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Filmmaker Dekel Berenson talks about his short film 'Anna', his career, and what comes projects are next on his list.

An interview with Dekel Berenson, the director of ‘Anna’

Dekel Berenson is a prolific UK based writer & director, as well as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Berenson enjoys drawing inspirations from his travels – he’s been to more than sixty countries. Berenson works to explore real-world social and humanitarian issues in his films.

His film Anna premiered at the 72nd Canne Film Festival, won the Best British Short Film award at the 22nd BIFA awards, and was even shortlisted for a BAFTA nomination. Not to mention a number of other honors he has received for his other work.

Anna follows a middle aged single mother living in a small industrial town in Eastern Ukraine. She dreams of a better life for both herself and her sixteen-year-old daughter. Desperate for change Anna goes to a party where foreign men are looking for love. The situation isn’t quite what she imagined it would be.

Dekel Berenson was kind enough to answer some questions we had. Here is what he had to say.

What inspired you to make Anna?

I was traveling in Ukraine in 2011 or 2012 for about 5 weeks with a friend. We were driving all over Europe with a van for more than 6 months, and Ukraine was one of the places we’d stayed the longest. We’ve met many locals and expats along the way and that’s when I first heard about these parties.

What was one of the challenges you faced when working on Anna?

A big challenge was, of course, not speaking the local language, so it was hard to communicate with everybody, and especially with the actors, because only a few of the cast and crew spoke any English. But the biggest challenge was the difference in culture, expectations, and methods of working.

For example, I really wanted to nail the performances and insisted on having as many rehearsals as necessary. But then at one point my Ukranian producer told me that some people were complaining about it, because in Ukraine they don’t do rehearsals for short films. I just looked at her . . . and didn’t know what to say exactly. There were a few such instances, but in the end we worked it out.

Is there anything you’d like people to know before watching Anna?

Perhaps, just that it is the 2nd chapter of a 5 part omnibus feature that I’m working on. The first chapter is titled Ashmina, and they might want to look that up too.

Looking at your film credits, a number of your projects are named after people, what inspires this choice?

Going back to the previous point, the idea was to make five of these stories, about five different women, from five countries and very different backgrounds. The stories couldn’t be more different, but all parts were meant to be united by themes and styles. I’m still planning to complete the project. So these characters are at the heart of each story, the films are portraits of defining moments in their lives.

Every production is different, while working on Anna, what was something you learned?

I think the most important lesson was that I should always go with my gut feeling. When we did the auditions to the main role [sic] we met an incredibly talented and very well known and experienced actress who is 3rd generation of Ukranian/Russian actors. She had about 40 feature films under her belt, and my DP begged me to cast her. She had an incredible presence and was wildly talented, but she wasn’t what I was looking for. 

Svetlana, who plays Anna, has much less experience, but as soon I’ve seen her I knew that she was who I was looking for. I’ve discussed the matter with my DP, who trusted me, but I knew that he thought that I was making a huge mistake. I remember telling myself “go with your gut feeling!” because it’s a lesson I’ve already learned in my previous films too . . . so I went with Svetlana and it turned out to be the right choice.

What is your creative process like?

I come up with ideas for stories constantly, just one or two lines usually that I write down in a Google document. But once in a while I hit an idea that I know is better than the rest, and then I start to develop it further. Short films are easy, I can finish a treatment for a short film in a few hours. A feature on the other hand (I just finished writing one) is a whole different ball game, and requires a lot of planning and thinking before you actually sit down and write.

Tell us about your career before you found film.

There is really no time “before” I found film, some of my earliest memories are related or connected to watching movies with my younger brother, or friends. I remember discovering Back to the Future, Star Wars and Indiana Jones . . . as a kid my brother and I would shoot ourselves doing sketches that we wrote and performed, and then edited on a VCR.

I thought about going to film school then but it seemed really far fetched, like wanting to be an astronaut, it wasn’t really in the sphere of possibilities. My plan has always been to do something else and then, as an adult, try to make a short film or two on my own. I have a Masters in International Relations, but have always worked in IT. I built my first website in 1995, and had been working in that field up until taking on film.

Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?

So about four years ago, after working in IT for many years, remotely, and using that as a means to travel more or less without end, I’d decided to settle down in London and sign up to the London Film School. At first just for a three months semester, but as soon as they’ve accepted me – to do the entire two year program.

But then a few days after the classes started I realized that it wasn’t for me at all, and in the end of the 3 months, I quit. I took the tuition money that I had put aside for the school and with it shot my first and second short films, The Girls Were Doing Nothing & Ashmina.

What is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?

There really isn’t a favorite part. I love writing, and the writing process. I love casting, meeting new people and trying (with them) lines from the script and discovering who could or could not take on the role. That’s always a lot of fun.

I love traveling for days on end looking for the perfect location. I sometimes spend literally weeks looking for a spot for a single shot. Then, I really enjoy figuring out the shots, in the location that I’ve found, shooting it on my phone and having everything ready in advance. So then when it’s time to come on set I’m having a blast because I’ve done everything I could and I just try to enjoy myself.

Editing and sound are fun too, because that’s where the film is actually made. The first thing I tell an editor when we start working together is “I just want you to know, I’m going to touch your mouse”. They laugh, and then we start working together, and in about 20 minutes I will be touching his mouse . . . 

You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?

It’s not hard, it’s what makes it fun. It’s also why I dislike the title “director” and call myself a “filmmaker”. Directing and writing is just a small part of the job, I don’t know how it will be on my feature, or how it is with other filmmakers, but with my shorts I’ve made almost all the decisions, from making the budget to planning the shooting schedule, and post-production flow, to making the subtitles, and finally submitting the films to festivals.

Are you able to tell us what your next project(s) are? What are they?

I’m definitely going to complete the omnibus project, and the next part will be shot in Brazil. I’ve shot half of another short film but that’s on hold due to the pandemic, and just this week finalized details with two producers to come on board my first feature film, which will be shot in Israel.

What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.

I want them to think and be challenged. I have zero interest in making films which are for entertainment value only.

If I wasn’t making films, I would probably be on some kind of a watch list already, for far left political activism. I think that every thinking adult has the responsibility to combat the right wing tide that is sweeping through the world and the deterioration of liberal social-democracies, including in my home country of Israel, which is today not very different from Hungary or Turkey, both no longer democracies,  and only a few years behind Russia.

In the near future, due to all the technological advancements, once a country will fall into dictatorship, it will be virtually impossible to get out of it. Every email, text message, or payment will be scanned and analyzed, every conversation transcribed. We could find ourselves living in police states, just like in 1984. I have no doubt that it’s coming, Orwell was just off by a few decades.

What’s your five-year plan?

I hope to start shooting a feature in about two years, the pandemic has postponed everything, and obviously there will be much less money in the industry in the next few years. Other than that I have a lot of plans but they’re personal and not film related.

What was the one movie you saw that made you want to go into film?

Other than the ones mentioned above . . . I grew up in the 80s and early 90s, so that whole experience of going to the movies and watching those classics that nobody is making today . . . I started watching arthouse and more serious cinema only in my teens, I’ve only seen Kes once, when I was about 16, and I still remember it ‘til this day.

Today, the type of films that I enjoy watching and want to make are films that, in the words of Kieslowski, put on screen a person’s soul. A beautiful recent example, and one of my favourite films, is Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film is almost purely about emotions and is told through subtext, visuals, sound, small gestures and very limited dialogue. It’s an absolute masterpiece.

If you could have someone create a soundtrack for your life, who would it be?

Bach?

What tips do you have for new filmmakers?

Prepare as if your life depended on it.

What is it about filmmaking that draws you to the medium? Why is it important to you?

It’s the ultimate art form because it involves so many disciplines. One’s creativity, as well as so many other traits, are tested constantly and to the extreme. I want to say that I’m attracted to it because I believe that art can bring on social change, which is true, but if I’m honest, political activism or downright getting involved in politics are probably better ways to do it.

I hope to make a few more films about subjects that are important, and are important to me, but also wish I could be involved in politics in a more serious way. The world is in a total mess these days, I’m going to spend the next three months volunteering for the Democracic party, and I’m not even American, nor am I presently in the U.S. But these elections are just too important, no matter who and where you are. There should be 8 billion people helping to make sure that this fascist is thrown out of the White House.

Watching movies can teach us new things about filmmaking, what did you learn from the last movie you watched?

I watched The King of Staten Island the other day after hearing about it, and reading about it everywhere. I found it incredibly cliché, cookie cutter, and formulaic, I’m in a completely different place with the type of films that I want to watch and make, and what I learned from that is that I’m completely fine with it.

It didn’t make me want to go and write some comedy, it made me want to make my feature even more, despite it being an arthouse film that will probably, no matter how successful it will end up being, will never have such commercial success or attention. But who cares? Making such a film would bore me to death.

Finally, for fun, cats or dogs?

Cows and chickens. (I’m vegan.)

If you’d like to stay up-to-date with Dekel Berenson’s work and the short film Anna you can follow these accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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