Academy Award-nominated and three-time Emmy Award-winning director Robert Gardner releases his latest masterpiece, “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story” to the silver screen next week on PBS.
Airing Sept. 9, the Gardner Films and Unity Production Foundation docudrama shares the story of Noor Inayat Khan, a young Muslim woman who sacrificed her own life to join the Allied forces. Filmed in Baltimore and narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren, the movie showcases the last undercover radio operator for Great Britain in Nazi-occupied Paris. Serving as a spy, Khan was eventually arrested and killed for her participation in the French Resistance.
“She is a forgotten story in history,” said Alex Kronemer, one of the film’s executive producers. “Khan was betrayed and shot because she fought the Nazis. She is a woman who opposed and confronted racial inequality and injustice. As a half-American, half-Indian Muslim woman, it is rare to find a story like hers. I am personally in awe her interfaith work and role in World War II.”
After drawing inspiration from the 2009 documentary “Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Must Really Think,” the production team at Unity Production Foundation began searching for her story five years ago. Through his studies, Kronemer discovered that the largest volunteer army in World War II was from India. After scouring through tons of stories, they finally found Khan. Inviting a team of international scholars and two surviving members of Khan’s family to join the team, Khan proved to be the perfect centerpiece for the type of documentary they wanted to create.
“At first, it was hard to find anything at all,” said Michael Wolfe, the other executive producer. “After two years, we finally found Noor. She is a producer’s dream. In addition to being the perfect story, she was also a writer. She did dangerous work, and it was well documented. We have her voice, as well as the facts, to share her story.”
As the daughter of famed Muslim Indian spiritual leader Hazat Inayat Khan, she was raised to believe in interfaith equality. Through her father’s upbringing, she morally opposed the Nazis and wanted to fight for the oppressed, especially the Jewish people. By joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and training as a wireless operator in 1940, she eventually became a special operations executive for Great Britain.
“There is a direct connection between her and the Jewish people,” said Wolfe. “Her own people were oppressed in India, and she thought any oppression was wrong. Historically, Islam and Judaism have a long and productive history together in Europe. She had every reason to want to protect the Jews.”
Using Baltimore as his backdrop, Gardner recreates Khan’s world in Nazi-occupied France. Because Gardner’s independent production company, Gardner Films, has been located in Baltimore since 1996, the director is familiar with the terrain. Using a North Baltimore Mennonite Church for Paris prison cells, the mansion house at Cylburn Arboretum as the Gestapo headquarters and the retaining wall of a Hampden factory parking lot as the Dachau concentration camp, native Baltimoreans will see hometown sights double as European locations. Gardner even uses his own house in Roland Park as a set for Noor’s childhood home in Paris.
“There is a section in Baltimore, Mount Vernon Square, that was built in the 19th century by a French architect,” explained Wolfe. “Since it looks very European, it was the perfect backdrop as the streets of Paris. There are so many places in Baltimore that work seamlessly as 1930s Europe.”
In addition to filming in Baltimore, the entire cast and crew was also from Baltimore. The casting was completed by Pat Moran + Associates, the same company that worked on “The Wire” and is involved with “House of Cards.” In addition, Baltimore veterans on the production crew have worked on “Veep” and
several John Waters films.
Already available for streaming, the film has been shown online. As the 10th documentary in an award-winning documentary series, UFP is proud of its final product.
“After living her story, I feel like I know her,” said Kronemer. “When she’s captured and killed, I get choked up watching it. Her story is engaging, and she was a pioneer of her time.”
The documentary’s national debut is this Tuesday on PBS. Check local listings for the time.