Transgressing: Interview with filmmaker and PhD student Enni Red

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Enni Red, a Russian filmmaker, is currently producing her latest short film, Transgressing, for which she also wrote the screenplay. She is the recipient of an award of commendation from the Canada Shorts Film Festival and is currently a PhD student and tutor at LICA. Shortly before Transgressing, a modernisation of a chapter from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, was due to begin shooting, I (virtually) sat down with her to discuss the project.

What would you say you aim to accomplish with each short film you make?

A big question for a short film. So, basically, this film is a part of my PhD research at Lancaster University, so I want to make some impact in terms of academia because I’m doing some research on intercultural adaptation and this film is an adaptation of a chapter from the Russian novel Crime and Punishment. Also, I wanted to make a social impact film because this film covers some very important topics for contemporary Britain—different social issues such as education for underprivileged students.

What was it that made you want to start a PhD in film?

I’ve previously done a master’s in screenwriting and my major project was a feature film screenplay adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. When I was writing this feature film I was thinking that one of the characters of the novel should have more attention than she actually has in the novel, so I wanted to make a short film that particularly covers her story, the story of Sonia. That’s why when I was applying for my PhD I was thinking of what I could do and I decided to continue working on Dostoevsky, who is my favourite Russian writer. I think he’s very international and although his novels were written in nineteenth-century Russia, he’s still very relevant, even in modern-day Britain, so I felt that it was important to do the film on this.

What was it about the character of Sonia Marmeladova and Dostoevsky’s depiction of her that caught your interest?

I think she’s a really, really powerful character and it’s hard to talk about her without giving some spoilers from the film. Sonia makes a really controversial decision to be able to save her family who are living in extreme poverty. I’m actually sitting at the moment on the film set where we’re going on Monday to build the set for Sonia’s family home. The family is living in a one-bedroom rundown flat, and there is Sonia’s stepmother, Sonia’s father (who is an alcoholic), and also the two younger sisters of Sonia. They’re all sharing a very small flat which is definitely not enough for a family of five. Sonia tries to share responsibility for the family with her stepmother because her father is a struggling alcoholic, losing jobs one after another. He’s not able to support the family. That’s why at the end of the film Sonia will make a very tough decision to be able to save the family.

Image courtesy of Alessandro Repetti (Director), Yana Rits (Director of Photography), and Hannah Saxby (Actress)

So, what about this story did you feel was particularly relevant to the present day?

I was doing a lot of research about underprivileged young people struggling to afford higher education, and higher education in the UK is very expensive and there are not enough scholarships to pay for everyone who wants to study and many people don’t have families who are able to support them. Sometimes they’re not able to get the education they want to have. There are of course student loans, but that’s another difficult topic that puts these young people in a situation where they are trapped in the loan system and struggling to pay it back. As a filmmaker and a university tutor, I wanted to speak more about it and how education should be more available to different kinds of people and that underprivileged students should have more support from the government and from universities.

It’s quite hard to talk about it because I don’t want to let slip the spoilers from the film’s ending. Many people are living in quite poor conditions in this country. Some parents have to choose between paying their bills or feeding their kids, and that’s not a choice people should have to make. These are difficult topics which of course as a filmmaker I cannot solve. There are politicians and decision-makers who have more power, but I feel that as a filmmaker I should talk about them because the more creative people talk about these social issues, the more there is a chance of having a change in the future.

What would you most like for audiences to take away from Transgressing?

I think different people will take away different things. And also, the decision that Sonia makes at the end of the film is quite controversial and I’m definitely not saying that every person in those circumstances should do the same as Sonia does, but I was thinking that the main thing is that many, many times when people are struggling to find a solution to problems that they have, they’re making choices to sacrifice other people to save themselves because it’s human nature to be a little selfish. But Sonia is a person who sacrifices herself for the sake of others and it changes the lives of the people around her. I wanted to show how beautiful it can be when you do something not just for selfish reasons but also for the people who love you and your family and friends and how it can change the lives of everyone.

Your pitch for Transgressing cites You Were Never Really Here, I, Daniel Blake, and Fish Tank as influences on the tone of the film. Would you like to elaborate on that?

I was watching a lot of social realist movies with the director of this film, Alessandro Repetti, and we were quite influenced by Ken Loach and even had a conversation with Ken Loach in an online webinar previously this year. His film I, Daniel Blake was a big influence on me as a writer when I was writing the screenplay for Transgressing because many of the problems he’s discussing there I’m also discussing in my screenplay. Maybe not as much about bureaucracy as he is, but definitely poverty and situations where people don’t know what to do or how to help their families just as one of the characters of I, Daniel Blake struggles to provide for her children. Although she’s a good mum she doesn’t have opportunities to support them and it’s really hard for her not just to survive herself but to also provide for her kids. This was a big influence on me.

Fish Tank is also a very social-realist story about a young girl and although Sonia is quite different from the main character of Fish Tank, they’re of a similar age and living in similar conditions, so we were quite inspired by the set design in Fish Tank. I was thinking about how we can build the set for our film. We are lucky to get an empty house for filming before the owners are going to renovate it, so we’re able to do whatever we want and we’re going to build the set in two rooms of this house to give a realistic setting for the family. We’re also quite influenced by Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which is not a social realist film, but in terms of its style and tone, it’s a very big influence for the director and me.

How are you going to have to adapt your shoot to COVID restrictions?

This is a very tough issue that as a producer I’ve struggled a lot with at the moment. We’re going to film in June and we’re following the government guidelines for filming. So, the main thing is we’re going to test all cast and crew the day before filming, and of course, if someone tests positive, they’re not coming to set. We have a plan B for most of the people in our crew and cast, so if something happens before the shoot, we’re able to change one crewperson to another one, which will not be ideal, but what can we do? Then we’re going to test all cast and crewmembers every 48 hours during production, which is scheduled to last for six days.

Also, we’ve asked that most of our cast and crew isolate at home for a week before the shoot. We’re going to wear masks everywhere and we’re going to have different bubbles formed within the crew because we can’t wear masks all the time, like when people need to eat, so we’re going to have separate people in separate bubbles eating in different rooms. We also have a catering company who will be preparing food according to the guidelines. Everything will be sanitised. Masks. Gloves. Everything. And all the food is wrapped individually. So, there are a lot of different rules.

We are now writing the special COVID policy for the set and the actors and all crewmembers will need to be aware of it and follow the rules. Unfortunately, it makes our work much, much harder than in normal times. I’ve previously produced four short films in four previous years and of course, it was much easier when people could just not think about hand sanitising and wearing masks and could just make a film. And for me as a producer, it’s an extra headache. But what can I do? We just want to make the film so we’re following the guidelines and making the set as safe as possible.

Image courtesy of James Scowcroft

You’ve assembled quite an impressive crew for Transgressing. What would you say you look for in a collaborator?

Everyone who came to this production loved the script and said they believed it could be a very powerful film. I looked for people in terms of “will this film be able to get big awards at big festivals with these particular people?” My favourite joke when I was getting people on board (well I hope it’s not a joke, maybe we’ll have a chance to win an actual one) was I would tell each person, “no pressure, but I want you to win a BAFTA for this film.” So, every crewmember in their head knows they want to make the best film possible, the best film they ever made in their life. Even if they have a lot of experience, this film at this moment in their career should be their best one. I think when everyone has this approach to make the best film possible, we have a better chance of getting into big festivals, and share this story with the world, which is our ambition.

Are there any particular festivals you have your eyes on for this film?

We want to finish postproduction by November because our main goal is Berlinale, so we want to send the film there and we’ll see from there where else we’ll take it.

You’ve also mentioned writing a feature film adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

I’ve written a feature film screenplay as a major project when I was doing my master’s in screenwriting. When I was writing Transgressing, I was looking at it as a prequel to the feature film. So, basically, my bigger plan is to finish this film, hopefully get awards, and after that proceed to the feature film, which will be my first experience as a producer on a feature-length film. I’ve worked in different assistant positions on feature films but have never produced one myself. So, I actually want to continue to tell Sonia’s story because in the feature film she’ll appear again as a secondary character, but still with all the baggage she had in Transgressing. I think people who will watch this short film will be interested to know what happens with Sonia after that, and the sequel feature film, The Punishment, will answer that question.

What’re your plans for after you’ve completed your PhD?

In terms of filmmaking, my first plan will be to produce The Punishment. In terms of career, I’m doing my PhD because I’m interested in teaching filmmaking to younger people, so I would like to continue being a university tutor in film and either teach film theory or something more practical like screenwriting, as well as continuing to make short, and hopefully feature, films.

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