'She smashes stereotypes': Liberté star on Noor Inayat Khan WW2 spy and heroine
Liberté is a short film that tells the incredible story of Noor Inayat Khan, the first female radio operator sent behind enemy lines during WW2. Written, co-produced and starring Sky News anchor, broadcaster and journalist, Sam Naz, Liberté is inspired by the true story of Noor’s time held captive by the Nazi regime.
Sky HISTORY spoke to Sam about Liberté and what inspired her to bring Noor’s story to life.
Sky HISTORY: What was Noor’s life like before WW2?
Sam Naz: She grew up in France and went to school and university there, but she'd lived in London, so she was bi-lingual. She came from a very musical and spiritual family, from a Sufi Muslim background. She played the harp and the piano, amongst other things. She wrote children's stories and was this all round creative being. Then, the war happened, and everything got turned upside down.
Why was she recruited as a radio operator by the Special Operations Executive (SOE)?
Being a fluent French speaker and having grown up in Paris, she knew the area and had contacts there which was a bonus. That was something that SOE, Churchill's new brand-new spy agency needed. They were desperate for people to be sent out to France, to go undercover and be that key communications link.
What did the role of a radio operator involve?
She was the person sending and receiving messages back and forth from London to the team in Paris. She was London's eyes and ears on the ground in Paris.
What shocked me was how dangerous that role was. She was at risk of being caught. The Nazis had surveillance vans that would pick up those radio signals that she was transmitting. It was a game of cat and mouse. She had to move her location regularly to transmit these messages.
I read that the life expectancy of a wireless operator was just six weeks. They knew how dangerous this role was. She put her life on the line when she signed up and agreed to go out there. She did it to the end.
When did you first learn about Noor?
I vividly remember the first time. It was well over a decade ago now. I was flicking through the newspaper and there was a feature on lesser-known people from WW2. It was a small profile piece about Noor with a photo of her. I kind of did a double take. I couldn't quite believe that there was this woman that looked like me who was this war hero that I knew nothing about. It was a jolt. So, I kind of became quite obsessed with her ever since that moment.
How did you go about bringing Noor’s story to the screen?
I wanted to bring Noor’s story to life, to showcase her and put her front and centre. So, I wrote a screenplay and poured everything that I'd learned about her into her character. I'd read so many first-hand accounts from people who had met her and who had worked with her and that's what played into building her character.
The journalist in me did love digging into Noor’s story, I spent a lot of time in the National Archives. I watched a great documentary about Noor which was so moving and so brilliantly made, but I wanted to do something more creative. I wanted to reach an audience who don't necessarily want to sit down and watch a documentary. That's why I think film and television drama can have a really important role in bringing these stories to life.
What was the biggest challenge in producing the film?
Initially, COVID was not on the risk assessment. There wasn’t a global pandemic on my radar at the time that we were putting this together. It threw a bit of a spanner in the works, as it did with so many productions.
Because I've come from a news presenting background, the biggest challenge for me was to not simply tell the story as an outsider, but to embody her physically and mentally or how I perceive her to have been.
Did you feel a special connection to Noor having played her?
Playing Noor was just one of the most incredible experiences and not something I'll ever forget. I felt that I had got to know her as a person so well over the last few years, through my research and through hearing so many people talk about her.
What do you hope viewers will get from the film?
I hope the film smashes some stereotypes because she does. Noor smashes every stereotype there is. She smashes stereotypes about women, about Asian women, about Muslim women. I just hope that it plays out as a tribute to her and resonates.
Why do you think Noor’s story isn’t more well-known?
Education plays a key part. Noor is one of several women whose achievements are not taught quite as much. That is part of a fundamental and wider issue.
With Noor, she was a Muslim woman, of Indian heritage. The achievements of people of colour are hard fought but they're not often given the recognition that they deserve.
Noor was one of the three women in that team who went into France who were awarded the George Cross. The other two, Violette [Szabo] and Odette [Sansom] both had films made about them. Yet a movie centring around Noor was never made. That's something that's played into why I wanted to do this as well. She's not a supporting character. I wanted to put her front and centre.