Visible Cities, Invisible Hi(stories)
A conversation with the filmmaker Dimitris Athanitis
The cinema of Dimitri Athanitis may be identified with a personal vision of Athens. In his films the city is never named but is revealed as a source of multiple histories. The heroes of his films are in many respects expressions of this city. Moreover, Athanitis’s heroes give the impression to the viewer that they are “thrown” in the city -in accordance to the heideggerian “thrown-in-the world”- with their sole goal to seek salvation in it. His heroes are captured in a city that at times may be presented as a prison, as is the case in the sci-fi version of Athens in No Sympathy for the Devil (Athanitis, 1997) or in Three Days of Happiness (Athanitis, 2011). The representation of the city, in its correlation to the world of the dead, may also be a gigantic metaphor for modern life as it happens in Invisible (Athanitis, 2015). This is why Athanitis’s cinema may be described as dark, and sometimes as dystopian.
The filmmaker’s constant reference to the city derives from his continuous research for discovering the hidden side of the city. His quest for the unknown is close to the method of observation of the flâneur: he is engaged with the discovery of the multiple layers of the metropolis and, at the same time, he is detached from any type of identification with it. This leads me to argue that his films are composed of shots that are traces or fragments of his personal observation of the city. The representation of the city in Athanitis’s cinema is both an archeological research on the history of the city and a reflection on the effects of the parallel worlds that exist within the metropolis.
In the following interview, the filmmaker talks about his conceptualization of the city (and consequently of the world) in his cinema and reflects upon the coexistence of the past and the present in his work.
Ioannis Paraskevopoulos: Admittedly, you are an urban filmmaker, a filmmaker who films the city. Where does this urge to depict the city in your cinema come from?
Dimitris Athanitis: I have always lived in the city center. When I am visiting foreign cities I always stay in the center. I cannot imagine my life outside the city center.
I.P.: In the core of the city…
D.A.: Yes, in the core of the city. I believe that outside the city center, in the outskirts of the city, we come across something different. It’s a sort of a province. It’s a different world… The city center has the enormous advantage of including everything. It encompasses all the contradictions of a society. This is its power.
I.P.: Are there any filmmakers that have influenced you in terms of filming the city?
D.A.: If I look at it now, I could say the B&W films of the Nouvelle Vague. I have discovered Paris through those films. When I visited Paris I tried to search for that kind of Paris. It existed in a way. It was different from the films, but it existed.
I.P.: Your characters give me the impression that they are ‘thrown’ in the city. Like in the case of Irena in Three Days of Happiness, Orpheus in No Sympathy for the Devil, or the protagonist of Invisible. All of them are struggling for something. They are being thrown in the city and they are fighting in it. This happens whilst they have the city as a background, but at the same time, they are organic parts of the city.
D.A.: Indeed, those characters are parts of the city, but they are also like strangers in it. Eurydice is released from prison; Irena tries to escape from her present situation. The first tries to escape prison, the second lives in a prison. In my first film Addio Berlin (1994), the protagonist is ‘thrown’ into a foreign city. He leaves Berlin and arrives in Athens in order to find a producer for his film. So, the character leaves his natural environment. He gets to Athens and discovers the city - or rather, he rediscovers it… I think the ultimate challenge is to find yourself in a foreign city without money. A huge challenge rises there… You need to figure out what to do… I’ve never been in this situation… On the one hand, I am a child of the city; I believe that contemporary life is encompassed in the city. On the other hand, I feel like a stranger... I feel like I am just visiting the city. I do not identify with any aspects of the city… I do not have any emotional attachment to Athens. I exist in the in-between. I am neither inside nor outside. I have lived in several neighborhoods of Athens and I cannot claim that I miss them or that I pay a visit from time to time out of emotional curiosity. My film characters are just like that.
I.P.: So, you are more of the introvert type. You accumulate your impressions in your interiority…
D.A.: Whilst I have been discovering the city -it is not by accident that I’ve studied architecture, although I had decided long before that to become a filmmaker- at the same time, I have been discovering a side of the city that existed in the past. For instance, consider the neo-classical buildings and houses. This kind of architecture implies a whole world; it is not just buildings. The buildings represent a world. The first place that I ever rented was a neo-classical house in Metaxourgio. Also, my lecture before my dissertation at the Polytechnic was about ochre in the neo-classical buildings. This double dimension of the city is the point of departure for my work: the city of the present and, at the same time, the city of the past that still exists today in many ways. The signs of the past are visible today. You can see the traces of a different lifestyle, of different civilization.
I.P.: The Parthenon that appears in the rooftop in No Sympathy for the Devil is a sign of recognition of the city but in a futuristic way.
D.A.: Yes, it is retro because the film is futuristic. I would call that scene ‘futuristic retro’. Also, in this film you can see the magnificent church of St. Constantine, and other places like that. These are symbols of the city. For example, the Factory of Fix that today is turned into the Museum of Modern Art… Right beside the historical building of I.K.A. in Pireus Avenue there is a small church that has been built by Ernst Ziller. That kind of plurality is magnificent… Right opposite them, there is the ancient cemetery of Keramikos. I have used this cemetery in the film Planet Athens (2004). I have represented it in a different way… You can see the connection between this film and those that follow. There is a sort of unconscious expression of the mythology of the dead in my films. In Planet Athens, one of the protagonists, an American student, wonders around the ancient cemetery. Suddenly, on her own initiative, she stops in front of a tombstone that represents Demeter and Persephone. She touches it softly with her fingers.
I.P.: I could characterize you as an archaeologist of the city in the broader sense of the term. You research the present of Athens, whilst you conduct a research on the history of the city; or, to put it in a better way, you ‘excavate’ the multiple layers of the city. This is a method that leads to a multidimensional vision of the city.
D.A.: Exactly! I want to shoot a film about a killer who arrives in Athens for a contract - because it is the only other occupation that I would have if I wasn’t a filmmaker! (D.A. laughs). It will be an excuse to wonder around the past of this city. Because the past may seem crazy from today’s perspective. For instance, kids used to swim in Koumoundourou Square… There used to be a swimming pool in the square back then… And it is not as long ago as we might think… That was during the 60’s. I might say that an interruption of continuity took place in Athens. And you see that all the time in a variety of subjects. For instance, there are no upper class families that continue a long family tradition. This is in the classical tradition of the bourgeoisie.
I.P.: There is an interruption of continuity in many things.
D.A.: This is what interests me: continuity.
I.P.: Are you attempting to construct a continuity of Athens in your work? Cinematic reality can affect the ‘real reality’… I think that in many ways the purpose of cinema is to affect reality.
D.A.: I agree with this. For instance, No Sympathy for the Devil is a fiction film, but there are elements in it that can now only be characterized as documents of another era. Attikon cinema does not exist anymore, nor does Apollo cinema. The Factory of Fix does not exist anymore either. There is a series of buildings that have ceased to exist. This interruption of continuity in Athens is terrible, whereas in other cities continuity is very present in the everyday life. Τhe past prevails in many ways. You cannot see the same kind of interruption as here. For instance, several buildings in Berlin or Dresden have been restored after the WWII, whereas here if something is destroyed it does not return to its previous state.
I.P.: The two films, No Sympathy for the Devil and Invisible -a fifteen year gap separates them- have lots in common. First and foremost, they are connected through mythology. In the first one, there is the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that you place in a futuristic Athens, and in Invisible the main character lives in the city of Eleusis, a place linked to the dead. This is where the Great Mysteries took place and where Persephone used to reappear in the world of the living. Invisible’s protagonist is a characteristic figure of today’s Greece -due to the fact that he loses his job- but at the same time, he is a man who tries to survive in the world of the dead. There is a certain kind of dystopia that is apparent in the two films, both in the way that the city is represented and in the way that the characters try to survive and consequently live in that city. Finally, I would note that in No Sympathy for the Devil the kind of dystopia pictured is not as much threatening and violent as it is in Invisible.
D.A.: Invisible may be more realistic in the sense that it takes place in today’s Greece and in this way it establishes a more immediate relation with the viewers. Space in No Sympathy for the Devil may be attractive but there is also a feeling of detachment. It is not so close to us, since it’s placed in the future. At first glance, the film does not picture us, whereas Invisible is right besides us and this makes it very intense.
I.P.: I would say that No Sympathy for the Devil’s theme is diachronic in many ways, since it deals with the concept of love. Invisible still refers to the present.
D.A.: It is not by accident that I have placed the story of Invisible in Eleusis. As I have mentioned before, No Sympathy for the Devil is a film of ‘retro futurism’ since it refers to the past but is at the same time futuristic. There is a different kind of return to the world of the dead. In antiquity there was a feast; now, the place is a nightmare. In Invisible, we come across the world of the dead. Also, I have used the scene with the cemetery intentionally. It is a fantastic place. This cemetery is full of graves of immigrants from Pontus. They have built several graves as monuments. They are fantastic. Building the graves in such a way is an irrational decision. Those dead people’s graves are like the protagonist: they were invisible and have tried to become visible in the afterlife by building those monuments. It’s a film that sheds light to an invisible world. This world includes, also, the dead. I am using the word ‘dead’ both literally and metaphorically.
I.P.: What makes the human being visible today?
D.A.: I would say power.
I.P.: Your last film Labyrinth, which is still being shot, is about the arcades of Athens. Is it a documentary?
D.A.: In reality, it is a fictitious documentary. I should mention that before Labyrinth comes an installation called Hidden City or Athens Underground because it refers to a hidden Athens. It is an installation that has been composed of material from my films. The material reflects my relationship with the city. I have presented it six times so far… It is material that has to do with a city that surrounds us but at the same time is invisible. With my new film Labyrinth I wanted to immerse into the arcades of Athens that present a peculiarity. The first arcade ever is that of Attalus in Athens. It has been created during the Roman Empire. Modern arcades originate in Paris in the 18 th century; a century later you can find them everywhere. The famous Galleria of Milan has been created during the 1850’s. Immediately afterwards, we have the appearance of the first arcade in Athens in the 1880’s. This is situated in Ermou Street. There is also a peculiarity about the Athenian arcades: they form a labyrinth. There is a whole world that is included in those arcades.
I.P.: Has this been done intentionally?
D.A.: This has occurred due to the chaotic urban planning! I should mention that many technicians found refuge in those then newly formed places. Many refuges from Smyrna, e.t.c… Nowadays, you can see that these places are in decay, and this was the reason I wanted to shoot this film. Because, there is a possibility that those places won’t exist in the near future. The first Greek photographic apparatus has been created inside one of those arcades in Ermou Street in 1951.
I.P.: In a way the unconscious of the city lies in those arcades…
D.A.: It is not only the unconscious of the city but also the unconscious of a whole society that is reflected there. The city center is the vital space of the city. It is the place that people come in order to shop, to entertain themselves, etc.… There, you can see all the different social classes joined together. The shopkeepers are conscious of the history of the arcades. They are aware of the historical value of the locations. And in this way they are the carriers of memory. Those people are living history… Apart from the human faces, there are also the shops. For instance, there is a place that sells flags. The shop originated in Smyrna in the 1880’s. The family left after the destruction and came here. And the shop still exists here, today. All those faces that exist are faces of the center. They could not exist anywhere else. There is an invisible net of faces that exists and needs to be unraveled. The past emerges in the present.
I.P.: What are you trying to achieve through your films?
D.A.: Through my films I am trying to discover continuity. Because there is a continuity of things...
I.P.: Although that there is a historical and material continuity in a society, our present appears all the more cut off from the past…
D.A.: The signs of continuity are very visible and power tries constantly to destroy and disperse those signs. Power does that in order to create a rupture between us and the past. Power tries to destroy memory and knowledge. A proof of this is that we continue to make the same mistakes. Historical knowledge exists today only on an emotional level. We do not examine the causes and the effects of an event.
I.P.: Memory and knowledge produce thought…
D.A.: In my quest for continuity I keep discovering living stories. I discover production by technicians whereas production, as we know it, ceases to exist. I discover a past tradition that goes on today.
I.P.: And this is a form of resistance.
D.A.: Exactly. Resistance through memory.
The interview took place in Athens on the 22nd of November 2018.