Ask Damien Anything #AMA

Today we've got ANYA Director Damien O'Connor at the AMA helm to answer your questions!

ANYA - Brown Bag Films new short film, was released online earlier this week, having been created as a unique initiative to assist Irish charity ‘To Russia With Love’ in raising funds and promoting the amazing work the organisation does to help Russia’s abandoned and orphaned children.

Damien is happy to field your questions, be they on the making of ANYA, his work with To Russia With Love or what colour his socks are - drop your question in the comments below - and we'll hop to it. (We're fielding Q's on FacebookTwitter and G+ too, if that's easier!)

If you haven't caught it already, watch ANYA here:

Who is your filmmaking hero?

I know it is a bit of a cliche but Steven Spielberg would top the list. He made Duel the year before I was born, so the timing was great, meant I got to grow up with his films from Duel onwards. And ignore anyone who dismisses War Horse, it is easily amongst his best! 

What advice would you give to your 10-year-old self?

I was a miserable 10 year old, so I probably would tell myself to cheer up. I would also recommend NOT watching Gremlins, I remember watching Gremlins and afterwards, being massively dissapointed that my cat Coco couldn't talk, took a while to patch up our relationship. Otherwise do exactly what my 40 year old self did.

What would you be if you weren't working in animation?

It took me a long time to work in animation.

I dropped out of school at 17, somehow managed to talk my way into college. Once I graduated I worked in many non related jobs, fixing mobile phones, E-learning software, eventually, out of frustration, I travelled to the worst place on earth which was then listed as Angola to make a self financed documentary about landmines.

I had to edit it myself, so I learned to edit, then ended up directing horse racing for TV (they run in a circle so take 'directing' with a pinch of salt). Then Brown Bag Films rang, they had heard I was an animator AND editor, so asked me to come in to edit Noddy. So I guess I would either be a war cameraman or a live broadcast director. 

Was the creative process any different working to a brief (supporting the charity?)

Not particularly. Debbie Deegan (founder of To Russia With Love) was a joy to work with and when I explained we wanted to do a short film, she was delighted and very happy to go with any creative choice we made. So we had a lot of free reign.

The main difference was the children, we were always aware there were a group of little Russian orphans depending on us to do their stories justice so we had to keep it close to their realities.  We screened the film at the orphanage for the kids two weeks ago, they loved it. That was a huge relief. You can see some of the kids at the end of the film during closing credits, so they were all over the moon, they are all film stars now!

ANYA brought a tear to everyone here who watched it - was it an emotional time making it or did you become immune?

It was emotional.

The first thing I did was read Debbie Deegans book, and it is an emotional read. I travelled to the orphange and met the kids first hand, they are adorable and lovely but then you hear their backgrounds and it breaks your heart.

On my first trip the orphanage was celebrating last bell, a huge family day in Russia. So there were 5 year olds all wearing dickie bows, singing their hearts out. I noticed they kept glancing at the door of the hall - I was told later it was because they were waiting for their parents to turn up to watch the show. As the day went on, the kids got more and more anxious, if a parent was going to come for them, today would be the day. By 8 o'clock it was obvious not one parent was coming.

I can still hear the crying and upset and see the discarded dickie bows on the ground.

I've been to Angola, but on a purely personal level this was so much worse. The sheer heartbreak and abandonment is overwhelming... so we all kept this in mind when making the film, because at the end of the day, the film needs to bring in donations, or the harsh fact is, these kids will have nothing.


One my fave moments is when Anya's hand holds onto the thumb of her carer - what inspired this gorgeous scene?

When I first met the kids they were understandably wary of this strange guy making a film about them. By day two they were a little more open and the thumb scene is reflection of that; one of the workers was giving out lollipops, all the kids were queuing up to get them, after a wait one of the little girls got hers, I had never spoken to her, but she toddled over and gave me the lollipop ... and then she held my thumb. I guess in a way it is the world's smallest hug.


Which moment stands out most from your Russian visits and how much did those visits help you create ANYA?

So many moments stand out.

First arriving to the orphanage, kids running to Debbie and Sophie Deegan and jumping all over them, screaming with joy. The kids running around acting out scenes from the film is one of my favourite things, they thought it was hysterical and had a ball.

The biggest influence on ANYA was the message of hope. The kids were so optimistic, happy and trusting. To Russia With Love mind these kids until they are self sufficient adults, orphans from Hortolova have gone on to become lawyers, doctors, successful business people, so I wanted to get that into the film. A feeling of hope for the future and the message that it is never too late to have a happy childhood.


What was most inspiring about the children in Russia?

Their optimism for better futures.

What was the most moving thing you've seen?  

I heard a story about a young boy who walked into the orphanage, he was on his own. He walked up to one of the carers and told them his dad had told him to find an adult, when the carer asked where his dad was, he told them his Dad had to go away for two weeks.

That was 7 years ago.

The dad has never been back. He would occasional write to say he was going to come and pick his son up, but he never has. I only heard this story after the boy had showed me photos of him as a baby in the arms of his happy smiling dad. There were many, many more, but that one stands out.


What was most inspiring about the children in Russia?

The trips to the orphanage were amazingly inspiring. It was hard (see above) but the fact To Russia With Love are there to help make the orphanage into what it is today is amazing. It can be a difficult country to work in, but they have more or less rebuilt an orphanage and made it a very pleasant place to be in and have saved so, so many lives.



That was great, if anyone has been moved or inspired by any of the above, please, please, please text HUG to 50300 and make the world a better place. And remember to keep sharing the film, views mean donations and these kids really need your help. Thanks!

Anahita Tabarsi

Anahita is Brown Bag Films' Digital Media Coordinator and designated photographer.

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