On one of the last days of the shoot, we find ourselves amid a war cemetery overlooking the Adriatic. It is gut-wrenching to read the numbers etched in stone next to the word “age.” These were only boys forced to become men at such a young age.  The stillness of that place is the furthest thing from haunting; it is a place of serenity. No better place could have been construed for the final resting place of such brave men.

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The documentary on Ortona was designed to be a sequel to our war documentary on Montecassino and a stand-alone film. From a civilian perspective, the film tells the tale of the gruesome hand-to-hand combat the Canadian troops endured in liberating the town. Canada was a young country at the time of the war but sent every able body man to fight in Europe, for the Canadians knew that if Hitler were not stopped in Europe, he would soon be at our shores.

In Ortona, we were guided by two excellent guides; Gianni Blasi and Andrea Di Marco. Now, knowing that the troop’s story in Ortona has been told many times, mainly from a tactical angle, these two historians were able to show us the underbelly of the battle and how the civilian population reacted. One thing that intrigued me about the war, especially the Italian campaign, was the moment before and the moment after the occupation. What was a regular civilian’s initial feeling when they saw the Germans roll into their small town? That anticipation of what will come next. That basic instinct to survive no matter the circumstance. 

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When preparing for the trip, I wanted to be sure we were in the heart of where the action took place. I wanted to be inspired by the sheer energy of survival soaked in the land’s soil. No hotel for us; we’re staying in the farmhouse where some of the most intense fightings occurred before the battle of Ortona itself, Casa Berardi

We had just completed another shoot in Florence, buzzing with tourism and life, just a mess of chaotic goodness every city slicker enjoys. We drove through the mountains for six hours to finally arrive at this quaint little farmhouse in the countryside. I park the car. Exit. Take a nice long stretch and… It is so quiet you can hear a mouse fart five kilometres away. Suddenly my wanting to be on the front lines was being devoured and digested by my imagination. The German forces that occupied this house had a perfect 360-degree view of the valley. They executed an entire platoon of Canadian soldiers from this house, who repaid the service by liberating the home, only to have the Germans try and take it back. This soil was soaked in blood, so as I settled into my room, I couldn’t help but think how many German soldiers were hanging out of my window, massacring my fellow citizens. 

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I thought that if one location where someone was murdered could cause a place to be haunted, then an area saturated in death should make for an exciting night. That first night I must have woken up a thousand times to see if there was some Nazi appertain at the foot of the bed. I tell you, the scenarios my mind conjured up could make for a Netflix original. But in the end, there were no ghosts; if there were, they were long gone. All that remained were bullet holes on the side of the building to remind you have the devastation that occurred there. 

Halfway through our shoot, my main dude and cinematographer got a terrible case of food poisoning. I tip my hat to you, Michael; you trucked through that day like a champion. I mean, it was freakin hot! And this poor guy was running into alleyways to puke his brains out between shots that, my friends, are the dedication that needs to be recognized and applauded.

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Toward the end of our journey, we were taken to an extraordinary place. A place that boggles the mind. The civilian population dug caves along hills deep in the countryside to protect themselves from the Germans and allied crossfire. Just getting to these caves was a trek for us. We had to wear thick pants and hoodies in the forty-degree heater to protect us against the plants. Thick bush had overtaken the landscape, and with a weed-whacker, Giuseppe, our civilian guide, went into the thick of it to find the cave where his family hid during the war. 

Heat-stricken, exhausted and weary of snakes, we finally found it. Because of farming in the area, the cave opening lay much higher than initially. We had to create a human chain to get in and haul the equipment. Andrea slipped from my hand and cascaded down into a deep bush during this process. For a moment, my heart was in my throat. He wasn’t resurfacing. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, in that moment of panic, he pops his head out of the bush. “I’m okay!” Thank the good lord! 

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Once we entered, we were dumbfounded. Here we were compiling because it was hot when these civilians had to give up everything they owned to come out into the country and entomb themselves. All because this was the best option for survival. Incredible. Giuseppe explained that his father and uncle dug this cave out with a chisel and their bare hands. In this cave, there lived twelve people. Twelve people were stuck in a hole that could collapse for months. Gianni Blasi sends it best; “war reduces us to a race of nothingness. War is good for nothing!”

As we returned to the truck, you couldn’t help but feel a humbleness come upon the group. The drive was slow and long, but that was exactly what that moment called for. Quiet contemplation. I hope our film does some justice in telling the story of the civilians and Canadian soldiers who shared in a moment in history.

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