Radhika Apte as British spy Noor Inayat Khan. (Photo/Courtesy IFC Films)
Radhika Apte as British spy Noor Inayat Khan. (Photo/Courtesy IFC Films)

East Bay Jewish film fest offers WWII women spy drama for free

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In the World War II film genre, stories of how the Allies enlisted spies to defeat the Nazis are familiar to audiences.

More rare are movies about the spies who were women, and whose acts of bravery were equally hair-raising as those of their male counterparts.

“A Call to Spy” is such a film, and thanks to an anonymous donor, the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival will stream the espionage thriller for free Nov. 9-15.

The 2019 film dramatizes the true story of a group of female espionage agents recruited and trained by the British government in 1941 to engage in intelligence gathering operations in which their gender, presumably, gave them an advantage.

One, Vera Atkins, was a Romanian Jewish immigrant to Great Britain who, despite her role in helping the Allies, experienced anti-Semitism from her British handlers. She is played by Stana Katic from the TV crime series “Castle.”

Atikins, in turn, recruits an American woman with a wooden leg and aspirations to become a diplomat. A third member of the top-secret group was an Indian British wireless operator named Noor Inayat Khan, who was both a Muslim and a pacifist. Nevertheless, she persisted. Working together with British intelligence and the French Resistance, the group became known as Winston Churchill’s secret weapon, and prevailed.

“There are many reasons to watch [‘A Call to Spy’]: stellar acting, great cinematography and the story itself, inspired by true events,” said Riva Gambert, director of the annual East Bay Jewish film fest.

Maybe it took women filmmakers to bring these true stories to light. The 123-minute historical drama (rated PG-13) was written and produced by Sarah Megan Thomas, who also plays the American woman, and directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, who co-directed another female-centric drama, “Radium Girls.”

According to Gambert, the film is Thomas’ passion project, and she researched it for years before writing the script.

“This is a story of resilience, of women standing up, despite the risks of falling into the grip of the Nazis, to finish the job they were assigned to,” Gambert said. “It is relevant today because this is also a time that calls for individuals to stand up for what is right, at risk to themselves or their careers.”

Thomas also co-wrote, produced and acted in the 2016 Wall Street thriller, “Equity,” which also highlights women in a male-dominated world.

Thomas will take part in a 40-minute live, online chat about “A Call to Spy” at 2 p.m. Nov. 11; the chat will be viewable until the screenings end at 11 p.m. on Nov. 15. Both the film and talk are free. Register here.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.