Directors’ Corner: Wednesday, November 11th


5- 15/11/2020


Directors’ Corner: Wednesday, November 11th


The third in a series of online meetings, open to public, hosting directors of both competition sections, International Competition and Meet the Neighbors, as well as the directors of the Greek films of the 61st Thessaloniki International Film Festival program, was held on Wednesday November 11th, on the Film Festival YouTube Channel.


The audience had the opportunity to meet the directors Jonathan Cuartas (My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To), Daphne Charizani (Sisters apart), Alexandros Voulgaris – The Boy (Gym), Georgis Grigorakis (Digger), Philippe Lacôte (Night of the Kings) and Fernanda Valadez (Identifying Features). Elena Christopoulou moderated the discussion, held in the frame of the Agora events.


Daphne Charizani was the first to speak: “The film is about two sisters: a German soldier, who volunteers for a mission to train female Kurdish soldiers in Iraq to fight against ISIS, while the other one is already a soldier in Iraq. They meet again in the battlefield, as one sister is on the European side, helping Kurdish people, and the other one is fighting for her existence. They meet again under these dire circumstances”.


Alexandros Voulgaris described his film: “This is my sixth feature film. It’s a film shot in a short time, featuring my Greek National Theatre students. We had plans to have something done by the end of the year, a short film shot in a gym. Because of the pandemic we weren’t able to shoot in a gym, so I wrote a monologue for each of the seventeen students, and we ended up with a 3-hour film consisting of seventeen monologues, in which the actors are narrating the film we were planning to shoot. We don’t see the gym; we see seventeen people and their intense monologues. That’s the film, the faces, the monologues and the music I wrote. It would be a classic ensemble film, but we couldn’t do it this way and it became something else that we liked even better”.


Jonathan Cuartas talked about his film (My heart can’t beat unless you tell it to): “The film was shot in Salt Lake City, in Utah. The film is a dark family drama about two brothers taking care of their younger brother, who lives off of blood due to a rare illness”.


Next, Fernanda Valadez talked about her film (Identifying Features): “This is a road movie about a mother making a journey searching for her missing son, who disappeared somewhere in the borderline between Mexico and the US. It’s a drama in the context of forced migration, disappearances and violence in Mexico”.


Philippe Lacôte took the baton and talked about his film (Night of the Kings): “This is my second feature; my film was screened at the Venice International Film Festival, in the “Horizons” section. The film takes place in Maca, the most notorious prison in Ivory Coast. It’s a story of a young boy who has just arrived in this prison and is forced to tell a story that will last all night long if he wants to survive. It’s a sort of a modern Scheherazade tale, a modern take on One Thousand and One Nights.”


Georgis Grigorakis took the floor, and said a few words for his film (Digger): “Our film is screened at the Competition section. Digger is a modern western, a story of a father and a son, who dig in the mud to find their routes. The main character is trapped in a dead-end; he can’t leave the place he loves. He has nowhere else to go because his life is inextricably linked to the forest he is living in. He can’t stay either, though, because he is faced with an enemy he can’t overcome, a big industrial monster that threatens his property. The dilemma is connected with the landscape and in that sense, the landscape becomes the protagonist”.


“As all films we have here today are so different from one another, I started thinking on how fiction works as a tapestry, as a grouping and joining of voices”, Elena Christopoulou explained, asking the directors to talk about their own story behind their film stories.


According to Daphne Charizani: “I moved from Greece to Germany. When I was in Germany, I didn’t know what to do with myself, I was too old to go to high school, so I went to an art school. I entered a world of music, theatre and cinema. Cinema was familiar to me, because I grew up with cinema; in Thessaloniki, as a child, I went to the cinema, it was a part of my life. All the films I have seen helped me understand my environment in Germany. They helped me understand the language and society, cinema became a part of me, I always think in cinema terms”.


Jonathan Cuartas stated: “My story is similar to Daphne’s. I loved cinema since I was a little kid. My parents would take us to the movies three times a week and I have always been watching movies with my brother, who is also the cinematographer of this film. I just think the artistic gene was in me because my father had always been an artist. He was painting and he loved architecture. He had to find a way to support our family, though; he couldn’t really pursue a career in the arts. He had to pursue something more pragmatic. He’s a production designer on this movie, too. We are something like a family circus on that. I think it all came from the love of going to the movies. We fell in love with the aspect of storytelling”.


Fernanda Valadez talked about her own story. “I would like to share with you my love for films, it’s amazing how films can travel and tell stories despite social differences. We didn’t have a film theatre in my hometown, but we did have video clubs, where you could rent videotapes. I’ve always loved films; at some point I wasn’t sure if I wanted to study filmmaking. I have studied Philosophy, but I very soon realized that the way I experienced things wasn’t through concept and abstract thinking, but through stories. What I admire about films is that you get to connect to ideas and characters through emotions and I think that this is the big difference between Humanitarian studies, Philosophy, Sociology and the Arts”.


Philippe Lacôte was the next to speak: “My house was near a cinema. I grew up in Abidjan. My mother took me to the cinema three times a day when she had affairs to take care of, and picked me up later on. I have never watched a complete film; I only saw fragments. One can see this element in my films, too. I include a lot of shorter stories inside a bigger story. When I was a child, my mother was in this prison for political reasons. This prison is in the forest and I used to travel once a week to see her. I have strong memories of this place. In this prison, Maca, there wasn’t any privacy. If you go there to visit a prisoner, you would be in a big room next to other prisoners and visitors. To me this place was something like a kingdom, with kings and domestics, so I have this image in my mind”.


Alexandros Voulgaris took the baton: “My family was working in cinema. My father was a film director, so I grew up in film shootings. We had, as a family, a very strong connection with films. I also come from a family with a very strong political background. Both of my parents were imprisoned, as Philippe’s; I always had to deal with this background and for me politics has always been one-dimensional in a way. I have always seen cinema as multidimensional, as I could be more authentic through cinema. That’s my story”.


Georgis Grigorakis said: “I was never a cinephile. Actually, when I was young, we went to my mother’s village for holidays. Next to my uncle’s house there was a cinema. I used to sneak in from the backyard and watch films when I was 4-6 years old. As a teenager I never went to cinema, although my father is an artist. I have studied Social Psychology; this was my first degree. In a way, the reason I studied Social Psychology is because I am interested in relations between people. This element exists in my movies; the contrast between a personal story and the social context the story takes place in. I didn’t enjoy so much studying Psychology. I found it quite limited; there was lack of imagination and there was no artistic aspect in these studies. I started to love cinema by making it. Initially, I discovered the art of photography and I realized that you can tell a story through it”.


At that point, audience questions addressed to the directors came in: “If the soundtrack of the Gym will be released at some point” was the very first question posed to Alexandros Voulgaris, who replied as follows: “What we plan to do now is release the monologues of the script in a book, accompanied by the photographs of Myrto Tzima. In this book we will probably have the soundtrack as well”.


In a question addressed to Daphne Charizani on how difficult it was for her to come in touch with women in Kurdistan, the director replied: “I went to Northern Iraq, I conducted a big research, I spoke with women fighters there, I spoke with people who had lost someone in this war, as well as with German soldiers, who were training the Kurdish peacemakers. This was a big research, but it was not so difficult because I had Kurdish support there. There was always a military man accompanying us in order to keep us safe. We couldn’t shoot a film there because we couldn’t wear military uniforms for security reasons, so we did the shootings in Athens. In Iraq we only did two days of shootings. We shot the landscapes, as well as a destroyed village; the audience can see all this in the movie. It was not so difficult to make this research because when people take notice that you are interested in their lives, they open up. What I also remarked is that they have maintained a certain sense of humor amidst this difficult situation”.


“How was is to work with Vangelis Mourikis in Digger?” was the question addressed to Georgis Grigorakis: “Working with Vangelis is always an experience, it’s the fourth time I am working with him - we have worked together in the past, in three short films - but this project was written with him in mind. I collaborated with him in the script, too. Apart from being a great actor, he really gets involved. He is a very experienced actor, who doesn’t need a lot in order to perform. I think what he only needs is a solid directorial structure so that his performance gets clear and coherent. I think that this is one of the best performances in his career. He really invested a lot in that role. This was difficult for him, it was something he hadn’t done before”.


In the following audience question on the importance of film reviews, Philippe Lacôte answered as follows: “It’s not important to me. There is no personal view in these critics, but rather a kind of uniformity. When a director is really well known, all critics love his work”. Jonathan Cuartas said: “It’s my first feature and reviews still affect me, whether good or bad. I am starting to understand that every criticism is subjective. But I do think that it helps me validate the things that I am aspiring to do in my next movies. Sometimes it hurts to read bad reviews, but on the other hand, just the fact that people are watching the movie and are writing about it, is a nice feeling”.  Fernanda Valadez took the floor: “I agree with Philippe, I try not to read them, not to pay too much attention, I think reviews are more useful for the audience because they make suggestions as to what films to see. I’d rather have comments of colleagues than comments of critics”.


According to Alexandros Voulgaris: “When I read a review or when someone shares his opinion with me, I always think about it, it can affect me emotionally, it can make me happy or sad, but in a superficial way; it doesn’t affect in my job. I like reading film reviews, but not for my films!” Georgis Grigirakis stated: “It’s my first film and I really can’t tell what impact the reviews will have on me in the future. To me it’s interesting to read them, but I am trying to understand what their point of view is. There can be a political, ideological or social point of view. When their point of view is similar to mine, I take them into account, otherwise I reject them. Many times I learn from reviews that are well written, they offer me an approach that I have never thought of”. Daphne Charizani replied as well: “I made my first documentary, it was screened at the Berlinale and I had never thought of making a feature film. The reviews were so amazing that people took me seriously. I am still quite surprised of the warm reception of this film.”


The next question was addressed to Philippe: “Do you believe the Greek audience will be able to understand and acknowledge your cinematic language?” Philippe answered: “I hope so. There are different elements in the film, which are connected with the history of Ivory Coast and the African Culture. All these parts of mysticism, of politics, of political conflict are nevertheless global. I have never shot a plan or a sequence where the audience needs to have some sort of in-depth critical knowledge to understand it”.


“Was the music inspired by the scenes of the film (the ones the characters tried to explain to us) or by the characters’ monologues?” Alexandros Voulgaris replied: “When I write a script, I am always listening to music, a specific piece of music, because it keeps me focused on the script. When we rehearsed with the actors, I realized that I couldn’t tell whether they were performing well or badly, without listening to music. So, I kept listening to the music during the rehearsals. I was listening to that specific piece of music ten times a day. So, this piece of music, as well as the music I wrote for this film, is linked to it. In fact, I believe that music is what makes Gym a film and not a filmed piece of theatre”.


“Your film is very beautiful, but very tough; did you find it hard filming such a difficult subject and what kept you going?” The question was addressed to Fernanda Valadez: “I think the most difficult part was our research process because we had to deal with documentary investigation for massacres that have occurred in Mexico, stories of survivors and also the stories of the disappeared people’s families. We tried to make a story that could depict the complexity of violence in Mexico. We wanted to talk about the love of the families, especially the mothers of the disappeared. In this dark context, there’s still a light to be found. I was very fortunate to work with Mercedes Hernández, the main actress. She helped me work with the non-professional actors in the movie. She put young actors (teenagers) in a state of playing, she also helped them understand that even though a film is a work of fiction, emotions need to be real”.


“Is taking care of those you love a form of prison?” Jonathan Cuartas answered: “It can be emotionally devastating, but there is hope as well. There is a relationship between the tension and negativity of the situation of taking care of someone who is sick, but at the same time there is love that holds everyone together. I think it’s bittersweet, sometimes, when you try to take important decisions for someone else’s life, especially someone you love. I think it’s a mixture of emotions, it can be very suffocating, so I understand the comparison to a prison, but you do this for a beloved person. It’s complicated situation”.


The next question goes to Philippe: “Someone in the film says: we won’t make them our slaves, but our clients. Is capitalism everywhere?” Philippe replied: “In this prison there is a fight between two groups, the kings who use other prisoners as slaves and the other group of young prisoners, refusing to abide by this system; they are against it because they want to do business inside the prison. I wanted to present these two conceptions in this film”.


“Which filmmakers had an impact on your work?” Jonathan Cuartas replied first: “I think Yorgos Lanthimos inspires me a lot. He creates mythologies; worlds that are very different, but at the same time you can always place them in a context of reality. You have fantasy worlds that you can always compare to the real world; after all, they are not so different from what we experience”. Fernanda said: “It’s a very difficult question, but I’d say Nicolas Roeg and Larisa Shepitko”. Philippe: “There are many directors I like who influence me, me but I would say Andrei Tarkovsky, a master for me, as I always find the answers I seek in his films”. Daphne: “Every film that I watch influences me. I am especially fond of Cassavetes.”


“In all of your films there is a great amount of tenderness towards your characters, what lies behind them and their stories. Do you believe that you can be a filmmaker without compassion?” Philippe answered: “It’s difficult to make cinema without compassion, if you don’t love your characters, your audience won’t love them either.” Jonathan: “Compassion is not only a part of story telling, but a part of working with a group of people in a production. I also believe that empathy plays a big part. You can’t be a filmmaker without compassion”. Fernanda: “When you tell a story you have to be real because you put your characters in a situation where they have to confront several obstacles, and cope with many relations. You fall in love with your characters and that is cruel. If you only feel empathy, it wouldn’t be interesting”.