For a nomad like filmmaker Dekel Berenson, going into quarantine isn’t easy. The Israeli-born director and screenwriter, who has been traveling the world since he finished his army service in 2006, has been holed up in Cyprus, awaiting the end of Israel’s third lockdown so he can wander the country freely to make his first full-length feature film, Aliya.
The award-winning director, who has already teamed up with The Vampire Diaries’ actor and producer Paul Wesley for the project, has also partnered with four-time Academy Award-nominated director and producer Alexander Rodynansky and Israeli producer Marek Rozenbaum for the feature this month.
Aliya, the story of a young Ukrainian-born female soldier in Israel grappling with being a drill sergeant after she is sexually assaulted, is about identity, acceptance, and the human character. For Berenson specifically, the feature is a chance to return to a country that he left 15 years ago because of its complicated nature.
“There are like seven different Israels and we’re not even able to agree on anything,” he tells NoCamels, “I realized this and it’s mixed together with me going to travel abroad.”
Berenson was born in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, but has spent time in more than 60 other countries, including Hungary, Thailand, New Zealand, and the US. He has also directed films in Nepal, Ukraine, and the UK.
It’s these rich experiences around the world that have paved the way for the unique storylines behind his short films, Berenson explains. Those movies feature hard-hitting social and humanitarian issues like financial hardship, identity, social consciousness, poverty, and love.
“I have all these stories from the countries where I traveled,” he says. “They have also made it easy for me, as a person, to just take my backpack, buy a one-way ticket to Nepal, and make a film there because I’ve been backpacking for 15 years. I just need my passport and my laptop and just throw me somewhere. And I can either climb a mountain or start a local coffee shop or shoot a short film. I’m just very comfortable traveling and very comfortable on my own.”
Aside from being bitten by the travel bug, Berenson also uses a healthy dose of Israeli chutzpah to find producers, actors, cinematographers, and crew members, to take part in his movies. It can’t be easy building up this network without knowing locals, but he still manages to piece together stunning works of art featuring unlikely feminine heroines speaking the local language. Berenson’s three most recognizable movies were filmed in the UK, Nepal, and Ukraine with actors speaking English, Nepalese, and Ukrainian.
In his third short film, Anna, a single mother bored with her job in a meat processing plant, finds herself taking part in organized international “love tours,” or parties that bring male tourists from the US to war-torn Eastern Ukraine to find women they’d like to marry and bring back to America.
“It’s a story of an older woman, a middle-aged woman, but it’s also a story which has a lot of layers and meaning,” he says, “It’s a very emotional story that you can enjoy even if you don’t understand any of those other aspects because it’s funny, and it’s sad and ironic and there’s some humor in it.”
The complicated emotions depicted in the film, as well as its social themes are just some of the aspects that have captivated audiences worldwide.
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“Its also how the film is made,” Berenson explains, “It starts in the first shot where there are these pieces of meat that are hanging from the ceiling. It gives you the theme of the film immediately. It’s the theme of the meat market, that these women go to parties and they’re sort of seen as pieces of meat for the guys.”
Then there’s the film’s unique subject matter. Berenson discovered these “love tours,” or parties, when he first visited Ukraine in 2011 after he and a friend bought a van and traveled Central and Eastern Europe for seven months.
These parties in Ukraine are well-known, but not to the tourist or outsider, he explains. “When you write the script for a short film, you really want to find an interesting story. It has to be original because otherwise, nobody’s going to care. There are 20,000 short films a year.”
Despite the large numbers of short films currently being produced, something has grabbed the attention of film critics and academy members alike. Anna has premiered at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, where it was one of 11 films from more than 4,000 entries selected to compete for the Palme d’Or award. It also won a British Independent Film Award and was shortlisted for a BAFTA, the film award from the British Academy. It was nominated for a Ukrainian Film Academy award and an Ophir, the award given by the Israeli Academy of Film and Television. It has made the rounds at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Athens Film Festival, the Stockholm International Film Festival, and many others.
The film could even be up for an Academy Award this year. A spokesperson for Berenson tells NoCamels the film Anna has been screening for voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since the winter of 2020. Official voting by the Academy for the upcoming Oscars takes place beginning February 1.
‘I was just very lucky’
Growing up in Israel, Berenson and his brother were “very creative kids” who used to develop short skits modeled after The Comedy Store, an Israeli entertainment program from the mid-90s that consisted of weekly nonsense styled comedy sketches.
“People today use TikTok as an outlet. Back then we didn’t have that, so we would write stories and put up shows for our parents,” he says.
After completing his army service, Berenson backpacked through South America, but unlike most Israelis, decided he wouldn’t come back to the country for time being. He funded his travels by working as a website builder and graphic designer.
After a longer stint in the UK and three short months at the London Film School that should have been two years, Berenson used money earmarked for tuition to fund and film his first short in the UK. The film, The Girls Were Doing Nothing, didn’t garner the same recognition at film festivals as his later works, but it made Berenson realize he wanted to create five films about five different women from five countries with very different backgrounds.
His next film, Ashmina, was the second in the series, but it also won several prizes as a standalone short film, including Best Narrative Short at the Jerusalem Film Festival. As the story of a young Nepali girl who assists paragliding tourists for money, Berenson calls Ashmina a “social realist” film and says he wanted to capture a traditional society “challenged by the flood of tourists who visit daily. “
After Israel, Berenson says he wants to go to Brazil and film his next short film there. He has already filmed half of it, but production was halted due to the pandemic. The Brazilian short will be the fifth element of his five-part film series.
“I was just very lucky. It’s luck, but also hard work to make these films. I have an advantage that I am a little bit older than people usually start to make short films and this experience of traveling abroad and living abroad and my life experiences,” he tells NoCamels.