Israeli director has won prizes in Iran and Iraq, Oscar buzz looms

Following festival success in Tehran, Krakow, Dublin, Jerusalem and Kurdish-controlled Iraq, Berenson's film, Ashmina, is being primed as the successor for Guy Nativ's Oscar winning short film, Skin.

Israeli director Dekel Berenson (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli director Dekel Berenson
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Dekel Berenson, an Israel-born, London-based director, learned that his film, Ashmina, had won a special jury prize at the Tehran Short Film Festival in mid-November, his first thought was, "I hope no one lost their head because of this."
The director, speaking in a phone interview from California, where is preparing to shoot a new film, was only half-joking. While his website mentions that he served in the Israel Defense Forces before going abroad nearly 20 years ago to work and study and the fact that his first name is the Hebrew word for palm tree, Berenson said, "I don't think they knew I was Israeli."
While that's possible, it's also possible that they knew and were impressed enough with the movie that they didn't care.
Set in Nepal, the film tells a story of a girl who works folding and unfolding parachutes for paragliding tourists. Seeing them soaring above her head emphasizes how stuck she feels, coming from a family that only has enough money to send one child to school and chooses her brother. While at first she is happy getting generous tips from tourists, her story takes a dark and tragic turn.
The film has been shown in more than 100 film festivals and has recently won awards at festivals in Iraq (in a Kurdish-controlled region) and Ireland. Its previous wins in the Jerusalem Film Festival in the summer and at the Krakow Film Festival make it eligible for Oscar consideration and it will surprise no one if it makes the Oscar shortlist for Best Live Action Short Film, which will be released in December. Last year's winner in this category, Skin, was also directed by an Israeli, Guy Nattiv.
But although Berenson is Israeli enough to know not to attend an Iranian film festival, he hasn't followed the traditional path of Israeli filmmakers: attending film school in Israel, making a few short films and eventually a feature and going abroad if the feature is a hit on the international festival circuit. Instead, the Haifa native went into the IT business abroad, which has helped him finance his movies. "I like being independent and finance as much of my work as I can." He has been moving all over the world, looking for subjects and making films about them.
"I go wherever the stories take me. I make films that if I don't make them, they won't be made," he said. He is also currently on the festival circuit with Anna, a film about a woman in the Ukraine who attends an event that brings together local women desperate to leave their homeland for the US or Western Europe with men who are desperate to find women. Anna has been also been shown at dozens of festivals, including Cannes, and won several prizes. "My work connects my passion for filmmaking with my passion for traveling."
After his military service, "Like a lot of Israelis, I went traveling, it was supposed to be for one year but I never went back," he said, adding, "Even though I haven't lived in Israel for years, I read the news from Israel all the time. . . I joke that I want to be buried in Israel."
While a return to Israel might figure in his long-term plans, in the near future, he'll be in California, co-directing a film with Paul Wesley, an actor best known for The Vampire Diaries, about a Latin American father and son who share a loss that brings them closer together. He's also in talks with a streaming service that he prefers not to name about making an anthology television series with stories and actors from around the world.
"Making films is a combination of very hard work and luck," said Berenson.