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In Conversation with Dekel Berenson, writer and director of Anna

Dekel Berenson is a UK based writer and director whose short film Ashmina, set in Nepal, won Best Short Film at the 59th Kraków Film Festival and Best Live Action Short at the 36th Jerusalem Film Festival. His latest short film Anna premiered at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, was shortlisted for a BAFTA, and won the Best British Short award at the 22nd BIFA awards. Strand caught up with him to discuss it in more detail.

Set against the bleak backdrop of a country in conflict, Anna is a snapshot of a critical turning point in the life of a Ukrainian woman facing poverty, desperation and loneliness. In an effort to forge a better life for both herself and her teenage daughter Alina, Anna (Svetlana Barandich) decides to attend a matchmaking party where male tourists searching for love look for Ukrainian women to bring back to America. Undoubtedly, her experience fails to align with the rose-tinted claims of the advertisement. As comical as it is heart-breaking, Anna is a sober commentary on the realities faced by women experiencing financial hardship, hopelessly searching for a way out.

What led you to make the film Anna and why is her story an important one to you?

Anna is a stand-alone short, but it's also part of a series of short films that I am working on, the second part of a five part series. I studied film at the London Film School for three months and then I left. I realised that short films were a way to show people what you can do, so I knew that I would have to make a few short films, not just one or two, but probably five or six of them before anyone would take notice of me, so I had this idea to make a series of short films that are all connected in theme and style. I sat down and wrote out a lot of ideas, and I noticed that a lot of them were about underprivileged women from different countries and backgrounds. Because I travelled for many years, I've collected a lot of stories along the way and the story of Anna is one of them. It’s an important film because on one hand, on the surface, it's about loneliness, poverty and someone wanting to improve their financial and social situation. On the other, it's also the story of a mother and daughter and the love [they share], but it also criticises these parties that are being organised in Ukraine, where people from wealthy countries come to poorer ones, and take advantage of women's social situations. These parties are like meat markets where dozens of women come to compete for the attention of just a few men.

What influences did you draw from in creating the film?

The intention was to make a very ‘social-realist’ film. The films that I’ve done are based on stuff that I've heard or seen or done while travelling. I went to Ukraine seven or eight years ago and that's where I first heard about these parties, and I’ve actually lived in Hungary too, so I know a lot about the culture, the atmosphere, and how people talk, and dress in Eastern Europe. But of course, when I had the idea to make this short, I still did a lot of interviews, research and reading to find out as much information as I could on the subject.

Are there any aspects of the film that reflect you as a person in any way, or is the story purely grounded in the experiences of the characters?

Yes. There is a lot of humour in the film and all of the jokes are very ‘me’. For example, the jokes in the café scene where the party organiser explains why American men prefer to marry Ukrainian women, or in the scene at the bar when the translator intentionally mistranslates Anna's responses when she says that Anna doesn’t have any hobbies and only likes to do housekeeping. When you make a film everything is constructed, every small detail, and when you're preparing to make it you do a lot of research: you read, watch documentaries, look for locations, look for actors. The job of the director is to make all these decisions. I’m involved with the editing and sound design of the film too, so by the end, it's very much ‘me’. A lot of people are not like that though, they shoot and then they give the film to the editor and the editor does the editing by himself, but I do everything in my films.

How much freedom were the actors given to interpret your vision for the film in terms of the script?

The script was relatively strict, but we did a lot of rehearsals and so certain things came out. For example, the girl who plays the interpreter said “I think she is very ‘interested’” instead of ‘interesting’ because she is not a [native] English speaker. She made a mistake, but I thought it was great, so I didn’t correct her and decided to keep it. And for the dance scenes, when Anna is at the party, we just played music and I asked her to dance. The problem with actors is that they act, and you don't want them to act, you want them to look natural. Anna started dancing when she didn’t realise the camera was shooting, and in the end that's the scene that we used in the film.

What was the link between the storyline and the setting? Why use Ukraine as a backdrop?

It is very well known that such parties happen in Ukraine and it’s a country that has a reputation for having very beautiful women as well. It’s also very traditional, so people can go to these parties and meet a very poor, very beautiful and very traditional girl that they can ‘put in their suitcase’ and take back to New York. Weather wise, when I hear ‘Ukraine’ I think of snow, winter, a sort of grey atmosphere. The fact that it's a poor country sadly also made it a perfect setting. It wouldn’t work in Switzerland! But it works in Ukraine. I think that the film [and the depiction of this phenomenon] ends up being super authentic, and I think it's only possible to do that sometimes when a foreigner, like myself, comes with unbiased eyes not trying to paint reality as more beautiful than it is.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while making the film?

Everything was a very big challenge, especially being alone in Ukraine and not knowing the language and having to convince everybody that I was right in the things that I wanted, and that I wasn't crazy. So for example, I was told that the scene where Anna is feeding the dogs was stupid because we would have to find dogs and it would be a lot of work, but I knew it was important and that they just had to trust me. Or for example, the scene where there is a line of women and one of them is holding a baby. I was told that I was crazy and stupid and was asked why she brought a baby because no one would do something like that, but for so many people it’s their absolute favourite part of the film. It shows that the mother is so desperate to meet somebody and leave but that her and her baby are a package deal. Imagine if there were no dogs and no baby! It's really the small details that make the film and I had to fight for everything.

Berenson is currently working on his first full-length feature film Aliya, which will be shot on location in Israel.

Edited by Juliette Howard, Film Editor