If I counted correctly, Russian-born, now England-based Anna Kumacheva and I have been friends for six years. I’m embarrassed to admit that it was only recently that I realized that award-winning educator/filmmaker Anna Kumacheva and award-winning screenwriter Enni Red were the same person. All three of us share a love for screenwriting, teaching, and Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s just that the three of us actually number only two. Furthermore, seeing as her facebook page actually lists BOTH her names, it appears that only one of the three are observant – and it clearly isn’t me.
If you aren’t yet familiar with Anna, you will be.
I had the pleasure recently to sit down and interview Anna about not only herself, but also about her latest film project, TRANSGRESSING. Normally, I’d give you a short synopsis here, but she did a better job in the interview than even I could have, so read on…
JON MEYERS: Thank you Anna for agreeing to this interview. It’s been a while, so it’ll also be nice to get caught up. Tell my readers your projected release date, and why now is the time we need a film like TRANSGRESSING…
ANNA KUMACHEVA: Thank you for helping me spread the word on this project. We are still in the process of post-production and provisionally plan to finish the film in February 2022. (EDITORS NOTE: The planned date to end the crowdfunding effort is February 14, 2022.) After that, a 2-year-long festival journey around the world will begin. This film is a loose, modern day adaptation of one chapter from “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky, whose 200-year anniversary is celebrated around the world this year. Someone might think – why should young people round the world be interested in a 19th century Russian novel adaptation? For me – this is a very easy question to answer: I believe Dostoevsky is a very international and modern writer. His novels, ideas, and characters are focused on a human being and on the moral choices a human can make when he/she is pushed to their limits. Dostoevsky writes about poverty and social issues which unfortunately haven’t changed much since the 19th century.
When I started writing the screenplay of “TRANSGRESSING,” I learned about a research project led by Swansea University (link – www.thestudentsexworkproject.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/TSSWP-Research-Summary-English.pdf), which showed that almost 5% of British University students are involved in sex work to pay for their studies or life during studying at Uni. “TRANSGRESSING” explores this work, so I am sure this is a topical film. In addition, we raise a number of other important questions for modern Britain (and not only Britain, to be honest): Social inequality, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of education, freedom from abuse, the #metoo movement, to name but a few. I like making thought provoking films as I am that type of idealist filmmaker who believes that films can change the world.
JM: As you know, I share those same beliefs – and as do you, I encourage my students, in whatever way I can, to become aware of the importance of magnifying their voice. Clearly, your heritage has influenced you greatly. Funneling that down a bit to modern-day Anna Kumacheva, how does your day-to-day life — off set and away from screens — find its way into your writing? And how does your heritage shine through the cracks of the public 2022 Anna?
AK: My writing was always influenced in a way not only by Russian cultural heritage, but also by my social background. Although I was raised in a very educated and intellectual family (my mother and grandmother were teachers), I come from a financially poor background. In Russia, teaching has always been a very low-paid profession, unfortunately. This low-paying occupation meant I never had opportunities in life that would come about through monetary means. Having just the moral support of my family and my determination to achieve my dreams, I came a long way from working on unpaid no-budget film productions in Russia while struggling to pay my bills, to moving to the UK as a Ph.D, researcher and filmmaker, being finally able to make savings — all “eaten” by my films ha-ha! — and produce my own films. Some people say I am lucky, but to be honest – I never was. I was just stubborn and never wanted to give up.
So, getting back to your question, I would say that my writing is influenced a lot by knowing what it feels like to have very little and to struggle day-to-day — to know how hard it can be to fight for your dreams on your own, and how it can break you down at times. But that can also help to make you stronger. Interesting and complex characters have to have a journey; they should fail, learn, get stronger, etcetera. Many stories I write (some are yet to be produced) are about underprivileged young people fighting for their dreams — which is about me to some extent. I didn’t go to the extremes Sonia (the protagonist of “TRANSGESSING”) goes to — but I can definitely feel and relate to what she is going through in her day-to-day life.
Another thing I can add is regarding being a public person and being out there on social media. Many emerging/aspiring filmmakers I know and follow on social media are sharing their successes with films, and the process of filmmaking, and all those festivals and laurels. I am not an exclusion, unfortunately. This can give an impression that we are those bohemian creatures living in a dream which ordinary people cannot be a part of. However, I know many creative people, who have mild-to-severe mental health issues. Many of us may suffer from some form of anxiety and depression. Many have lost sources of income because of the pandemic, which made things worse. We usually don’t share this kind of stuff on social media. I wish I could be more courageous to share more of the low moments of failure and insecurity. They are part of my life too, not only the red carpets — pre-2020 obviously — and laurels. Not sure I am answering your question…
JM: You’re doing great. Please continue.
AK: Just going round and about and getting to some dark places. For example, sometimes in my day-to-day life, as a Russian woman in Britain, I can be judged as a rude person. English people are very polite… I am still learning to be like that as we, Russian people, are quite straightforward.
JM: My grandparents from Poland experienced much the same thing here in the States. There was no one kinder than my grandfather, yet his accent was often misperceived as brash or suspicious. He spoke perfect English, as did my grandmother, but their syntax when asking a question was definitely Eastern European. Add to that the fact that we were just outside of Chicago, so figure in some straightforward, abrupt honesty too. Nevertheless, I contend, his awareness of all this made him strive to be even kinder. Question Three: Is there an image from TRANSGRESSING that lingers with you even after all this time? I’m sure there are many — but what’s the one you can’t shake? Similarly, is there a defining image which represents the story in a snapshot, so to speak. If so, are they the same image?
AK: This is a question that is very hard to answer without giving away spoilers. As a storyteller who loves to have twists in all my films, I am usually very protective of those twists and want our audiences to have the best experience by discovering these twists when watching the film for the first time. Therefore, my answer will be full of mystery, sorry about that!
JM: Haha, I understand. I’m sure you can talk around the spoilers…
AK: When we were shooting one of the final scenes of the film — which is the climax of the story — I had an unbelievable experience on set. This was a very sensitive, tense, and emotional scene, the most tense of the whole film I would say. Because of the sensitive nature of the scene, we didn’t want to make this experience even harder for our lead actress, the incredible Hannah Saxby. So we kicked out almost all of the crew (which was quite big for a short film) from the room we were shooting in. There were only three people on set with the actress: our director, boom operator, and myself. We shot this scene in one take. It was so intense that it was just impossible to repeat it again and again. When I went out of the room after this take – I just started to cry. The experience of watching this scene take place was so emotional that I just couldn’t believe what just happened. This scene was also a bit longer than we expected it to be. When we were editing it – cutting it down didn’t really work as it was losing its power. So we just left the whole scene as it is. Some short films are shorter than this one scene, made in one shot. So, answering your first question – this is the image I see in front of my eyes due to the powerful performance of our actress. I’m sure, the audience will be emotionally moved by this scene, and this image will stay with them after watching the film.
As for representing the story in one image — this is a fun one, as the answer is something that is no longer in the film. The last shot of the film would have been the answer to your question. I cannot tell you what that was. We recently cut it away in the edit. There was a certain mystery object in the film… I think the viewers will be wondering throughout the film what this object means. We had a very clear answer in the end. Well, maybe not “on the nose” clear, as it had a symbolic meaning. In the end, we made a decision not to give this answer, not to explain it, and to leave the story with an open ending.
JM: I love that.
AK: As a filmmaker, with every film, I learn to give more freedom to the audiences of my stories. Everyone knows that film is a very collaborative process, but rarely do we discuss that this collaboration should be not only between director, writer, editor, DOP, composer, actors, and other crew members. This collaboration should be with the viewers as well. They should be a part of the story creation. I think it is, in a way, incredible, when different people have different interpretations while watching the same film. So, to answer your second question, without really answering it – there is surely an image that represents the whole story for me. But you won’t get to see it in the film.
JM: Again, I love that. Sometimes readers will ask. “What was that supposed to mean?” To which I almost always reply, “ Exactly. What did that mean to you?” This is yet another area in which we are in agreement. The collaboration is also between the film and the viewers. The challenge is — I think — to personally engage as many viewers possible while simultaneously being aware that each individual viewer has his/her own personal cultural inventory — the sum of all the media, advertising, storytelling, and so on, which they have consumed from birth until this the very moment they consume YOUR text — in this case, TRANSGRESSING. Without pandering to the least common denominator — although I contend, unpopularly so, that there are times where pandering is a legit default — how do you go about doing that? Without repeating any of your earlier answers, how do you strategize that? And how do you motivate the rest of the team to get on board?
AK: Yes, all you say about viewers background – all that is absolutely right. And we, the filmmakers, just need to live with the fact that we cannot please everyone. Even if we look at the greatest biggest award- winning films, there will be people who will not like or even hate them. A great example from our recent experience with “TRANSGRESSING.” We showed the film to the test audiences — different ages, genders, nationalities). There were different opinions on some scenes but what was especially interesting for me – there were two particular aspects of the film where opinions of the test audiences were diametrically opposite! Let’s say, there is a scene (which I love, by the way) which half of the people either hated or were annoyed with it — and another half of the people absolutely loved and said it was so powerful. Which leaves us — in this film, the director and I — just to follow our guts in what we love. Yes, this will make half of our audience unhappy. But this is life, I guess. I was tempted after that feedback to go to that common denominator and compromise with editing to try and make both sides a little happier somehow. That didn’t work. This is a creative decision-making process. It took me lots of time to find a perfect director to this story I wrote. As we started, I needed to meet someone with very similar ideas about my story; that was important. And even though I am absolutely happy with the current director who did fantastic job – that doesn’t mean we agree on everything. We argue, we fight, losing some battles, winning some battles. And this is what making film is about.
JM: Yes, collaboration is indeed what filmmaking is all about. And speaking of collaboration, here we go… dun dun dunnnnn… Talk about crowdfunding and how it enables true believers to be participants in the process and tell my readers how they can become involved in that process through contributing to your particular crowdfunding effort.
AK: This is the fourth film I am bankrolling with the help of crowdfunding. Three previous campaigns were 100% successful — but they were easier in many ways. First of all, the final goals were much lower. As you can imagine, 4-5 minute films are cheaper to make than a 25-minute film — even just in terms of cast and crew. It is sometimes possible to ask someone to act/shoot for free, provided they like your story, if it takes just one day in their lives. But you cannot ask the same for six days — not just full time, but mostly overtime. So I needed to cover the expenses of those crew members who agreed to work for free for the experience and credits, and pay at least some a fixed, reduced fee (highly paid professionals who came to Lancaster from all around the UK). So yes, the crowdfunding goal was pretty high this time, three to five times higher than I had raised before. All crowdfunding campaigns start from families supporting, as they are, in many ways, the biggest “true believers.” My family supported us, the families of our director and lead actress were actively participating in crowdfunding. But what amazed me in this campaign – my friends who helped to fund my previous films — and they saw them as a part of their perks fulfilment — those people came back to contribute to “TRANSGRESSING” again! This probably means that they believe in me and the stories I tell to the world, and that they would like to see more of my stories.
Another great outcome of this film’s crowdfunding is that we had absolute strangers donating to our campaigns. This has never happened before. The biggest difference (which became the biggest problem) between my previous campaigns and the “TRANSGRESSING” campaigns — we are now running the third one — is the time of the production. Unluckily for us, it coincided with the pandemic and this made our lives as storytellers much harder. Not only it was harder to shoot with all the covid restrictions, but it was very hard to run crowdfunding. Many of my friends, whom I sent information about our campaigns sincerely answered that it is a great project but they cannot help. Some people lost their loved ones and were dealing with both mental and financial hardships. Many people lost their jobs and income. I suspect that if I was crowdfunding in pre-covid times, we would have reached our goals easier.
Why support our film? Well, first of all – because covid should not win over independent cinema. Many grants for short films, which I planned to apply to – were closed because of covid. So the only way to make this film was to go to people and ask for their help. In my crowdfunding experience, I have noticed that in the mind of many people it seems to work like this – “Oh, they need £4000? I cannot give them that, and my £5 will not make any difference. So I’d better pass on it.” What I would like to say to your readers – if this thinking applies – is this: I can understand, but it is far from true. Crowdfunding is not about people who have loads of extra money to afford to fund films. Crowdfunding is about the size of the crowd. Four thousand people who donate £1 (EDITOR’S NOTE: As I post this, £1 is approximately $1.36) is equal to four people who donate £1000 – the result is the same. So here is just a piece of advice, not only for our campaign, but for any campaigns to which you get links from your friends. If you want to support a crowdfunding campaign, but you don’t feel you have enough finances, you can just donate £1-£5. And then go to your social media pages and write a passionate call to action to your friends and ask them to donate £1-£5. If just 9 of your friends listen to you, you will bring not £1-£5 to support a film, you will actually bring £10-£50. The first part of the word crowdfunding is crucial. Every bit of financial and social support really does help. If you have already been kind enough to spend time reading this long interview and found it interesting in any way, could you please spend five more minutes and visit our GoFundMe page? (EDITOR’S NOTE: The links are posted below.) All I ask is to read the page description and watch the pitch video. I think our page and video answer very well why you should consider contributing to this project. Thank you.
JM: Great, thorough answer, Anna. Thank you for your time.
AK: Thank you for your time as well, Jon Meyers.
To check out Anna Kumacheva’s gofundme page, click https://www.gofundme.com/f/short-film-transgressing