To Be a Free Person: Ksenia Ivanova on “Jack and Anna”

For many years, I had to confront the cruel system in my home country that does not tolerate people with a different mindset. People judged me for my ideas as if I was a traitor. The desire to work in another country was born when I realized that my stories and my screenplays would never be understood by a Russian audience. As a young female filmmaker, working in the centralized and government-controlled Russian television system, I faced many challenges. The portrayal of women in prime-time Russian television is very specific: feminism and LGBTQ issues are absent.”

So reads the director’s statement for Russian immigrant Ksenia Ivanova’s “Jack and Anna,” one of the most impressive and beautifully directed short films in recent memory. Based on true events that occurred just over a century ago, the movie centers on the forbidden romance between Helen Hilsher (Kate Smith), a.k.a. “Handsome Jack” Hill, and Anne Slifka (Brookelyn Hébert), whose union was the first same-sex marriage in Colorado’s history. The radiant sun-dappled memories of their happiness is contrasted with the coldness of the court room, where Hilsher is put on trial once her societally acceptable identity is revealed to be a façade. Ivanova won The Albert P. Weisman Award, Carole Fielding Student Grant and The Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant to make the film, which served as her thesis at Columbia College in Chicago.

“Jack and Anna” has deservedly received praise and accolades ever since debuting on the festival circuit last year, and will be screening virtually in July as part of Heartland Film’s Oscar-qualifying Indy Shorts International Film Festival. Ivanova, who also goes by the name Kseni Avonavi, recently spoke with Cinema Femme about her love of visual storytelling, her approach to directing actors and her hopes for the future of the industry.

What films left a lasting impression on you while growing up, and did you always feel destined to make films in America?

My mom recently told me that from the very beginning, I had never spoken about anything apart from Hollywood movies. My father was a huge cinephile, and he was the one who actually sparked my love of movies. Though I began by watching Disney cartoons, I was always curious about finding films that were more serious and real. So I started watching classic films by people like Hitchcock, but I would say that the first movie that served as a major influence for me was “The Piano” by Jane Campion. It was one of the first serious films I had seen, and I found its story so powerful. The lead female character and all of the relationships that the film explored were so special to me, as was the style, the music, the color, everything. 

Later, when I was around 14 or 15, I watched “The Shawshank Redemption,” and it became my favorite movie. I just love the story of this friendship between prisoners. The hero’s determination to be a free person and escape from this hell no matter what was very close to my own personal experiences. I had always been determined to go to other countries from my childhood onward. I was never ever satisfied with what was going on back in Russia, and my family went through a lot. We lost everything and became super-poor. It triggered in me this need to escape, and that is why this movie is so close to me and my spirit. I know what it feels like to be locked in a prison and eventually acquire freedom. I started watching everything, and there are so many different kinds of films that I love, from “Home Alone” to Japanese animation. 

Trailer for Ksenia Ivanova’s “Jack and Anna.”

How did you discover the story of Jack and Anna? 

I was trying to find a true story for my thesis film. I like to develop a project around events that happened in real life. Life itself is so interesting and we just need to pay attention to the things that are happening around us in order to find and pitch these stories. I am also a big fan of period pieces, and I was trying to find something that was powerful, personal and perhaps happened a long time ago. I spent the entire summer trying to find it, and suddenly I came across a trial record online where Helen was answering questions from a lawyer. 

From the first moment, I related to her pain. I just imagined what it would feel like to sit there in this court in front of these people who hate you. You don’t know these people, but they hate you for who you are, and you’re forced to answer these humiliating questions that are very personal. I also had my own experience with a trial where I was a witness, and I remembered the pressure that I felt as people watched me give my answers. I understood Helen and immediately wanted to tell her story.

The nonverbal interplay between the women in the courtroom reminded me of the wordless storytelling in “The Piano.”

At Columbia, the professors were teaching us a lot about how we need to be very visual in our stories, and this is maybe one of the biggest mistakes that young filmmakers make. We write scripts that have so much dialogue, and we don’t focus as much on the visual storytelling. The last two films that I directed at the school were largely wordless. My previous movie, “Letter from Maggie,” ran about twelve minutes, and it had a very long introduction lasting almost five minutes in which we just observe what’s going on without any dialogue. I like the audience to believe that they are with the characters inside of the screen. For shorts, it’s very challenging to reduce this amount of dialogue, and I’m grateful to Columbia instructors for teaching us that we should really think about how to show what would normally be spoken out loud. When I was thinking about “Jack and Anna”’s style and color, “The Piano” was one of the biggest inspirations in terms of shot composition.

How did you go about directing Kate Smith and Brookelyn Hébert, both of whom deliver deeply affecting performances?

Making this film was kind of an adventure in many ways. We started filming “Jack and Anna” in the beginning of September 2018, and I cast Kate and Brookelyn in July. I found out that they they actually knew each other, and their amazing chemistry was immediately apparent. They were so perfect together, and all I had to do was look at them interacting to know that they were Jack and Anna. It was so interesting for my co-writer Savannah Oakes and I to see the characters that we had written come to life. We only had a couple of rehearsals. I didn’t want to do anything that would prevent the performers from being natural and bringing in something from their own lives. Giving them this freedom is a crucial part of how I direct actors. I think it is very important to provide them with the opportunity to improvise. Great characters are born when you give actors this level of input. 

Brookelyn Hébert in Ksenia Ivanova’s “Jack and Anna.”

You’ve filled out each of the roles with accomplished actors, including Dan Flannery, who played the doctor in David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” and is effortlessly convincing here as the judge.

I was super-picky about choosing my talents. From the beginning, I had told everyone that we would be dealing with agencies and we would not be doing free casting. The story obviously required good actors, and that’s true of every film, since actors are the heart and soul of any project. We looked at so many potential actors for this role, and when Dan came in, I was like, ‘There’s my judge!’ He told me that he had just played a judge on a TV series, and he was so natural and friendly. When we were shooting his scenes, he suggested some changes in the dialogue to make it more convincing, and I appreciated his advice. He was able to show me that a judge would phrase certain lines differently, and that is why it is so important to value the voices of your actors. Sometimes they are more experienced and they can teach you something. 

Is representation a priority for you when selecting projects?

I’m open to any project, honestly. I’m interested in telling any story that I find relatable, and I believe it can be anything. Since “The Shawshank Redemption” is my favorite film, maybe one day I’ll make a movie about two guys. Who knows? We sometimes think that female directors will only be making movies about female characters, but it’s been proven time and again that we can make films about anyone. One of my favorite directors, Steve McQueen, has such a wide range. He’s capable of choosing any story and turning it into a masterpiece. That is why I love him. I was an intern on his “Widows” set, and it occurred during the same summer where I was searching for the subject of my thesis film. I got to be on McQueen’s set and observe him working with great actors like Viola Davis, Daniel Kaluuya and Robert Duvall. His set was absolutely amazing in terms of its atmosphere. He’s such a friendly, kind and generous person, and I hope to be this kind of director on my sets. 

You found seamless ways of juxtaposing the past and present through the sound design, such as when the judge’s gavel morphs into the hammering of nails.

That moment you mentioned was such a struggle for us. I spent so long working with my editor Geoffrey B. Foote to figure out how to make this transition work, and it never did. It was my sound designer Erin Elizabeth Horne who stepped in and found a smooth way of linking the gavel with the hammer. It made the audience feel as if they were going back into Helen’s memory. It’s very challenging to effectively pull off a flashback in a short film because you often don’t have enough time, but for this specific story, I never saw any other way I could structure it. We needed to have this contrast to show what the couple had together and what they had lost. They were in this happy moment where life was beautiful, and this perfect world is juxtaposed against where they are now.

Kate Smith in Ksenia Ivanova’s “Jack and Anna.”

Everything about the film feels polished and lived-in without ever appearing limited by the budget. Was that a goal that you shared with cinematographer Madelyn Momano?

Yes, Madelyn is so professional, first of all. We previously worked together on “Letter from Maggie,” which was also a period piece, and I felt like we could do it again. I originally had a different cinematographer attached to “Jack and Anna,” but when he had to leave, replacing him with Madelyn was one of the best decisions I made. I feel like she understands me without having to ask me any questions. We were working on the storyboard, and she was writing down things as I was thinking them. She somehow knows what I want and is able to articulate what I’m trying to say. 

When she read the screenplay, she offered some great ideas that we ended up using, such as how to film the scene where the guy recognizes Helen on the street and says, “You are not Jack.” Madelyn suggested that the scene would be more dynamic if it were lensed with a Steadicam, and she was completely right. The biggest challenge we had was the very last scene, which is a long Steadicam shot that follows Helen. We filmed several takes with an Arri Alexa, which is a very heavy camera, and we eventually nailed it. I admire Madelyn so much. She is amazing. 

This pandemic could potentially serve as a reset requiring a transformative shift in our priorities. What are your hopes for the future of storytelling in Hollywood?

I support your optimism as well as your idea of a “reset.” What I was observing over the last several years is that the industry is really changing. We have many more opportunities for filmmakers, thanks to platforms like Netflix, but at the same time, the competition is huge now. It’s insane how many films are submitted to festivals—even the smaller ones—and I’m honored to have screened at so many of them. I hope that we can go back to some kind of normal situation where people can return to working onset. People who are filmmakers love being onset. This is how we live, and I very much hope that we’ll be back in production soon. I am very worried about all my friends and my whole team. I want all of them to be back working and to keep growing, not just for the good of the industry, but for humanity overall. 

In order to have a necessary reset, we should definitely change our way of thinking. We need to finally realize that we have this planet, it is our home and we need to take care of it. As filmmakers, we have this great tool to teach people, and we need to embrace this moment as an opportunity to enlighten the world. One of my next ideas for a film is environmentally themed and explores the relationship between human beings and animals. We’ve seen cruelty take so many different forms, and I think filmmakers can use this situation to shape our world into something better. I also hope that the industry will open up more opportunities for everyone who wants to work and live in America, not just for a small amount of privileged people. 

“Jack and Anna” will be screening virtually in July as part of the Indy Shorts International Film Festival presented by Heartland Film. For more information on Ksenia, visit her official site. You can also follow “Jack and Anna” on Facebook and Instagram.

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