Anna loves going to the theatre, reading books and long walks. She hopes to find a man with similar interests. A single mother working in the meat industry, she signs up to a ‘love tourism’ party featuring Americans looking for traditional Ukrainian wives. The result is a touching culture-clash short as Anna’s dreams collide against the crude reality of American tourism. We called up Director Dekel Berenson to discuss the BIFA winning short’s part in his omnibus female-focused series, the political reality of Ukraine and his plans for a feature.
When did you first come across these love tourism parties in Ukraine?
I was travelling in Ukraine about seven or eight years ago. I was there for more than a month travelling across the country with a friend and that’s when I got to know about these parties. They’ve been organised since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As soon as people could go and visit Ukraine, business people started organising these parties.
Why are they so popular in this part of the world?
The logic is that it’s a relatively poor country. It suffered a lot during the years due to its geographical location between west and east. The logic is that women from this country will be happy to find a man from a richer country and move there with them. Ukraine also has a reputation of having very beautiful women with traditional values, so these people thought it would be a good idea to bring men to Ukraine and organise these parties.
When did you think this would make a great treatment for a short film and how did you go about developing it?
I was studying in the London Film School for three months five years ago. I dropped the school because I realised that it wasn’t for me at all. I took the tuition fee and started making short films on my own. I came up with the idea of making short films in different countries, each telling the story of a disenfranchised woman. Each story would be in a different country and the person would have a completely different background and age, but still have a connection between these different stories so I could turn them into a feature film. Anna is actually the second film.
I came up with the idea of making short films in different countries, each telling the story of a disenfranchised woman.
The first is Ashmina, shot in Nepal. When I thought about this project, I thought about all the stories I knew from around the world, sat and wrote the script for both of these stories in a few hours. I made the first one, then went and made the second one.
As a non-Ukrainian, what steps did you take to make the film feel authentic?
If you take the entire period that I’ve been in Ukraine, it’s a total of four months. I spent at least a month and a half of location scouting going to different parts of the country and interviewing people. I did a lot of research and a lot of auditions to find the right people. This background work means it came out as authentic as possible.
Almost every scene is accomplished in one take and apart from the start and the end, they are static shots. Why did you choose to create the film in this very controlled way?
As a joke: I’m very cheap and didn’t want to pay a lot of money for an editor. Not as a joke: I like the aesthetics it creates and the psychological effect it has on the audience. It gives it more of a documentary feeling and an objective point of view. It gives the audience space to think and contemplate on what they are seeing.
There is also this blend of comedy and sadness which the film nails really well. Was it important to laugh with the characters instead of at them?
Of course. I wanted the audience to sympathise with them, especially with poor Anna. Her story is one that a lot of women can relate to. She’s a single mother, but she’s older, middle-aged. She’s past her prime and wants to find someone. She has these dreams of moving to the USA, but it turns out to be a false dream as she meets this jerk who just wanted to “look under her hood” as he says. It was important to not just make it a dark, bleak story, but to inject a little bit of humour in it and combine the two.
The film ended up playing in official selection at Cannes. What was that like?
I’ve been in Cannes before as a visitor because I had a friend with a feature screening there. I know the festival and how it is. But suddenly I came there with a short film in the competition, and they pick you up from the airport straight after passport control. You feel like you are not just visiting the festival but you are a part of it, so that was a super awesome experience.
It was important to not just make it a dark, bleak story, but to inject a little bit of humour in it and combine the two.
But the festival is very much an industry festival. For example, I was in Toronto and that’s an audience festival. There are a lot of screenings and a lot of people can watch these films. I met a local guy who lives in Toronto and he watched 17 features in 12 days or something like that. In Cannes, if you’re not an industry person, it’s impossible to get tickets for anything. But it was an amazing experience being there; it opened a lot of doors and changed my life, obviously.
As you mentioned Anna is part of an omnibus series. Can you give us some indication of where you are going next?
Because of Cannes and everything, I’m already working on my feature film. I still have all these different scripts written for the omnibus feature, and I am planning to finish this project slowly over the years, but I’m already planning to work on my feature film which is an expansion of the third story. I was ready to go to Israel and shoot it, but Cannes happened so I took that third story and expanded it into a feature. I’m into the development stage and hope to be able to shoot the film in April.
Can you give us any details?
Yes. It tells the story of a young girl who is 18 and joins the army in Israel and is doing a course to become a drill instructor. She’s actually an immigrant from Ukraine; she and her family discovered that they are Jewish so they used this opportunity. She wants to be accepted as both Israeli and Jewish, but something happens to her during a break in Tel Aviv which opens her eye to the violence in Israeli society which is part of the political situation. She realises that she takes part in it due to her role in the military so she starts to reconsider how she sees the military service. It’s a really interesting project, and I’m lucky to have been able to find producers who came on board relatively quickly to work on the project and hopefully get it made. It’s fun that the script is already written, so I feel like I’m in a good place.