Dekel Berenson is an Israeli born director who uses his work to bring to light real-world social and humanitarian issues.
Ashmina, his second short film, gives a glimpse into the life of a poverty-stricken young girl living in the paragliding capital of the world, Nepal. Meanwhile, his third short film, Anna, follows an ageing Ukrainian woman as she goes to a party attended by American men looking for foreign women to marry.
Dekel joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about both films and his approach to storytelling.
Q: Both ‘Ashmina’ and ‘Anna’ were inspired by travelling experiences. How important do you feel it is – especially as a filmmaker and storyteller – to go out and experience the world and different cultures?
A: I think it’s absolutely important for filmmakers to explore the world as a way to find untold original stories. I believe that the success of Ashmina and Anna has a lot to do with them being very original stories that instantly capture festival programmers and audiences.
Q: As someone who went to Nepal as a tourist, how do you see the impact tourism is having on the local community and their culture?
A: Unfortunately tourism is destroying a lot of countries and cities. Only recently a few tourists died in Paragliding accidents in Nepal, caused by the unregulated industry there. There are too many pilots and the price of a flight dropped to $30. A lot of inexperienced pilots take tourists on flights and end up injured, or worse.
This is of course just one example, most of the world has been effected. I know that in Santorini Greek workers live in tents during the summer season because every available room has been turned into an Airbnb.
Q: You worked with a number of non-professional actors on ‘Ashmina’. How did you find the revelation that is young Dikshya Karki? And how did you help her prepare for this lead role?
A: We spent more than three months in Nepal working on the film, finding the cast and working with them on location to make sure the film looks as authentic as possible.
Dikshya, who we met in a local school, spent many weeks in the landing field, packing paragliders, and even being paid for it by some of the pilots and tourists, who didn’t know that she was there preparing for a film. So by the time we shot the film she was very used to doing her job and us being around her. Many people think that the film is a documentary, which of course it isn’t, but I take it as a compliment.
Q: Where did you come across the Australian tourists in the film?
A: We were walking up and down the streets of Pokhara every day for several hours. All the foreign people in the film are backpackers who helped us out and were paid very little or nothing at all. They saw it as part of the adventure of traveling, and they were a huge help. We couldn’t do the film without them. We had to audition dozens of backpackers to make sure that they could “act” or at least just be themselves.
Q: What was your biggest takeaway from the overall experience of making ‘Ashmina’ and then seeing how well it performed at festivals?
A: I went to Nepal with one more person, a friend who was the AD on my previous film. I turned him producer and we went just the two of us and basically produced the film on our own.
It was too much to handle and I made a few mistakes due to the fact that I didn’t have time to concentrate on the director’s job. There are 2-3 things I could have done differently that would have made Ashmina even more successful. I’m talking about a couple of more shots and a small change in the story but still, it would have made a huge difference.
I simply didn’t have time to think about those things while there because I was also doing so much of the production work. I should have brought a couple more people with me.
Q: Do you still plan to turn ‘Ashmina’ into a feature?
A: Ashmina was part I of a five part omnibus feature that I was planning, five shorts from around the world all telling stories of women of different ages and backgrounds. Anna is part II and I am now turning part III, Adva, into a feature. So I will not be turning Ashmina into a feature any time soon.
Q: You recently went to Cannes with ‘Anna’. How was that experience?
A: I’ve been to the festival before, just as a visitor, so I knew how big and crazy it is and didn’t have that first time shock that you get the first time around.
Having a film in competition is a huge privilege and honour. You get to meet a lot of very talented people from all over the world, make new friends and industry contacts. I feel obligated to now work very, very hard to take full advantage of this opportunity that they’ve given me, and make a feature film that will be worthy of the spot in the selection and the doors that it has open for me.
Q: Speaking of ‘Anna’, what do you think these ‘love tours’ say about post-Cold War Ukraine?
A: The tours don’t say much about Ukraine but more about the people who organise them. They are organised not only in Ukraine but all over the world, in impoverished countries.
The idea is that these women will be desperate to find a man from a rich country and move there with him. It sounds awful and in many cases it is and some of the men who take these tours see it as a form of sex tourism. But I’m also certain that many of the participants are genuine people who hope to meet someone they can connect with.
Hypergamy, the action of marrying a person of a higher caste or class, wasn’t invented by the organisers of these event. It’s human nature.
Q: Svetlana Barandich had been to a ‘love tour’ event some 20 years ago. How did this prior experience help her – and your own – conception of this character?
A: I’ve done a lot of research into these parties and spoke to many participants. The interactions, the setting, it’s all very much like in real life and is part of the Ukrainian culture. So it was easy for Svetlana to connect with the story and to the idea of being “saved” by an “American” and then being disappointed by him and the situation which is depicted in the film.
Q: You spent time as an activist for human rights and environmental rights. How do you feel this background has informed your filmmaking and the topics you take on?
A: Making short films is absolutely crazy. You work weeks and months for only a few minutes of screen time, hoping that anyone will ever watch it and that some big festival will screen it, which is of course in itself insane because they accept 4000 or more submissions for only a few spots.
So for me it would be impossible to make a film about a subject which isn’t important, which isn’t political. I’m struggling with this question a lot because I know that in reality I could make a bigger impact spending my time as an activist rather than a filmmaker. I feel like we’re nearing the end, with over population and global warming, so if I’m making a film it better be important or I wouldn’t make it at all.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I’m going to spend the next few months developing Adva, my first feature. The film is about a 19-year-old woman from Tel Aviv who works as a drill instructor in the Israeli army, turning young recent high school graduates into soldiers, “toughening them up”.
The film will follow her as she deals with the impact of a date rape, as she considers her place in society and her role in training young men in the military.