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Interview with director Kseni Avonavi


Kseni is an award-winning film director, originally from Russia. She is best known for her thesis film Jack and Anna. It screened at 40 festivals including the American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival, the Academy Award®-qualifying 28th St. Louis Film Festival and the Academy Award®-qualifying Indy Shorts International Film Festival, Presented by Heartland Film. Jack and Anna won the Best Global Short: Beyond the Rainbow Award at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival. Kseni was also nominated for the Young Director Award 2020 at the Cannes Lions. Kseni is interested in stories that show human strength and willpower. She has dreamed of being a filmmaker since her childhood and began to write short stories in her teen years. She has finished The Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography a.k.a. VGIK, and later earned her master’s degree in Cinema Directing from Columbia College Chicago.

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

As far as I can remember, I only ever wanted to be a filmmaker. I started watching movies at a very early age and I have never imagined myself anywhere else. I’ve also loved music; I played the violin for several years while studying at music school. To this day, music influences me a lot when I write my screenplays. I love listening to soundtracks and I get a lot of inspiration from listening to the music. Additionally, when I was a child, I loved drawing. I was testing out different art forms, but nothing is compared to my obsession with film. The Cinema world was true magic for me.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

I think that it depends on the individual. There is no universal answer to this question. Most people would probably say “no, you do not need to attend a film institute to be a successful filmmaker.” It is true for some people; it is different for others. It depends on many factors such as your background, your connections in the industry, your financial situation, and your talent. For some people, a film institute can be the only way to break into the industry. It also depends on the school. If it is a prestigious film school with a good reputation, then it might give a good kick for your career. Additionally, if you have any gaps in your filmmaking experience, film school would be helpful. My professional growth was significant thanks to film school. I learned a lot about cinema history, and I was able to shape my professional skills. To me, film schools were a necessary step.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

This is another question that doesn’t have a definitive answer. To me, it is both. Once again, it hugely depends on your background and what kind of support you have. If you are an artist with few connections in the industry and no money, then it will not be easy to either start or keep going. There were many moments when I was about to give up, but I just kept pushing myself towards my childhood dream. I cannot live without creating and I want to keep growing as a professional. Lastly, I am lucky to be supported by the people who believe in my talent. It is important to surround yourself with people who will build you up. It is also good to be pushed down sometimes because it will make you even stronger as a person and an artist. I was pushed down so many times, but these were the moments when I was tested as a filmmaker and I was able to overcome those challenges.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

Film production is an unpredictable process. What I mean is that you can plan every detail, but something still won’t work the way you want.  When we were in post-production, we realized that we needed help from the VFX artists for two scenes. The work that was required to improve the scenes was extremely challenging. So, I started looking for someone who could do the changes we wanted. It took some time, and eventually StudioX at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco expressed their interest to help us. This studio is well-known for the high level of work they do. It was a one-of-a-kind experience. My post-production team members and I gained priceless experience from our collaboration with this studio. What they did was magical.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

I have worked in the industry for several years, and Jack and Anna was the best production experience I ever had despite some challenges, which are normal for any production. I was very lucky to have all these talented people united to make this film. I would never have made this movie without my team, and I am grateful to everyone who helped me to bring this project to life. The film production works as an organism – all departments are connected, and if something goes wrong in one of them the entire production suffers from it. We had challenging situations at every stage of making Jack and Anna. From finding financial recourses in pre-production to collaboration with the VFX team from San Francisco – to improving our movie. It’s important to plan several steps, and it’s crucial to find your team. The enormous support by all people who believed in this project made it possible to overcome all obstacles in our way. 

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

Savannah, my co-writer, and I spent several months developing the screenplay. We went through multiple drafts and ideas and we still did not feel like the story was working. At some point, we started distancing from the original idea, and months later the start felt lost. Later one instructor at Columbia College, Gitanjali Kapila, gave us probably the best feedback and suggested to go to our second draft. That was a big “step back” for both me and Savannah. That was the hardest artistic choice in my opinion. Now I know that we made the right decision, but back at that time, we were not confident about it.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

Most of my team were either Columbia’s students or alumni. Slowly, one by one, the right people came on board. Many of them have worked with me on previous projects, so we have already built our professional relationship. I try to stay in touch with my team. While Jack and Anna has been traveling through the festivals, my crew members were very active on our social media. They are very excited about our festival’s success. Moreover, right now, my co-writer, Savannah, and I are working on a new screenplay. It will be a feature-length film. 

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

I consider myself as part of the audience. I watch constantly, and as a viewer, I want to see more unique stories on screen. I like being challenged when I watch something. By challenged, I mean being surprised. Unpredictable story twists, multi-dimension characters, and fresh visual decisions are things that attract my attention. As a filmmaker, I feel my responsibility in front of the audience as making something that will leave a “mark,” a strong emotional reaction, and ideally, that can also be a learning experience. However, when I work on my films, I am worried more about how to transform my ideas to the screen, rather than what the audience wants. You cannot please everyone.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

Jack and Anna has received a very positive response so far. We have 40 festival selections, including the Academy Award®-qualifying festivals and the American Pavilion Showcase at the Cannes. We were shortlisted for the Young Director Award at the Cannes Lions. Moreover, we won several awards, including SCAD Savannah – Best Global Short: Beyond the Rainbow. Our festival life was affected by the pandemic – most of the festivals were postponed, and eventually had a virtual edition. We kept going, and to me, these were great moments in this uncertain time. We received multiple critic reviews over the last several months, and all of them are very positive. Festivals stay important for networking and for showing your work to the world. To me, festivals are a necessary step for an artist who is planning to break into the industry, because this is where you get your recognition.  

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh, or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

It is great to see original and fresh artists as well as you can enjoy work by someone more classical. I believe we need both. Being original and fresh very often means a new look at the old story that has been told many times. It is important to be who you really are, and not pretend to be someone else. Being honest is the most important thing for an artist.