When Dandelions filmmaker Basil Mironer first got a Facebook message telling him he had a secret father in Russia, he assumed it was a scam. He had come to the United States from Russia when he was three, with his mother and father. His brother, Benjamin, was born in the United States. After first living in the Bronx, they have spread out: Basil to Austin, his parents to South Carolina, Benjamin to Los Angeles.
Basil tried to ignore the messages, but they kept coming. Soon, so did pictures — including of a man who bore a striking resemblance to Basil. Over time, he realized he had a family in Russia that his mother and father in America had told him nothing about. The message were from his half-brother and sister, the children of the Russian father they shared.
He struggled for seven years without telling anyone what he had learned. But given that he was a filmmaker — he has an MFA from NYU Tisch, and earned attention for his 2009 short “Rare Fish” — he decided to use his cameras to sort out the family mystery. He started by telling his brother, Benjamin, a moment that Dandelions captures on film. (They realize they are technically half-brothers, and immediately resolve not to use the term.)
Soon, Basil, Benjamin, and Basil’s girlfriend, Flavia Watson, went on a secretive trip to Russia — with the Mironer boys telling their parents it was just for business. In fact, they met Basil’s extended family, and learned the secrets of why his mother left his biological father in Russia, alongside the father who raised Basil and Benjamin in the United States.
And they recorded everything. The resulting documentary, Dandelions, makes it world premiere Monday at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It provides a fascinating portrait of a very photogenic family, while exploring questions about what makes a family a family.
Some moments are so intimate you’re surprised that Basil’s family — including his newfound Russian family —permitted them.
Here is an exclusive scene:
Benjamin, Basil and Watson are all producers on the film, and also appear on camera with Benjamin’s Russian family, as everyone sorts out their relationships. Benjamin and Flavia also fill the film with music, lending their musicality to Basil’s exploration.
We talked over email with Basil Mironer about Dandelions the film, dandelions the flowers, and whether the presence of the camera helped or hurt his search for answers.
MovieMaker: Can you explain a bit about why you named the film Dandelions, for people who haven’t seen it?
Basil Mironer: An unexpected aspect of returning to Russia for the first time was the flood of childhood memories that resurfaced. There is a scene where a little dandelion seed falls on me and prompts a whole memory that I had with my grandmother. As we continued our journey through Russia and met various new family members, dandelions seemed to be everywhere. This led me to wonder if there was a reason for their presence, and if they held significance for the journey I was undertaking.
A peculiar detail about dandelions being genetically identical made me contemplate how they spread across the world, essentially forming one big family. This analogy resonated deeply with me as I realized that my own journey mirrored this concept—I had been carried from Russia to America and all around the world, back to Russia, and now, on this once-in-a-lifetime journey, I was surrounded by my friends and chosen family. I was surrounded by people who loved me.
The notion of a universal sense of belonging, akin to one big happy family, brought me a sense of connectedness and joy. Who knew that dandelions could be so inspirational!
MovieMaker: The credits for the film include cinematographer Mitchell Arons and location sound person, Miriam Louise Arens. We see Benjamin and Flavia on film, but not Mitchell or Miriam. Did they join you on the trip to Russia? Were they present for all these intimate moments? How did you prepare everyone for the presence of cameras?
We understood from the outset that this was a film where everyone in our small crew of five had to be okay with being on camera. Both Mitch, the DP, and I filmed during the entire journey. My camera was used solely for my intimate perspective while Mitch’s camera observed and documented the unfolding story. Sometimes we would end up in each others shot, but for us this was all just part of the authentic experience. Alongside Mitch, there was his wife Miriam who was the sound mixer, and of course Ben and Flavia.
Beyond our roles as filmmakers and subjects, these are also my closest friends, my brother and my girlfriend, all supporting me on a deeply personal journey. We all recognized that this was not just a film, it was my actual life, and that came with an inherent excitement and vulnerability.
Throughout the journey, all five of us were present for every intimate, difficult, heartbreaking, and inspiring moment captured on film. Because we’re filming everything real time as it unfolds, we had to ask for peoples’ consent only after we had already filmed our initial meeting with them. Often this happens on camera and you see these moments in the film.
Whether in America or Russia, people were generally receptive to being on camera. In part this is due to the inconspicuous nature of the DSLR cameras we used, while the familial connection with most people in the film established an inherent level of trust.
In the final edit of the film, the narrative unfolds over what feels like an eight-day journey. In reality, we amassed over 350 hours of footage in just a month. Condensing the film to a 96-minute feature-length version required us to cut out many memorable moments. It took seven years to complete the film, and at one point we actually created an episodic version of this story, and in that you see a lot more of Ben, Flavia, Mitch, and Miriam. However, the final feature-length version is the rendition of this story that I believe carries the most emotional impact.
MovieMaker: How do you think the presence of the camera affected all of your conversations? Do you feel like knowing they were being documented encouraged people to be on their best behavior, or to be especially truthful, knowing it was for the record? Do you have any regrets about that approach, or do you think it increased honesty?
Basil Mironer: There’s undoubtedly an initial self-consciousness when you’re placing a camera in someone’s face, including my own. Being both the filmmaker and the subject was very challenging. Surprisingly, after the initial days of shooting, my filmmaking brain ended up taking a backseat, allowing me to simply experience each moment.
The film was the vehicle that allowed me to explore my past and this family secret; and once filming began, there was a feeling of no turning back. Throughout filming, there were moments when I hid behind the camera because, as a filmmaker, that’s what made me feel safe.
However, it eventually dawned on me that I couldn’t hide behind the camera, just as one can’t hide from the truth. It was in those moments that I was reminded that what was happening was a once-in-a-lifetime situation, and that realization gave me the courage to dive deeper into my past.
Similarly, for the other individuals in the film, the presence of the cameras seemed to fade away after a few days of filming. The cameras simply observed authentic human interactions and raw emotion, resulting in a radical transparency in both conversations and private moments in the film. As a result, some viewers may almost feel as if they shouldn’t be witnessing what they’re seeing! I believe that it’s this inherent authenticity in Dandelions that truly makes it a cinéma vérité journey.
MovieMaker: Did you ever have to re-stage moments? Everyone in your family seems so comfortable being on camera… maybe your American family is used to it?
Basil Mironer: Everything that you see in the film happened organically, driven entirely by my desire to uncover the past, fill the gaps in my identity, and understand the reason behind this family secret. The scenes that made it into the film naturally follow these narrative threads, capturing the essence of my journey. The structure of the film mirrors the natural progression of the trip, adhering to a three-act structure: Los Angeles for the setup, Russia for the second act, and South Carolina for the resolution.
We never staged specific moments with a predetermined storytelling goal in mind. However, there were instances, particularly after meeting my biological father, where the answers I sought felt unsatisfactory. As a result we continued filming as I pursued the truth through ongoing conversations. In general, it took hours of filming for my family members to truly feel comfortable in front of the camera, allowing their initial self-consciousness to gradually subside.
I believe the film does show occasional moments of their discomfort, but ultimately, what shines through is the authenticity of the relationships, regardless of the presence of cameras.
MovieMaker: There’s always a question of whether your “real” parents are the people who raised you or who conceived you. (Of course “real” is a very subjective term.) Has your answer to that question changed since you learned more about your Russian father?
Basil Mironer: There’s a moving scene in the film where my brother Ben shares a profound observation about the different types of fathers in our lives — he says that my dad who raised us and my biological dad are just different types of fathers. Meeting my biological father allowed me to see undeniable similarities in our physicality and demeanor. Seeing those traits mirrored in another person helped me embrace those inherited aspects as part of who I am. That experience played a pivotal role in filling a gap in my identity and helped me accept myself more.
While my biological father contributed to my understanding of myself, much of who I am today is shaped by the time and guidance from the dad who raised me. His influence as a role model and teacher had a profound impact on my interests, work ethic, and general awareness of how one can look at life. I believe that true parenting goes beyond biological ties; it’s about the time and effort invested in a child’s life.
There’s a poignant moment in the film where my biological father grapples with similar thoughts, and it’s a hard moment for me to watch.
MovieMaker: Have your mother and American father had any contact with your biological father since the events in the film?
Basil Mironer: My family here in America and my family in Russia have never communicated or met. For my parents, part of being Russian refugees meant leaving their old life behind and focusing on assimilating into American culture as much as possible. Additionally, for Russian civilians, leaving the country is essentially impossible. As a result, there hasn’t been much opportunity for interaction between the two families. In a way, this film serves as the only intersection point for both sides.
Dandelions premieres at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Monday at 6 p.m. PT. You can learn more here.
Main image: (L-R) Dandelions stars and producers Benjamin Mironer, Basil Mironer and Flavia Watson in Russia.