This IFTA Nominated Director's Life was Changed by Working with Russian Orphans
Director, writer, editor and producer, Damien O'Connor, has twice been nominated for a prestigious Irish Film and Television Award.
Classically trained as a 2D animator, Damien has worked as a documentary producer and live broadcast director.
He is the director of Anya, a five-minute animated short film inspired by the work of the charity To Russia With Love.
This is Damien's story:
If it were a film, my first encounter with Debbie Deegan would probably be in the comedy farce genre.
I was in work one day when Debbie, whom I had never met or spoken to before, rang me out of the blue to ask if I would be interested in making a short advert to highlight the work that To Russia With Love do.
I calmly explained that it was impossible as animation is insanely time consuming, expensive and I just did not have the time.
The truth is, I also didn't have the interest.
I suspect like a lot of people, when I heard the words Russian orphans I pictured grim VHS footage of hell, where filthy kids stare blankly from cots in abject misery.
Very admiral that someone wanted to help these guys but it was not for me.
But I was intrigued enough to go to the website.
And it was there that I began to read the children’s own stories. These stories were not some objective observer recounting the horrors of their subjects; these were first person accounts from the children themselves.
They were written in the raw, brutally honest language of children.
All so chirpy and matter of fact as they trotted through the horrors of finding parents dead, seeing fathers murdered, hearing they were found by police as their mothers tried to sell them at markets… no flourishes, no manipulation, no delicate prose to embellish their pasts, just the excited gushing of children talking in the ‘How I spent my summer holiday’ language of primary school essays.
These were not the voices of feral children, these were the voices of my children, of your children, of children everywhere.
These were the voices of children in desperate need of help, care and love.
I replied to Debbie.
I could not take on the job myself but I could assist her when it came to finding someone who could.
Like a cat waiting to be let out this was the crack in the door she needed, no sooner had I hit send than my journey in the whirlwind force of nature that is Debbie Deegan began.
The plan was simple – we would make a full five minute short film as a piece of entertainment.
If people liked it they could thank us by sending a donation to the charity.
And then Debbie suggested I come to Russia to meet the children myself.
I leapt at the chance and it is a testament to Debbie’s enthusiasm that she could turn a man wanting nothing to do with Russian orphans into a man itching to go to a Russian orphanage in the space of a few weeks.
The first day at the orphanage was surreal.
It was last bell, a traditional family day in Russia where they celebrate the kids leaving school.
The kids were dressed in black tie. 4 year olds in dickie-bows, girls in mini ball gowns. As far removed as you can get from the grainy images of horror I grew up with on the news, but no less heart breaking.
Given the juxtaposition between a day of bright happy celebration and the huge glaring absence of family members, the colourful costumes felt like a mortuary painted in bright primary colours.
The kids put on an elaborate show, with every song, every dance routine, every faltered poem the heartache grew.
Eventually we all moved outside, the kids had written their wishes for the future on white balloons. As they released them the balloons soared up, the kids and adults clapped and cheered.
Then one balloon began a sideways descent, it slowly fell back to earth, bounced across the potholed pavement and came to rest against behind a shabby stone wall.
There was a brief flurry of discussion among the kids, should they check the balloon, see whose wish would not came to fruition. A decision was made, the kids all ran back inside, the balloon was left anonymous.
If the film lets them know that people around the world care about them, then it has done its job.
This is what To Russia with Love spend every day working towards, the chance to make children feel loved, the chance to change lives.
But the thing is, To Russia With Love don’t just change the lives of the children in their care they change the lives of everyone they bring with them.
I am reluctant to even write that as it brings the emphasis to my story, and this should not be a story about me or the charity, it should be a story about the thousands upon thousands of abandoned and orphaned children in the Russian federation.
Spending a few hours in Hortolova orphanage can give you a sense that the problem is solved.
A trip to any of the other thousands of orphanages across Russia corrects that immediately. Because for every balloon that soared, there are thousands more lying abandoned behind shabby stone walls.