LONDON — It might sound unusual to compare a short film to jewelry, but award-winning filmmaker Dekel Berenson makes the metaphor convincingly when describing his medium’s potential for perfectionism.
“It’s like a little pearl necklace. Every scene is like a pearl, and as a whole, it makes something very beautiful that can be watched in [just] 15 minutes,” says the Israeli-born and London-based writer-director.
“Anna,” his third and latest short film, is particularly visually striking, enhanced by its bleak winter setting, affecting sharp coloring, and sparing dialogue. Much to the modest Berenson’s surprise, on Sunday the film won a British Independent Film Award (BIFA) for Best British Short.
“We’re so grateful to BIFA,” he says of the organization that celebrates, supports and promotes creative and innovative British independent cinema and filmmaking talent in the UK. “It’s incredible that BIFA now gives us a platform for more people to watch our film.”
Set in a small industrial town in eastern Ukraine, “Anna” highlights the existence of organized international “love tours,” an industry that has developed since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Anna is a middle-aged, single mother who works in a meat processing plant. Desperate for a better life for herself and her 16-year-old daughter, she is lured by a radio advertisement to attend a party organized for a group of American men who are touring the country in search of love. What she finds is a situation riddled with absurdity and indignity.
Berenson discovered these dating party events when he first visited Ukraine in 2011, and found their existence compelling enough to return to Ukraine some years later to make the film.
These parties are known, he says, for being places where men try to seduce Ukrainian women with promises of a possible relationship and a new life abroad. In some cases, the women succeed in seducing naïve men with promises of love and marriage, only to divorce them as soon as they arrive in their new country. Although each side has their own agenda and attempts to take advantage of the other, Berenson says that underneath the cynicism there is the hope that on one of these occasions, a real connection will lead to a genuine relationship.
Short films can capture a snapshot of a situation, but at the same time they have the opportunity to tell a story and expose people to a different world that they have never seen or experienced before, says Berenson. “Ashmina,” which he made in Nepal last year, focuses on a 13-year-old girl who lives with her family on the outskirts of Pokhara, Nepal, the paragliding center of the world.
The traditional, remote town is a busy tourist destination where the locals are affected by the swarms of foreigners who visit it daily. Forced to miss school, Ashmina helps her family make ends meet by working at the landing field, packing the parachutes of foreign pilots in return for small change. She becomes torn by her obligation to her family and the influence of the tourists.
This touching and poignant film has already won several awards at film festivals around the world, including the Best Short Film at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. In November alone, “Ashmina” was shown at 21 festivals and is currently being considered for an Oscar nomination. Nominations will be announced January 13.
Berenson believes “Ashmina” has been so successful because people recognize its authenticity.
“I knew it would be a good project to do because it’s an important story and something that’s very original. Of course, there’s also a symbolic element, as the paragliders represent the sort of freedom that Ashmina doesn’t have,” he says.
“Ashmina” was inspired by Berenson’s trip to Nepal in 2014, where he too had completed a course as a paragliding pilot in Pokhara. Berenson knew at the time that he would return to make a film about the young children working in the landing field — but, he says, using non-professional actors made it a difficult film to cast.
“We spent total of three months in Nepal. For the first month, we walked the streets and invited people — the tourists — for pizza and beers and spoke to them. We had a few of these sessions, but it was very difficult because people were in Pokhara backpacking and suddenly we were asking them to stay or come back on a certain date. The whole thing was very, very risky, but my producer and I just went all in on it and said that we’re not leaving the country without a film,” Berenson says.
For the role of Ashmina, they eventually found Dikshya Karki after searching in all the local schools, speaking to and interviewing girls who were the right age.
“We were very lucky,” says Berenson. “Dikshya did a great job. She has [even] changed her Facebook name to Ashmina!”
Berenson traveled for a year after his compulsory three-year service in the Israeli military, but, unlike many of his fellow citizens who return home — “to become doctors and lawyers,” he jokes — he decided to continue his journey.
“Essentially, I’m still on that same trip,” Berenson adds, laughing. He studied in Budapest, at the now closed Central European University (CEU) — he has a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations, and a career in academia was a possibility. But because Berenson had set up a small, global graphic and web design company to finance himself while he was a student, he was free to work online while traveling. For five years he was, he says, a digital nomad.
“I’ve been to 60 or 70 countries, including going to the north pole. I also did all kinds of courses,” he says. “All my stories and all the [films] that I’m making are inspired by my traveling.”
Given the emphasis on social realism in Berenson’s films, it is not surprising that they have been confused with being documentaries.
“We won an award for ‘Ashmina’ in Spain and they kept writing to me, ‘We love your documentary,’ which is a bit funny because the film is so precisely named and so obviously not a documentary,” he says. “But the locations are real locations, the people real people. The film builds in small moments, [concluding] with an ending that is very minimalistic in a way, but there is so much that is happening under the surface.”
There is a certain control and pace in his films. “We tell the entire story with the minimal use of cuts and minimal use of scenes, but at the same time create a whole world. I really feel these are small — I don’t know if the word ‘poems’ is right, maybe vignettes [is better]. ‘Ashmina’ wouldn’t be so precise if it were a documentary,” he says.
For the last few years, Berenson has been based in the UK but, as he explained when he spoke to The Times of Israel over the phone from a New York airport a few weeks ago, he still travels most of the time for work.
“As soon as I land in LA, I’m going to rent a car and drive north, location scouting for another short film we’re shooting in two weeks,” he says.
That film is about moments in the relationship of a father and son who are rangers of Mexican heritage living in California, Berenson says. “They bond over a shared sense of loss.”
Berenson is happy to continue traveling, seeing where his filmmaking takes him, working in countries where there is less of an established film industry. “It’s more challenging — and the more challenging it is, the more I enjoy it,” he says. “So, I’ll probably continue doing it until I get tired.”
Berenson has plans to make a feature — an anthology of stories, of which “Anna” will be the second part. He is hoping to find the additional finances needed to complete more of these “chapters or episodes,” and has just been invited to Brazil to shoot another short.
“But it would be great if Netflix or somebody like that came to us and said that they want to see more,” he adds, the day after the BIFA ceremony. “Hopefully winning this award will help us to achieve that.”