Noor Inayat Khan is a war heroine and yet why don’t we know more about her?
Liberté, an independent film, created by auteur Sam Naz, hopes to change the narrative by highlighting the tragic story of the 30-year-old British Muslim secret agent during the Second World War.
Naz, a freelance Sky News presenter had spent more than than a decade mulling and returning to the story of Inayat Khan. She had first spotted it in a newspaper article about unsung women heroes of Second World War. Inayat Khan’s story is not one of hope however but of bravery. Of understanding that wars might end, but as Naz explained in a Q and A after the special screening forming part of this month’s South Asian History Month Festival at London’s SOAS University, that not everybody will come home.
The film was written and produced by Naz. She also plays the role of the dramatised version of Inayat Khan she created after spending a significant portion of time researching documents, personal effects and more in the UK’s National Archives. In tandem with director Christopher Hanvey, the pair pushed to ensure this film was made in the midst of a pandemic that had engulfed the UK. As the world was in lockdown, they pushed to create story that Naz had waited so long to tell.
The film focuses on the latter part of Inayat Khan’s life. And by that, we’re looking at the moments in which this Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent, is in the hands of the enemy. There she is threatened, faced with cajoling tactics with drinks and cigarettes to reveal what mission she is on by a patronising German intelligence officer – Hans Josef Kieffer, played by Oliver Boot. But it’s her defiant silence that stands out.
The filmmakers use this negative space as skilfully as they can. Naz may be in her debut auteur feature but she uses the stillness of her body and the weariness in her eyes to great effect. Boot’s accent jars a little to begin with but it soon settles. Perhaps that’s intentional though.
It might have been a screening in the midst of a blistering UK heatwave in a mildly warm university theatre setting, but it was hard not to be transported into that moment in time and feel the depth of Inayat Khan’s character. When the graphic torture moments come, it was hard not to close my eyes and let the audio sweep over. Hanvey’s use of lightning created an enclosed space – of being trapped and knowing the end was not going to be an enjoyable all ends neatly tied up story. The minimal use of flashbacks ensure the focus is on the pain that we see in front of us and the notion of the commitment this descendent of Indian royalty had to the Allied cause.
This is no snuff movie but a nuanced look at the lead up to the end of a woman whose story is not hugely well known. It’s concerning that this wireless operator, multilingual talented figure is on the periphery of the multitude of war stories that are taught in global education systems or highlighted by Hollywood. But it also makes Naz’s attempts to share this story in a way that Inayat Khan’s remaining family is apparently comfortable with, more commendable.
But what also makes this film stand out, is the music. Naz explained to the audience at the festival showing, that she had spent considerable time tracking down who owned the rights to the music that Inayat Khan’s own brother had created in memory of his sister after he found out about her eventual killing at the concentration camp in Dachau in 1944. Torture didn’t break her but she didn’t survive the war. We are introduced to this painful albeit soulful music from the very beginning of the film. Hidayat Inayat Khan’s La Monotonia, Suite Symphonique op. 7 is, quite frankly, rather haunting.
Hanvey doesn’t shy away from showing the hardcore pain that Inayat Khan was put through. He and Naz have created a film that while showing the end of the George Cross hero’s life, is also a useful introduction for those who are unaware of the sacrifices made by those like Inayat Khan who aren’t always put at the forefront of the narratives told about the Second World War.
It is clear that Naz has put her heart and soul into this project. She said she would always find a way to make it get made, and in fact while this was from the outset intended to be a dramatic narrative, her journalism background was useful in helping her to fulfil this goal. While Inayat Khan’s story is not one of hope, Naz’s story and drive to get this film made, certainly fills that brief.
By Dhruti Shah
Follow Dhruti via her Twitter account: @dhrutishah