Kent about his work and what it was like being responsible for bringing Brittain's powerful narrative to the big screen.

James Kent On "Testament of Youth"

I know that landscape and nature were a really pivotal part of the film. Could you tell me more about how you wanted to evoke certain emotions from the audience or even from the characters through that? For example, I know that the use of water was a major part of the movie with the beach, the ocean painting at the beginning, the lake, etc.

Kent: The water is important. It's something in turmoil, it's something that can be a force of good and of evil. You get the waves and the beach, and Vera's looking out to sea, and it's grief and so melancholic. But you know it's also uplifting. We all love being in water — well unless you hate swimming — so it was my idea that Vera goes back to the lake at the end. The water there is renewing her. It's re-empowering her. It's inspiring her to forget the past and move on and use the past as a wonderful way of evoking the memory of those young men.

I also wanted the first 45 minutes of the movie to be in a very beautiful setting. We know something terrible is going to happen so — it's just a horrible feeling that they're having a beautiful summer, that their youth is going to get ripped away from them.

A large focus of the movie with the First World War is about elders not truly understanding that generation at the time. How do you think that relates to our generation? As a millennial myself, I know many people believe we're entitled.

Kent: I think every young generation is told by their elders, "This is a necessary thing, we have to do that." We have to go to Iraq, it's important to believe in material things, whatever. I think what's happened increasingly with the Internet is, people, in a way, can be drawn into self obsession, and not feeling political anymore. They're so busy being distracted by Facebook or Instagram or whatever, and their own little lives.

Seeing the bigger picture's hard, and I think what Vera Brittain's about is the bigger picture. Remembering you have a responsibility, but you also have a voice. You can express yourself, you can be political, you can change the world. She was part of a generation who got women into college. They got women the votes within five years of the war finishing. Women got to vote for the first time in Britain and then in America. So I think what she's reminding young people is don't forget you have a voice. That's really important.

You mentioned being materialistic and how everything is new with social media and whatnot. The film is about WWI but it's also about Vera and Roland's romance. Do you feel that has died a little bit with platforms like Facebook in Twitter?

Kent: Everyone's got different experiences with romance. Some people don't have a great time because they're too busy looking at their computers and other people to relate to people properly. I think there is a problem in terms of dating. It's like looking for an apartment to rent and like there's always possibly someone else around the corner. If you're on Tinder or you're on Match.com there's always the chance that this person gets maybe six out of 10 and there might be a seven out of 10 around the corner.

​That thing of just giving someone time, which they had then in those days because they would go for a whole weekend together. The problem then was that there was a chaperone. There was someone with you looking over your shoulder. It was so restricting for young people then. Again, that was all to end after the war. They were the first generation to date without having Auntie with you. So I think people are very lucky in another way now. They have a freedom to have their own lives and in a way their parents are completely unaware of what they're doing. They're not by the phone, they're not sitting in a room with you or sharing the train.

So you've directed many documentaries like "9/11: Phone Calls from the Towers" and "Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film." For you, this must be so emotionally taxing because of course you're doing the research on everything. You've seen photographs of officers in the trenches. How do you cope with that?

Kent: I find what's emotionally taxing is making the movie. But after years of dealing with real life horror and meeting people who have gone through real life horror like the families of 9/11 or the jews who were in Auschwitz, that's emotionally taxing. The real victims and representing them in a way that they're happy and they feel has been useful. That's a responsibility. You know, the people in this film are gone. My job now is to be very definite about how I want to use the material and to do justice to the material. But it's not to do justice to people who are still alive and ​who I have to look in their eyes after they've seen the film and go, "Was that OK?" That's emotionally taxing.

The most gripping scene for me was when Vera speaks to an injured German officer (though they're the enemy). Because of this, she later speaks to her community and wants people to know that everyone's a human being despite what side they're on; we all have families. How do you want the movie to impact everyone with all the wars currently going on around the world?

Kent: I think what Vera Brittain's about ​— she's not anti-war. She has a warning about war. She's saying don't go to war unless you've really thought it through because there will be terrible loss and there will be terrible pain. I think that's a responsibility we all have.

It's easy to be persuaded to go to war as we did with Iraq and Afghanistan, and is currently in Ukraine and Syria. But we have to be aware that it is a terrible thing that we do by [taking] that step, so it's a lesson to all of us to have a position on war; to actually not be afraid of being the one who says, "This is the wrong thing we should be doing." We have a responsibility as human beings to other human beings to do that and to children. And that's what Vera says.

​Also, you can be made to feel like a coward if you say we shouldn't go to war. It's become the accepted thing that those who oppose war, it's like you haven't got the balls to go to war. But it's not that, it's about the horror of it and is it really necessary? That's the question we have to ask ourselves: Is it really necessary?

I found it really intriguing that much of your work has focused on women and specifically women of the past. Why is that?

Kent: I find ​​women are on the margins of history. History is written about men and often about men. But women are 50 percent of history and they had a fantastic time. I mean their stories are often way better because they're fighting and struggling. Isn't that the stuff of great drama? Whether you're Anne Boleyn with Henri VIII or you're Joan of Arc. These are amazing stories of women trying to get their voices heard just like Vera was in "Testament of Youth." And as a director looking for great stories, I think women's stories are the ones that attracts me most for that reason.

Vera was so young (18 years old) at the time she wrote her memoir. Do you feel that if there was someone else out there who perhaps was older, for instance, like Vera's professor at Oxford, you would have focused on an older woman? Or do you feel telling the story of youth was so important?

Kent: In this movie definitely. After all, it was largely young people who were killed and massacred; slaughtered actually. As moviegoers we're more sympathetic to young people because they've got life lessons ahead of them; so we put up with their faults more willingly than older people. So at the beginning of the film Vera is quite stubborn and annoyed with her dad and annoyed with her boyfriend. We kind of know, "OK, you're at the beginning of a life journey," so it allows a director to have a less heroic heroine, and I like that.

The problem with movie making is, when you're older, you're not allowed to show the flaws of your heroine or hero because everyone's worried that the audience won't like them. I like people with flaws and I think that's real life. No one's perfect. I wish we could have older people with more flaws, but Vera's perfect. She's young and she's got her whole life ahead of her. I think it would've been harder to make a story like this with a woman who was like her professor's age, because we would've said, "Grow up finally."

I thought it was also great that you included Vera's close friend, Winifred Holtby, at the end even if for a brief instant. What was her role in the film and why did you want to include her toward the end?

Kent: We had to be honorable to Vera's story. Winifred was her closest friend and died sadly in her early 30s of cancer. They were incredibly close and she was a well known novelist. It was just important to acknowledge that when Vera had her breakdown at Oxford, that it was Winifred who dug her out of the hole really because she had also been on the front line, so Vera could connect with her. So we had to have her in the movie.

Is there anyone today that you would like to document?

Kent: I think Hillary Clinton has an amazing story with Monica Lewinsky and her politics. It's quite a story to tell: How do you succeed in politics and survive like she's done? I could see Meryl Streep as Hillary. She could really play her. But that's coming, I feel.

For me, it was quite emotional when you broke the 4th wall when the soldiers are looking straight at the camera. What was the purpose behind that?

Kent:​ For me they're staring at Vera. Roland is connecting with her and talking directly to her, telling her, "Think of me but don't worry about me. I'm going to be OK." He's also trying to find support from her because he's going through hell and I think she was such an extraordinary girl that she could offer him all that support, so I think that's what that 4th wall is about.

I realize it was important to you for these stars to be up-and-coming. Why is that?

Kent: There's something lovely about seeing a film where you don't recognize everybody. They're fresh and you can immerse yourself​ in the movie more because they feel like real people. You haven't seen them in three other recent movies. Great actors transcend that because they're so great at becoming the person that they are, but there's still that problem of over-exposing yourself and going "OK, now I've just seen him three weeks ago in something else." And I love the fact that this film is just dealing with them as people like Victor or Edward or Vera, and unfamiliar faces largely. Those are the things that I think give the film an authenticity. As a documentary maker, the main thing I'm most concerned about is authenticity.

"Testament of Youth" premieres in theaters June 5. Tweet us your thoughts about the film @wewomenUSA!

This article was written by Emma Goddard. Follow her on Twitter @egoddardhokie.

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