Alumni Profile: Filmmaker and Writer Anita Doron

By Carol Neshevich ● March 12, 2018 14:10

Photo of a woman's face in close-up. Anita Doron has been passionate about telling stories for as long as she can remember. Growing up in the former Soviet Union, she wrote poetry prolifically as a child until a powerful experience with a Super 8mm camera at age 12 led her to shift her creative focus from poetry to filmmaking.

Doron moved to Canada and began studying film at Ryerson University in 1998. From there, her film career quickly flourished. In 2007, she participated in a special co-production with the  Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab (CFC Media Lab) and the National Film Board (NFB), in which she collaborated with two other directors, Daryl Cloran and Mateo Guez, to create North America’s first interactive feature film, Late Fragment. In 2012, she received critical acclaim for her Toronto International Film Festival-premiered feature film, The Lesser Blessed, and most recently, she wrote the screenplay for 2017’s The Breadwinner, an Academy Award-nominated animated film, based on the Canadian novel by Deborah Ellis, about a young girl in Afghanistan who dresses as a boy to work so she can support her family.

Prior to her winning Best Adapted Screenplay for The Breadwinner at the Canadian Screen Awards on Sunday, March 11, we chatted with Doron about her creativity-fueled childhood, her eye-opening CFC experience, and the importance of telling stories that need to be told.

How did you first become interested in film?

I was born and grew up in a town that was mostly Hungarian, but it belonged to the Soviet Union. In my town, there was a man-made river. This river was once a beautiful respite for the townsfolk to swim in and enjoy at the end of a hard day, but over time, it became a moving cesspool. Nobody would dare put their feet into the water anymore. It was just accepted, but I didn’t feel like accepting it. I wanted to do something about it.

My friend’s father had a Super 8mm camera, so we borrowed it and started running around and investigating—asking what’s going on and what can be done, and what do the people think. Most people wouldn’t talk to us because they didn’t want to face the repercussions, but we were too innocent to care. So we talked to some of the drunks, who would tell us things like, “When I was a little boy, I used to cool my body in this river and we had this most wonderful childhood next to the river. We had our picnics and now it’s just garbage.” A few days into our production, we got called into the mayor’s office. I even brought a little tape recorder with me, thinking, “Great, now I can ask some questions about the river!” I pressed the button to record, but then they basically told us to stop filming or our parents would be fired from their jobs and reprimanded.

Our parents, however, wisely and generously encouraged us to continue. We did send the film into a lab and it came back completely clear. I don’t think it was the bureaucracy [who ruined it]; they weren’t organized enough to actually sabotage our film. I think we screwed up the exposure. So that was the end of that. Yet it was the beginning of my passion for filmmaking because I saw the power it has. If two 12-year-old girls could put these bureaucrats into a state of fear and worry, then we were onto something.

What do you like best about working in the creative realm?

The freedom. Because I grew up in a place where freedom was limited, my craving for freedom was implanted in me from a very young age. My parents were free thinkers and encouraged me to be one, too. They encouraged me to not see any limits and they led by example. My mother was an engineer and so was my father, and I grew up watching them. They would discuss their work and my mother would draw the complicated schemes for the instruments that she was making for my father. The two of them would discuss and build and work, and I just found it so impressive. They were completely equal in their ability and were having so much fun doing something they both love.

What are you most proud of in your career?

That I didn’t give up when it was hard. I spent two years in the army [1994 to 1996]. Although I am a pacifist and went into the army service kicking and screaming, “I’m a pacifist,” the actual army training was profound for me. It taught me that my limits are much farther away than I knew. When I think I’m exhausted and I can’t go on, I can. So it really helped me see that, and it was actually great training for being in the film industry.

How do you think your experience as an immigrant has shaped the way you tell stories?

I hope it has shaped me to have more empathy with and understanding for things that are different and distant from me. Because at the end of the day, we all experience the same colour of sadness and the same colour of fear; it’s all the same. Our cultures don’t separate us; our mutual human existence unites us.

"Put something generous into the world in whatever way you can."

- Anita Doron

Photo of a woman's face in closeup
Describe your time at the CFC. What did you learn from the experience that stuck with you?

Anita Lee [NFB] and Ana Serrano [CFC] came up with this brilliant idea to make an interactive feature film, Late Fragment, with three zany directors and I was one of them. The other two were Mateo Guez and Daryl Cloran. So we spent more than a year working on it together, figuring out the framework for the story, and then, because the framework was on restorative justice, we travelled to a high-security prison in Montreal and met with prisoners. We talked to them about how they arrived at this place of being in prison, which profoundly affected us all.

There also was the whole process of making the film. I absolutely fell in love with Ana and Anita and the whole team, and I learned that their way of thinking was very new and exciting to me because they are real innovators. They take cinema, new media and storytelling, and they come at it from a really different angle from what I was used to, which was more traditional filmmaking and its modes of storytelling. Their way still involved authentic storytelling with the greatest of hearts and passion. Figuring it all out was like a puzzle for me; the interactive aspect was a puzzle, and then the puzzle of the story, and the puzzle of the three stories together, and these elements all connecting. It was just one of the most amazing things for my brain.

What career advice you would give to a young artist just starting out in the film industry?

Figure out what really excites you and tell those stories. Not the stories that are popular or the ones that will get funding, or those that will appeal to this or that group — forget that. Just find what you really love, enjoy, and what you feel needs to be told – what’s burning inside you to be told.

Also, look outside yourself. This would be advice I would give my younger self. For me, I was always interested in the lives of others. That’s important. If there are stories that are not being told and you are in the position to tell them, then tell them.

How did you feel when The Breadwinner was nominated for an Oscar this year?

It was so joyful, and such a different level of experience to be put in that category of all the Oscar-nominated films that had come before. We also felt honoured to represent independent filmmakers and independent animation. We’re such a rare breed at this level, because we’re up against studios, and it’s incredible to be in this company. I really felt by the end of it that we made an incredible film. I’m glad we could do justice to Deborah Ellis’s story, as well as to the people of Afghanistan and to the women who had to—and still have to—live through things like that, not just in Afghanistan but in many parts of the world.

Any final thoughts?

The bottom line for me is generosity and kindness. Nothing else matters. Put something generous into the world in whatever way you can. Whether it’s telling stories, or making excellent coffee, or decorating, it doesn’t matter. Nothing has a higher or lower value. The only value is putting something good into this world. 

Animated film still of two boys sitting on a desert city ledge looking out into the distance.

This piece has been edited and condensed for publication.