DANYA

Synopsis   Filmmaker's Statement   Filmmaker's Biography   Review

Written & Directed by
Beth Armstrong

Produced by
Luke Eve

Starring
Maddi Newling
Ian Bliss
Lija Veikins
Stela Solar

Synopsis

Danya is the story of a troubled eight-year-old girl who is curious about her late mother and determined to understand what death means. Danya's repressed father, Patrick, locked all his wife's belongings in her sewing room where they have remained untouched for years. Patrick focuses all his energy into teaching cello to aspiring students at their home and is unable to talk to Danya about her mother and unwilling to let her see inside this room.

Danya shares her frustrations and secrets with an eccentric elderly Bulgarian woman, Mrs. Rakovski, who lives alone in a rundown terrace nearby. Mrs. Rakovski has Danya read her letters from a past lover, and they have fun together despite Patrick's disapproval. Mrs. Rakovski is open to Danya's confronting questions and, unlike Patrick, is not afraid of death. Armed with knowledge from Mrs. Rakovski, Danya takes action, forcing Patrick to confront his fears.

Supported by an original score comprised of cello and Bulgarian choir, and set in contemporary Sydney across neighbouring terrace houses in autumn, this story told from a child's perspective considers how three generations deal with death.

 

Writer/Director's Statement

The haunting music of the Bulgarian Women's Choir inspired me to write the story of 'Danya'. I have always been intrigued by the connection between children and the elderly and I wanted to explore a child's curiosity with death.

Listening to this extraordinary music I recalled my relationship with an old hermit when I was a child in a small farming community in Tasmania. Old Mrs Rockliff lived in a mysterious stone cottage on a neighbouring farm. She was tiny yet she was a crack shot with a rifle and refused to talk to most people, ordering them off her land in no uncertain terms but for some reason she was happy for me to visit. I remember being in awe of her ancient things and especially liked that she gave me chocolate, which I was quite brazen about. I use some of these elements in the story.

Danya's father, Patrick is a cellist who teaches his students at their home. He has never dealt with the loss of his wife who died some years ago and is confronted by his daughter's need to learn about her mother and comprehend death. Patrick escapes into music. Danya visits her elderly Bulgarian neighbour, Mrs Rakovski who offers her friendship and a different perspective on death.

'Danya' is set in autumn to reflect the themes and located in the inner city of Sydney, where I now live. I feel this story is as relevant to city life as to the country. Tucked away inside terrace houses are elderly people who are living in different worlds that often go unnoticed. Both Mrs Rakovski and Danya's father are isolated despite being surrounded by people and though, to some extent self imposed it is an ironic part of city living.

Casting was a challenge, particularly the role of the child who would carry the film but also finding an elderly Eastern European woman and a professional cellist with acting skills. Three of the roles are first time film performances except for the father who is played by an exceptional actor, Ian Bliss. I auditioned over two hundred children for the title role and discovered Maddi Newling who had no prior acting experience. Maddi has since been cast opposite Geoffrey Rush and Heath Ledger in the forthcoming Australian feature film, 'Candy' and recently received an Australian Film Institute nomination for Best Young Actor for her performance in 'Danya'.

Composer, Biddy Connor wrote an original score for Bulgarian choir and cello and we were delighted when the 'Martenitsa' Sydney Women's Bulgarian Choir agreed to sing for the score. Stela Solar, a recognised Australian cellist performed cello for the score and also played the role of cello student, Emily.

 

Writer/Director's Biography

Beth Armstrong completed a Master of Arts in Film Directing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) 2005 and received the Film Critics Circle Award for best film and The Australian Screen Directors Association award for directing for her film Danya. Beth has also completed a three-year diploma in theatre performance at the University of Southern Queensland in 1989 and worked professionally as an actor.

Beth has directed several films including Danya, Tackle, a documentary Passion with a Pedigree (AFTRS), and a short feature, Cheek to Cheek, which was produced in association with the Australian Film Commission. Cheek to Cheek premiered at the State Theatre and went on to win ten awards at international festivals, including Best of Festival at the Palm Springs and St. Louis film festivals, Best Fiction at Corto Imola in Italy, Rhode Island and Mississippi film festivals, and Best Women's Short at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Cheek to Cheek has also screened on Canadian and Australian television.

Since its world premiere at the Jackson Hole Film Festival in 2005, where Danya won the inaugural Rosemount Diamond Award for Best Film, it has been selected to screen at seventeen international film festivals. It was recently awarded Best Film at the Boston Motion Picture Awards and Canberra Film Festival in Australia and Best Fiction at the Tirana Film Festival in Albania. Danya has also received international awards for directing, composing, editing and cinematography and was nominated for a Motion Picture Sound Editors award for sound design and an Australian Film Institute award for best young actor. Danya screened at this year's G'day LA at Paramount Studios Hollywood, alongside the premiere of the feature film, Look Both Ways and as winner of the Best Cinematography Award for the Kodak Asia Pacific Film School Competition will screen at the forthcoming Cannes Film Festival. Beth's other short films Passion with a Pedigree, which recently screened on SBS television Australia and Tackle have also won several awards and screened in competition at over twenty film festivals.

Beth has joined advertising production company Two Little Indians and has recently returned from India after directing a global campaign for Indian Tourism. Beth is represented as a writer/director by Robyn Gardiner Management and is currently developing a one-hour documentary for television and a feature film project.

 

Review by the BMPA Founders

How do you successfully pair up a veteran actor and an eight-year-old child with no acting experience whatsoever? Good directing. How do you successfully explore a relationship between two people when one of them will never stop asking questions and the other will never start answering them? Good writing.

Writer/director Beth Armstrong achieves both of these feats in her short film Danya, starring the pitch-perfect newcomer Maddi Newling and the veteran actor Ian Bliss, who could teach a course entitled “Acting Without Dialogue.” Ms. Armstrong’s use of dramatic lighting, camerawork, and score emphasize the distance in one of the story’s relationships and the intimacy in another. When Danya is with her father, Patrick, the frame almost always tells us that these two people must be mindful of each other’s space, and that the inquisitive Danya must always be aware of her father’s proximity. When Danya is with her friend Mrs. Rakovski—played by newcomer Lija Veikins with a freedom and eccentricity that rings true—the frame accentuates closeness and trust.

Danya, Patrick, and Mrs. Rakovski each live in a world of isolation. Danya has questions about her late mother, but her father refuses to discuss the issue. Patrick, in an attempt to cope with the loss of his wife, tries desperately to cut himself off from any memory of her, but Danya’s continual questioning makes this impossible. Mrs. Rakovski lives a solitary life with no one to share her dreams, memories, and thoughts except Danya, an eight-year-old girl who can’t understand love and loss the way an adult can. When Mrs. Rakovski dies, Patrick—in a particularly moving scene—must tend to the body. This moment stresses not only the impossibility of Patrick’s attempt to ignore death, but the responsibility he has to discuss the subject with his daughter.

In the end, Danya is not a movie that attempts to answer questions about death or the afterlife. In fact, it’s too smart for that. Instead, Danya reminds us that answering questions about death is not nearly as important as facing it.

 

Photography by Maureen