ANNA by Dekel Berenson Genre: Drama
The story of Anna is a brief step into the life of a middle-aged woman in war-torn Ukraine, on her quest for happiness, hope and a better future for herself along with her teenage daughter. The 15-minute short film wowed audiences during its premiere at the Short Film Competition at this year’s 72nd Cannes Film Festival and offers a glimpse into the unspoken truths and obscure nature of the Eastern Ukrainian dating scene.
I spoke with Israeli director and screenwriter, Dekel Berenson, to gain a better understanding of the meaning and inspiration behind his second short, Anna, and was lucky enough to catch up with him in between award ceremonies for an in-depth discussion on exactly what it’s like to take risks and go with his gut when it comes to filmmaking. He calls me from his home in London, a city just as busy as his schedule these past few weeks and something tells me it won’t let up anytime soon…
AMFM: Thanks for taking some time out of your schedule to speak with me. But first – how are you?
D. BERENSON: I just came back to London after traveling for a few weeks, so I’m very tired. There was a screening in Paris three days after Cannes and two days later Anna premiered in Kiev. Then I had to take a last-minute trip to Krakow where my previous film, Ashmina, won an award. So I had to go from Paris, to Kiev to Krakow in two days and then Russia to meet up with some people, so I literally just came back to the UK yesterday.
D. BERENSON: My plan was to make five films that take place in five different countries around the world and each would tell a story of a woman or a girl at various stages in their lives. So the idea was to create five portraits of five women and Anna is the second film in the sequence.
D. BERENSON: Each story is based on either a place I’ve been to, something I’ve experienced firsthand or something I’ve heard on a first-person account. It wasn’t until I traveled to Eastern Ukraine in 2012 that I discovered these so-called “love tour” matchmaking parties that have existed since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Companies will actually bring in American men to Ukraine to test their luck at love by trying to find a woman to bring back with them to the States.
In the film, Anna overhears a radio advertisement for a so-called “love tour” while chopping meat while at work at a Ukrainian meat processing plant. Her curiosity and dream of a better life in America for both herself and her daughter get the best of her when she decides to meet with one of the women in charge of organizing such events.
AMFM: So these parties are pretty common in Ukraine?
D. BERENSON: Svetlana, the actress who played Anna, had actually been to an event just like this twenty years ago. And when we auditioned a woman for the role of the translator, the first thing she told us was that she had been a translator at one of these parties a couple of years before. She kept telling us how amazing it was to read the script because it reminded her so much of the real thing. This isn’t a story you hear often, but it’s very common in Eastern European culture. If it were up to me, I would have gone undercover to see what these parties are really like, but they never answered my Email and in the end, I missed it. But maybe I’ll go back and go undercover one day.
AMFM: You definitely should! But either way, you captured the event, the scenery, and the environment perfectly, giving it such an authentic feel.
D. BERENSON: We shot the film in a very industrial town in Eastern Ukraine to shoot interiors and exteriors. We couldn’t believe the kind of apartments that people were living in. In some areas, there are still villages without running water or electricity. Anna is authentic because we made a huge effort to find and shoot in real locations that were really run-down, which aren’t as easy to find in over-developed cities like Kiev.
AMFM: What about Anna’s story is unique and how is her story similar to those of others?
D. BERENSON: I think the story of Anna is unique as it’s never been told before in this form, but it’s also a very common story in Ukraine that many Ukrainian women can relate to. There’s a huge competition for male partners in Ukraine and it’s also a very traditional country. So, if you aren’t married by the age of 22 people usually think something is wrong with you, which is why Anna and even her 16-year-old daughter feel pressured to take part in these matchmaking parties.
D. BERENSON: People don’t like to portray their own country in a negative light. While shooting Anna, even my own producers didn’t approve of showing the drunk man or even the child with its mother at the nightclub. They kept asking me why I had to show such negative things and I just kept thinking, “oh, I don’t know… because it’s a reality?”
When we first entered the apartment where we shot a scene in Anna, there was a woman sitting exactly where Anna is sitting in the film. She was surrounded by postcards, pens, and God knows what. As I walked in, I was like, “Oh my God, this is awesome – let’s shoot the scene here, we won’t have to change a thing!”
D. BERENSON: I think especially as a foreigner traveling to a foreign country and wanting to make an authentic film, you have to be open the small details. Don’t try to make reality more beautiful than what it really is. So, for example, when I came on the set to shoot the breakfast scene, I saw that the set designer had put a nice tablecloth on the table, put out new plates and fresh biscuits… I mean, it looked like a Mcdonald’s advertisement. I threw everything out, opened the fridge, took out pickles and everything else that I could find and instantly the scene became something that looked like real life. People hate portraying their lives in a negative way, but that’s ridiculous. It’s a reality.
AMFM: I’m really glad that you brought this story to light. For many, it’s a completely different world and an unimaginable way of life. It’s really important to share these kinds of stories because how else will you know unless you go to places like Nepal and Eastern Ukraine yourself?
D. BERENSON: Yes, exactly, through movies! Through watching films at film festivals.
D. BERENSON: People are often confused as to why I write stories that take place all around the world. To me, it’s super obvious why I’d want to go out and find stories that aren’t told and that I find interesting. When you make a short film, you basically spend half a year planning and shooting. How boring would it be to tell stories only about things that are familiar to you? All I want is to take a plane and go to Brazil, South Africa and other interesting places where these fascinating stories can be found. The world is full of these stories. You just have to look around and be open to it, you know? The stories are everywhere.
AMFM: So how did you become a filmmaker?
D. BERENSON: I started filmmaking three years ago and took courses at the London Film School. I had been traveling for quite a few years before, working online as a writer and graphic designer. After three months, I dropped out of film school because it seemed like a big waste of time and made my first short in London. Then I began to realize just how many stories I have to tell, based on encounters I’ve had all around the world. It’s also much cheaper to shoot in other countries compared to London. What would normally pay for only two hours of shooting in London would pay for the entire crew, equipment, hotel, and food for an entire day in Nepal. So taking the project worldwide made sense from an artistic and financial point of view.
AMFM: Did Anna turn out the way you expected when first going into this project?
D. BERENSON: Oh, yeah. So, look: I spent three months in Nepal working on Ashmina and four months in Ukraine working on Anna. That’s a very long time for a short film. The way I can compensate for my lack of education in filmmaking is simply by making sure that I’m super prepared. Every shot needs to be entirely planned out in advance and was written into the script just as you see in the film.
My cameraman wanted to kill me! But I knew I had to go with her.
– Dekel Berenson”
D. BERENSON: Even Anna’s character – I knew exactly what she would look like. We auditioned a woman who didn’t look anything like Anna, but was considered Ukrainian/Russian acting royalty. She had already been in many feature films, was a third generation actress – I’m talking about somebody who you can just go and make a feature with and she’d instantly be incredible. But she wasn’t Anna. She didn’t have the kind of faith and energy to her that I knew Anna would have to have. So when I saw Svetlana for the first time, I knew she was the one. Even though she had way less experience as an actress, I knew I had to go with my gut instinct and choose her for the part. My cameraman wanted to kill me! But I knew I had to go with her. I just kept telling him to trust me, no matter how much longer it would take. And yeah, in the end, it worked out.
AMFM: Would you say your cultural background has influenced your directing style at all?
D. BERENSON: Everything I’ve learned about filmmaking is from watching films. The only thing that is perhaps culturally related to creating Anna is that we have a large Russian population in Israel and I’ve always felt that I really understand Russian and Ukrainian culture. But on the other hand, I don’t think it necessarily has to do with culture, but rather the kind of film you want to make and what story you want to tell.
AMFM: So what was your absolute favorite part about filming Anna?
D. BERENSON: Other than getting the Email from Cannes?! I guess it’s really just working so hard for so long and having it turn out, you know? When you’re filming, you don’t know if it will all work out. But getting accepted into the festival has been life-changing. I feel so lucky and incredibly grateful that Anna was recognized and screened there.
AMFM: Your hard work paid off in the end. What does your next project look like?
D. BERENSON: I planned for five chapters and all the scripts are already written for each of the five stories. They’re actually my favorite scripts, I like them even more than my first two. So, the idea is to take one of them and expand it into a feature film. And now that’s what I need to work on.
AMFM: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat about your film and congratulations on your growing success! I can’t wait to see your next film and hope you now have some designated time off to relax and finish the script for your feature.
D. BERENSON: Yes, I have exactly three days left to relax here in London before flying out again on Sunday. It was my pleasure – thank you, it was fun.