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Directed by: Mark Rosenblatt
Cast: Lydia Wilson, Sophie McShera, Danny Scheinmann and Izabella Dziewanska
Synopsis: A little girl, spooked by a dark tale from her mother’s wartime past, starts to believe her adored house cleaner is a sinister thief.
Ganef is your first original short but you have an extensive background in the theater. What provoked you to make the switch in mediums?
I’d always wanted to work in film as well as theater, where I’ve been a director for 20 years. What finally made it happen was a chance encounter, a few years back, with an American film producer on the Tube in London. He was reading reviews of a play I’d directed. When I nosily asked why, he told me he’d just acquired the film rights. Blown away by this coincidence, we went for a coffee and - taking a ridiculous leap of faith - he hired me to adapt the play for screen. I basically learnt how to write on the job. Baptism of fire! And that gave me the confidence to start imagining myself writing my own material for film. It took a while - I adapted a few other plays for film, including a feature film which got released in 2019 - but Ganef is the first original screenplay of my own I’ve shot. In theater, I’m a director, not a playwright. But in film, I love writing and directing. It feels incredibly personal and instinctive.
What lessons have you learned in making the switch from theater to film? Is there something from the theatrical experience that just didn’t translate into filmmaking?
To be clear, I haven’t switched completely. I still love theater. But I definitely feel with film it’s easier to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, to plunge into their present moment, visually, without words. Theater requires more spoken language. Film is more visual and I love that.
I also love that what you shoot you keep (and I imagine a lot of theater directors in film feel the same). In theater, a scene can work like a dream in one given rehearsal and fall flat the next. But in film, it’s in the bag. And that is very liberating. The pressure in theatre to create something that feels spontaneous but is repeatable every night can be very challenging.
But the great carry-over from theatre to the film set is my years of experience working with actors in the rehearsal room. In theatre, you build performances slowly across several weeks with the actor before the technical process begins. On set, surrounded by cameras, lights and the need to capture, it’s the opposite. So I feel confident about working with actors, even under time pressure.
The actors are all marvelous. Take us through the casting process.
Thank you - I’ll pass it on! Honestly, with Sophie McShera and Lydia Wilson it was easy. I made a list of actors and offered the two people at the top of the list. And they said yes. It was remarkably uncomplicated. Lynn, the cleaner, needs to be open, warm and playful, someone a six-year-old girl can fall in love with - that’s Sophie. When we approached her, I did worry, after years playing a maid in Downton Abbey, Sophie wouldn’t fancy playing another maid-type but she saw Lynn as a totally distinct character. Mrs. Hirth needs an actor who has shut out the world and yet cannot conceal her trauma. Lydia is such a fine actor on screen and stage, with a real high-frequency emotional register, and I was bowled over when she agreed to do it.
The biggest challenge was finding our Ruthie (the little girl) and, all I can say is, we were so lucky to find Izabella. We did the usual thing - our excellent casting director Matilda put out a casting call. 40 girls submitted resumes. We asked 20 to send in a little self-tape and then met eight of them for group workshop auditions. From that, we met a final three for an extended audition where we worked through moments in the script and got to know them better. Some of the girls we met were a bit older but it became really clear that for this story to work, Ruthie had to be young enough to plausibly make the mistakes she does because she is scared. There’s always a risk with actors as young as Izabella - she was FIVE when we first met her! - but her emotional intelligence, energy and wit, as well as her understanding of the camera (she’d done some modelling already), made her the standout choice. And on set she transcended all our high expectations. She was quite amazing to work with.
Ganef explores the idea of inherited trauma and the stories one generation tells the next. In this film, it’s the impact of the Holocaust survivors on those that came afterward. You have Holocaust survivors in your family. What inspired you to explore this topic and can you speak to your approach to it?
As you say, Ganef explores how trauma can be inherited by the next generation. The film isn’t strictly biographical – no family cleaner was falsely accused of anything! – but it is definitely very personal, informed by my own family’s experiences of life after surviving the Holocaust and what I absorbed growing up.
My maternal grandmother’s immediate family were German Jews, hid in Nazi Europe, narrowly avoided deportation and somehow survived, though a great many of their wider family were murdered. Listening to my grandmother’s gobsmacking tales of survival as a child at the dinner table on a Friday night filled me with horror, gratitude for being alive at all and fear of what the world was capable of. And, from a young age, I could sense my grandmother’s own inferiority complex. Even her constant reluctance to tell her amazing story, certain it was boring, revealed a sense of worthlessness so often bound up with the experience of survival.
As I grew older, I became more attuned to the clues – tiny and, occasionally, tragically, huge – that kept revealing the lifelong, mental scarring of that generation. My grandmother crossed the road to avoid anyone in uniform, could never take a taxi, never truly recovered the confidence an education might have given her. My great-uncle took his own life in the 1970s.
So I was very aware that the war did not end in 1945. No matter how loved they were, no matter how their new lives in a new country offered them safety, what they went through haunted them every day of their lives. And I was also aware of how that sense of horror carried down to my own mother, how it manifested in her own ongoing determination to memorialize: to research and document her family’s experiences and to work tenaciously to set up national Holocaust memorial events.
In Ganef, I wanted to explore that trauma in a complex way - how destructive and pernicious and self-perpetuating it could be. How trauma of this kind, whoever the victim, lives on beyond the short lifespans of news cycles, for lifetimes and for generations. How it can breed mistrust, some understandable, some irrational and unnecessarily divisive. How a parent who survived acute trauma might often try to protect their child from the world and only succeed in turning them against it.
I also wanted to represent an experience I rarely see on screen: the private experience of survivors of persecution many years after the end of the persecution itself. In Ganef, we get a snapshot of Ruthie’s mother’s pain – naps in the afternoon, an intolerance for noise, unable to connect properly with her daughter. Not high drama, just the day-to-day, subtle, simple struggles with depression, the weight she must have carried around her neck, the trauma hanging around like a ghost, haunting her, even as she tried to exist in this new country and new life.
What thought would you like audiences to walk away with after viewing this film?
That when someone is persecuted, it will most likely be passed on to their children and their children’s children. And that trauma is like a virus, resilient and adaptive, capable of living on well beyond the moment it’s inflicted.