For the JC December 2020
If there is one person who cannot wait for lockdown to be lifted, it is filmmaker Dekel Berenson. The Haifa-born writer, producer and director is champing at the bit to get to Israel, to begin making his first feature film.
In the meantime, Berenson has become an award-winner for his short films, the latest of which, Anna, is being screened at numerous film festivals around the world. To date it has scooped Best British Short prize at the British Independent Film Awards, and has been nominated for a Palme d’Or in Cannes earlier this year, as well as being shortlisted for a BAFTA. Last week, Berenson narrowly missed getting an Ophir, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Anna, played with great sympathy by Svetlana Barandich, doesn’t have much going for her. She is overweight, aged before her time, and has a miserable job in a meat processing plant in snow-covered eastern Ukraine. A single mother with a volatile teenage daughter, all Anna’s days are the same.
Yet she still has hope for change. A radio advert, promising romance from a busful of American male tourists, leads Anna to sign up for one last roll of the emotional dice. Since none of the Americans speak the local language and few of the Ukrainian women speak any English, the improbable relationships are conducted through an interpreter — and she doesn’t always provide the most reliable translation.
The film is by turns depressing, dramatic and comical: Berenson has packed a lot of information into this short film, which definitely leaves its audience looking for more. And his evident affection for his leading actress shines through the screen, making him possibly the only Israeli male who doesn’t go for the default pretty face.
To his own amusement, Berenson may have crossed paths with the incoming president of the US when he was a baby, as his family lived, for three years, in Joe Biden’s home town of Wilmington, Delaware. Berenson’s father was a shaliach at the local Jewish Community Centre in Wilmington, and he has relatives in the city still, who are on close terms with the Bidens.
Back in Israel, Berenson got the film bug early, making short comedy sketches with his brother and editing them on video. As soon as he finished his army service, in 2000, Berenson was off on his travels: he reckons to have spent time in more than 60 countries to date, and in fact was speaking to the JC from Cyprus, where he has spent most of his time in lockdown, writing and researching for new projects.
For a time Berenson was based in London — which is why Anna was eligible for the British film awards. Four years ago, he came to the UK to take up a place at the London Film School, but only managed three months before deciding the course was not for him.
Now, he says, “I don’t really know what I’m doing” — manifestly not the case — and so has begun to make short films as “calling cards” as his first steps in the industry. He used the tuition money he had put aside for film school to finance his first short, The Girls were Doing Nothing; his follow-up film, Ashmina, also won a number of prizes.
His first full-length feature is the story of an 18-year-old immigrant to Israel from Ukraine. “Her family discovers they are Jewish when she is a teenager, and decide to move to Israel. She joins the army, and wants to excel as a soldier, as a rite of passage, and volunteers to be a drill sergeant of young male recruits”.
But all does not go well for Berenson’s heroine. During a weekend pass in Tel Aviv, his character goes on a date with someone and she is assaulted — but she still has to return to the army base and the group of male soldiers.
“The experience makes her re-evaluate everything to do with Israeli society,” says Berenson. “The film is really about how political violence seeps through into personal relationships. There are repercussions for civilian society, where you are a soldier during the week — and at the weekend we all pretend we live in Switzerland.”
For Berenson the film has very personal parallels, and illustrates his disenchantment with Israeli society, which led him to leave as soon as he finished his own army service.
Shooting in Israel, then, will represent the longest time for many years that Berenson has spent in the country. Just the same, despite his peripatetic existence, “home will always be Israel. I don’t want to live there, but I want to be buried there”.