The first scene of Anna, a 2019 short film written and directed by Dekel Berenson, is about two people inside a meat fridge. One's a man, a food inspector. He looks at the slabs of meat and grades them. The other's a woman, Anna (Svetlana Barandich). She has a pad and a pen. She notes down what the man says. What's really of interest, though, is the visual set-up. The man and the woman are practically a side note. Those large slabs of meat dominate the frame, as the two people make their way around them.
It's a metaphor for what the rest of this 15-minute film is about: meat. Rather, women treated as meat. One day, as Anna is at work " slabs of flesh are lined up behind her; we are never allowed to forget the "meat" angle " she hears an announcement on the radio. It's a woman's voice. She says the "Foreign Love Tour" is coming to town. Later, we get the details. It's an opportunity to meet good-looking, intelligent, single foreign men: "Genuine men who are interested in meeting women like you, for free."
These details are given to Anna by a woman from the agency that organises the tour. In these depressingly blue-collar environs, this impeccably groomed woman looks like an alien creature. She wears a blazing red coat, with a collar of fur. At first she looks at Anna and turns away with a "this can't possibly be Anna" look. Anna is a large woman, and despite the volume she occupies in the world, she's "invisible". Earlier, when Anna was walking back home from work, no one noticed her. Two men on the road called out to another woman, someone younger, much thinner. This is the kind of woman the agency lady must have assumed Anna to be.
Still, she takes down Anna's number and explains what the "Foreign Love Tour" is about. It's about American men who want to visit Ukraine. Why do these men make this long journey? "Because Ukrainian women have class," the agency lady says, and compares them to American women, who don't want to clean, or do work, or have children, and keep complaining. In other words, these men don't want "women" with any semblance of an individual personality. They want "pieces of meat". At least, that's the agency's spiel.
Soon, Anna is face-to-face with a man from Texas, who works in an oil rig. Between them sits a translator, a hopelessly inadequate one. The man talks about being a trucker in his previous career, and shakes his head while recalling the treacherous turns in the Colorado mountains. He says, "They make you talk to Jesus." This is what the translator gets from his speech, as she turns to Anna: "He likes the mountains and he likes Jesus." Anna smiles and replies. She, too, likes the mountains and Jesus.
The film doesn't make the Texan a villain. Like in Mads Matthiesen's Teddy, which I wrote about a few columns ago, men can find it difficult to partner up, too. This Texan says he doesn't judge a book by its cover, meaning Anna's plus-size-ness isn't exactly an issue with him. Then, he adds, "I mean, I wouldn't take a truck up one of them mountains unless I looked underneath the hood to make sure everything was connected the way it is supposed to be."
I winced at the way he put it. It sounds logical. You would not want to take a woman back to America unless you, well, "got along" with her. And yet, there it is again: that sense of "appraisal" we saw in the very first scene, with the meat inspector grading those slabs of meat. We get that sense in the Texan when he says Anna has got "good eyes". He may have simply meant that Anna's eyes look, say, warm or welcoming or kindly. Still, the constant "slabs of meat" visuals make us respond to his statement as though he is appraising her. (It's a classic example of how visuals can make us perceive words.) And because these women are so desperate, there's no possibility of a reverse grading. If the man is found lacking in some respect, I doubt Anna would be able to say anything.
Anna was part of the Short Film Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival (it premiered there), and it's near-perfect.
It uses its concise running time masterfully. It doesn't waste time in making us "pity" Anna.
The camera rests on Anna as she files her nails, with her side to us. If we "pity" her at all, because of her largeness and the problems this aspect will result in, then that emotion is on us. Anna certainly doesn't want our sympathies.
The director told the web site drm.am that he'd heard of mail-order brides, but only upon visiting Ukraine did he know there was such a thing as a "love tour". He said they were an important part of Ukrainian culture: "everybody knows about them and many women at one point or another (have) either been to such a party or know someone who did. At the same time, they are not known outside of Ukraine."
His first reaction was that these parties are absolutely awful, "a place where desperate men come to seek desperate women who would do anything to immigrate to another country, or that some if not most of these men are there on some kind of a sex tour. But digging deeper, it is not as simple. It is a more complex social situation, it is a story of loneliness, despair, and hope. I hope that I was able to convey that in my film."
He absolutely does. If anyone's the "villain" of this piece, it's the translator, who might be seen as a stand-in for society. When the Texan asks Anna what her hobbies are, Anna says she enjoys reading, the theatre, long walks, and so on. But the translator tells Texan that Anna loves to stay in and cook. I left the film wondering what would have happened had the translator not lied. Would Anna and the Texan have gotten along? However imperfect the set-up scenario, would there have been a happily-ever-after? That's what the best short films do. They don't provide closure. They make you consider a situation and leave you thinking.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).