the tragic story of the romanov sisters gets a feminist retelling
Dreamlike and romantic, The Last Birthday is a short film that follows the final days of Russia’s Royal sisters as they’re held captive in Siberia. i-D takes an exclusive peak behind the curtain with these intimate BTS images below.
Photography Katy Lawrence
The world has long held a fascination with the Romanov family. A quick history lesson if you’re not up to date on your Russian genealogy: the Romanov’s were Russia’s royal family who were met with a very grisly end at the hands of the Bolsheviks during the great Russian Revolution. Over the years, however, there has been great speculation surrounding the fates of some of the Romanov children, particularly the Tsar and Tsarina’s youngest daughter Anastasia, whose disappearance went on to inspire a her very own Walt Disney film.
Before you see that, you should see The Last Birthday -- an experimental short that re-imagines the final days of the Romanov sisters as they’re held in captivity by Bolshevik guards in Siberia. Tense and claustrophobic, the film is set entirely within the isolated confines of one house, the “House of Special Purpose.” The film imagines the inevitable tensions that would develop as a result, the relationships between the sisters and their connection to religion, as they come to the end of their lives guarded by Bolsheviks. Beyond the central themes of family and forbidden love (involving one of the guards), the film sheds light on a woman’s position in society during the 19th century and draws surprisingly similar comparisons to the present day.
“The Last Birthday taps into my fascination with Russian history -- but also explores the theme of isolation and the entrapment women throughout history have experienced,” director and American Film Institute Directing Fellow Jaclyn Bethany tells i-D. “I think the story is almost alarmingly relevant.”
When putting a team together, Jaclyn envisioned a predominantly female cast and crew. "Sometimes being a female filmmaker is challenging,” she says. “It has been a male driven industry for so long. An artist should not have to sacrifice a part of themselves to try to fit in with a ‘norm’ or conform to a certain identity. The more women that do multiple things in any field and do them well, the better.” In the context of The Last Birthday, those women include: AFI Screenwriting Fellow Sofia Drummond-Moore, who co-wrote it, Kitty Wordsworth of Damsel Productions who produced, and Icelandic/Mexican Director of Photography Irene Gomez-Emilsson who shot the entire thing in a day. The film also stars British actresses, Anna Popplewell, Jazzy De Lisser, Greta Bellamacina -- a fellow filmmaker, model and poet -- and model-turned-activist Fern Bain Smith, an ambassador for Women In Fashion, a group trying to provoke positive change in the industry.
"Director Jaclyn has an innately female gaze,” Greta Bellamacina, who plays Maria Romanov, says. “It was a refreshing thrill to work with an all female crew. Jaclyn's approach is visually strong and dramatically assured.”
"In an industry oversaturated with men, it’s vital to not only have women behind the lens but also playing strong and complex roles in front of it,” adds Fern Bain Smith, who plays Anastasia. “Specifically with this story of the Romanov siblings, as a female-centric story, I think it’s important that women tell it. It meant so much to me to have my first acting experience be in a room dominated by women."
The Last Birthday will be premiering on the festival circuit in 2018