After only three months at the London Film Academy, Dekel Berenson closed the classroom door behind him and opened a new door on a filmmaking career.
That decision may have seemed rash or premature to some. But it was a classic example of Israeli chutzpah.
Despite his lack of credentials, with just three years of experience, Berenson is racking up major awards for two short films depicting the fictionalized lives of women in different countries.
Berenson’s “Ashmina” premiered at the London Film Festival and is qualified to be nominated for a 2019 Academy Award, having won awards at the 57th Krakow Film Festival and the 36th Jerusalem Film Festival this year.
Berenson’s second short, “Anna,” was one of 11 films (out of 4,240 entries) selected to compete for the Palme d’Or award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
In a historic first, both of Berenson’s films appeared on the long list for the upcoming British Independent Film Awards (BIFA). “Anna” is one of five short films that ultimately received the BIFA nomination.
“Ashmina” also picked up awards at the Slemani International Film Festival in Iraq and at the Richard Harris International Film Festival in Ireland. At the latter festival, “Anna” lead actress Svetlana Alekseevna Barandich won Best Actor in a Female Role.
Produced by Merlin Merton, the two films are traveling companions as they go from festival to festival, Berenson told ISRAEL21c.
The original digital nomad
The 40-year-old Haifa native recalls making movies as a child, using a VHS camcorder for filming and a VCR for editing.
He earned a master’s degree in international relations from the Central European University in Budapest in 2006. Then he worked in web and graphic design to finance his extensive travels across the world.
“I became a digital nomad before anyone else was doing it,” says Berenson.
“I traveled to 60 or 70 countries. Wherever I went, I took courses. I did a skipper course, mountaineering, a North Pole expedition and other crazy things,” he relates.
“When paragliding in Nepal in 2014, I saw children running toward me and I didn’t understand what they wanted at first. Eventually, I realized they are there to pack your glider for you for small change. I thought, one day when I become a filmmaker — which was then a distant dream — it would make a great short film.”
That later became the basis for “Ashmina,” depicting a 13-year-old girl who folds and packs gliders in exchange for coins she is forced to hand over to her parents.
But first, Berenson went to London, where he took an acting class and signed up for a course at the London Film Academy. Itching to get a jumpstart on his new career, he soon set out on his own.
“I wrote ‘Ashmina’ in two hours, packed my bags and went to Nepal,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
Using his own funds, he shot “Ashmina” over the first three months of 2018 in Pokhara, Nepal, in open locations with available light. He hired a mostly local crew and actors (“We just went to all the local schools and talked with people”). Post-production on the 15-minute film was done in Lisbon within one month.
Hard work and luck
Berenson shot “Anna” in Ukraine. It’s about an aging single mother lured by a radio advertisement to a party where American men come, supposedly searching for love. At the party, Anna is confronted with the realities of her advancing age, with the American men’s real intentions, and by her underaged daughter who also shows up at the party.
“Because of my experience traveling I was able to come up with stories that are quite original,” says Berenson.
He attributes his remarkable early success also to “a combination of hard work and luck. It’s 80 percent hard work. For the last three years I basically have had no life outside of filmmaking.”
He no longer has to bootstrap his films, due to the wide recognition generated by the showings of “Ashmina” and “Anna” at more than 100 film festivals so far.
Berenson next plans on shooting another three films in the same series – in Brazil, New Zealand and Israel – featuring fictional women whose names start with “A.”
Though he’s based in the UK now, Berenson still considers Israel his home.
“Because I never really settled anywhere else, I don’t see myself becoming anything else but Israeli,” he explains.