In Limbo, Radically: an interview with Syllas Tzoumerkas
Syllas Tzoumerkas’ second film is literally having A Blast in its trajectory in the international festival circuit: Since March 2015, when it opened in a number of theaters in the Netherlands, the film found distribution in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, and on September 19, 2015 it premiered in Denmark – opening the way for the raving journey of the main character, Maria (Angeliki Papoulia), beyond the borders of the country, beyond the stereotypes in the representation of a young, Greek, female subject ‘in crisis’. The director discussed his method, his references and profound thoughts on filmmaking with Andrzej Marzec, running the distance between the metaphorical and the literal, between individual and collective truths and illusions.
Andrzej Marzec: In my opinion, it is your movie Hora Proelefsis/Homeland (2010), together with Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kynodontas/Dogtooth (2009) that gave rise to a dynamic shift in the history of Greek cinema, and evoked interest in family as a filmic subject. While Lanthimos paints a hermetic, abstract, enigmatic image of an ordinary breadwinner (composing a bizzare parable of family), you create some sort of socially engaged cinema – from the very beginning you are interested in the turbulent changes in the social fabric and civil disobedience. Why did you decide to embark on this cinematographic path?
Syllas Tzoumerkas: Homeland is a film born by rage; rage against both family and country. This is the film’s driving force, in terms of theme and core sentiment. The turbulences you mention in the social fabric, as well as the civil and personal disobedience, are major fields of investigation in the film – I mean the nature of these notions, the ideas that fuel them, the specific actions by which they are expressed. In terms of style (in other words, the way in which the film creates a body of meaning) it’s not a film that works with abstraction, but one that works through accumulation. What I wanted to do in it was to shed light on the behavioral patterns of patronizing and the secretive lies that led to the pitiless generation fights inside the lower-middle-class families – and consequently in the country’s modern political history. A key point for me in the way the film’s narration is built, is the following: I don’t like placing the core parable in a test tube, but I prefer to set it in what we call the very ‘reality’ of things, to the extent of using family photos or TV footage, or throwing the actors into real public events as they occur. To me, there lies hidden an important level of understanding: how are these patterns, or the parable, visually born, how do they fit in, and how do the twist and alter our idea of the reality of historical events. It’s like creating a kaleidoscope, where the existential situations, the psychology, story and history co-exist simultaneously, either in harmony or engaging in endless clashes and contrasts. Overall, Homeland is my version or – to be more accurate in what concerns my intentions – my kick on the corpse of the film (and literature) genre we call ‘family saga in a tormented era.’
AM: You were the first among the contemporary Greek directors to relate in such a determined, bold manner the conflicts within the family with the crisis in society itself. Where does this “family equals society” correlation come from? Is it perhaps an exclusively Greek phenomenon? Can we imagine the society in categories other than blood relationships or kinship?
ST: Growing up in the 80s and 90s in Greece, you could see the strength of the blood relations, the way large families were affiliated to political parties, how a certain lower-middle-class mentality of dreaming of becoming a nouveau-riche ruled the country;[evident] both in individuals, but also the major political groups. This is the audience these parties were addressing to, flattering all their weaknesses and prejudices, and at the same time, always keeping them in their mothering and suffocating embrace. So, this was, and still is, the field of the social crisis, this unbreakable family-society tie. The idea is not new: you can find it all around in theatre and literature, from the ancient Greek tragedies to Dostoyevski’s The Devils and Chekhov. Personally, I despise this notion of blood and the special kind of de facto connection it implies, this ‘we have the same blood, we have the same disease’ kind of connection. And the main reason I despise it and it even scares me, is that it immediately turns grown-up men and women into scared little boys and girls, with all the dreadful psychological characteristics of this dependent age. So, I pictured Homeland like a story drawn from the poem “Mauvais Sang” (Une Saison en Enfer) As Rimbaud says in the poem of the same title and also as a reference to the Blast’s first scene: “Not a family in Europe I don’t know. I mean families like mine, who owe it all to the declaration of the Rights of Man. – I’ve known every good son of good family!”
AM: What do you think about the phenomenon of the “New Wave”? What are, in your opinion, the causes of this revival in Greek filmmaking? Do you think that what unites all directors associated with that current is this preoccupation with family as a metaphor for Greek society as a whole? Or would you rather point to some other characteristic feature of this cinema? Is it at all possible to talk about some common trait, common denominator of this movement?
ST: I think that the common feature among these directors and films is more a matter of geography and time: We all sprang out of the same pit – which is Greece in the 80s and 90s. We all witnessed the party of our parents’ generation, in other words each and every one has his/her own personal Claudius and Gertrude. Consequently, in our work and our experience, family is a metaphor for society. But my personal view is that it’s not family in general that connects these films, but an undercurrent of ‘revenge tragedy’. You can see the conventions of revenge tragedy running under the plot of most of the major films of the Greek New Wave. To me, this is the common ground. The ‘flowers’ that are grown on this ground are pretty different from one another, ranging from very abstract films to pretty naturalistic ones, with all the shades in between. I think that it is this certain diversity that makes the films interesting as an ensemble; apart from the qualities of each film per se, of course. Another thing which is important is that these movies are made by a generation of young filmmakers, actors, producers, cinematographers, etc., that were all fed up with Greek cinema that was only addressing Greek audiences and regional issues, like the ‘Balkan joie-de-vivre and appetite for self-destruction’, to give you a pretty tacky example of a whole series of films dedicated to national or regional self-righteousness. So what we very consciously tried to do was to connect, in theme and style, with what was relevant and fruitful in the world cinema, with a very large range of references.
AM: In A Blast you penetrate an intimate story of a particular family, a picture that is no longer just a metaphor, but it also captures actuality. You also leave behind the very dense symbolic atmosphere that defines your movie Homeland on so many levels (e.g. the slaughter of the innocents). In A Blast the political events serve as a background for the drama of the individual. Could you explain this shift towards the literal understanding and your interest in a cinema that follows and observes everyday life so closely?
ST: I think that A Blast has a different view of politics than Homeland. A much more sarcastic and degraded one. When I was doing Homeland some things seemed very important to me and I was still very interested and emotionally involved in the way they were moving and evolving. Growing up, I became more anarchic. Lately my focus lies on the awareness of the fact that we are much more free, uncontrollable, blissfully full of contradictions than the political or familial groups where we consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously belong. There’s a sense of real freedom there, and this is something I nowadays value more than anything else. What happens is that I understand my job as the opposite of a politician’s job. A politician wants to shrink large amounts of people into a specific schema using a vague agreement as his/her basis, so that they can fit a certain narration. As an artist, I want to do the exact opposite: I try to magnify each person, revealing its full anarchic potential, controversy and disagreement, and then I move on to discover his or her narration. This being the goal, and having read a lot of Doris Lessing, in A Blast I degraded the historical events to mere facts (similarly to what Lessing did in her Golden Notebook ) and went on into investigating the core of the characters’ hearts. Those characters, no matter how subdued they are to larger social dynamics, prove themselves to be much more than what these social dynamics predetermine.
AM: Perhaps the only pronounced metaphor that we can find in your new movie is the one exposed in the title – the ambiguous ‘blast’. In Homeland you introduced us to the community that fights united on the streets in the name of justice. In A Blast the community is the victim of the rather selfish actions of the main character. Why is it that the community no longer partakes in this fire, which is used in this case by the individual against the community? Could you explain this change?
ST: There is an undertone of political judgment in this question that I find really interesting. The question is in a way, “what do you believe in”? The community or the individual? And why did you stop believing in the community, if you ever did? I can’t answer you that because, in order to answer it, I have to make a pre-assumption, a pre-conception that I don’t think is accurate: that either the ‘community’ or the ‘individual’ is something good. At a deeper political level, A Blast talks about a shift in the hearts of people – a shif that we can see everywhere: a need for radicalization, for violently changing (and thus controlling) your environment. In A Blast, as in real life, this radicalization runs the gamut of shades, from the really black and bleak ones, to the ones that in my sense are full of light. There’s ambiguity there, like there’s ambiguity when you have all the community in the streets fighting for something they think they perceive in the same way, or when you have the people staying at home, without reacting to anything that might be happening around them. This ambiguity is the truth. The rest is romanticism. As for the radicalization, the film is neither romantic nor judgmental about this desire. It is more of the portrait of a woman who decides to see things wildly bare, for what they are; and then she takes action accordingly, in search of a new sense of self. Then things become more complicated morally, and in every possible sense, since there is joy in this, there is truth, but there is also plenty of catastrophe and suffering.
AM: Maria is an extremely dynamic and driven character – nothing can stop her in reaching her goals. You are very interested in the strong bond she has developed with her sister (Gogo), but even more in her path to liberating herself from under the influence of her family – after all, A Blast is a story of emancipation. Why did you decide this time to focus so intensely on the female protagonist?
ST: It is a freedom story. After a turning point in her life, Maria strips off all the roles that were determined by the social perception of her gender. And this is something really difficult and painful to do because it costs a lot, both in terms of loss and of uncertainty for one’s actions. I admire her for this. Creating a character like this, that crosses the lines of political correctness was the main reason I wanted to make this feminist film. Another reason was, that when you see macho bullies like the Greek Golden Dawn fascists becoming fashionable all over again, you really want to contradict, provoke and hurt their mentality as much as you can. To me, the craziest scene in this direction of the film, is when Maria enters an internet café full of men and starts watching porn among them, in public. It’s a very psychologically complex scene, that combines girl power fearlessness with self-infliction, and I think Angeliki Papoulia wonderfully balanced these two edges. As for the sister, the relationship between the two sisters is the film’s narrative spine. Their funny and intense, bittersweet clashes, reveal a lot about their characters and trigger the overall plot. Gogo seems to be weaker, but if you look closely you realize that she is constantly patronizing Maria into fulfilling her wishes, she is dangerously passive-aggressive. Maria is the contrary: she is honest and confrontational and lives the drama of the responsible person in her family setting. And in the end, Gogo is about to win everything, even Maria’s children.
AM: What is the role of sexuality in your latest movie? You show sex scenes in a very explicit way. I mean, it’s hard to ignore it, one can even say that sexuality becomes one of the main subjects in your film and a distinct means of expression.
ST: I like being literal not only when it comes to this subject, but in general, as much as I can. It creates a very useful feeling of discomfort. Sexuality in A Blast is very matter-of-fact and in your face, and is one of the most joyous parts of the film – especially at the beginning. I was pretty fed up with sexuality being depicted merely as power, and I wanted to make these really bright scenes between Maria and Yannis, and then Yannis and his other lovers. Sexuality narrates the whole love story of these two people, there are no flirting scenes and there are barely a couple of conjugal scenes, as if these two people confided to us their love, vulnerability, tenderness, lust and honesty through their bodies. This way, I also wanted to get away from the big trap when it comes to the depiction of sexuality – which is no other than generalization. The more specific, personal and unique sexuality is in its depiction, the more real, precious and meaningful it is. And what I like very much about this as a result, is that, regardless if someone likes the film or not, there’s never disbelief that these two people are together, no matter how far they drift apart from each other as the story evolves.
AM: The very end of A Blast reminds me a bit of the last scene in The 400 Blows by François Truffaut, in which the director freezes his hero in the frame in his rushing forward. Instead, you let Maria escape, even away from the eyes of the audience. Is this how you imagine the freedom of the main character? Eventually, Maria escapes society. Does it mean that she also transgresses good and evil, and transcends beyond morality?
ST: Yes. Just reading this question of yours makes me take a big breath. And I’m not talking movies now, but real life.
AM: In your movies you often address the theme of education. In A Blast Maria gives up her studies in order to help her family, while in Homeland you draw a portrayal of teachers and their students. Do you think that your films are educational and didactic? Do you identify yourself with the role of the teacher?
ST: Well, I’ve been accused of being ‘didactic’ in my films. I guess, it’s true, they are a bit didactic in a sense, in a... black Clint-Eastwood-kind-of-way. But that’s OK. It’s a way of starting a dialogue and I never really take it too seriously. I like teachers anyway. They seem vulnerable to me. What they try to control is uncontrollable.
AM: The Greek families whose lives you present are usually multi-generational. What is the role of their eldest members? In Homeland the senior of the family is weak, mute and powerless. On the other hand, in A Blast legacy and inheritance are synonymous with debts and helplessness of the parents – they make their children unhappy. Why do you choose to present families in that manner?
ST: Because that’s the way they truly are. Laius, Oedipus or Kreon will always try to kill us. The story goes like this: Apart from the love, the caring, the support, the best of intentions, you‘ll get the debts, the weakness, the wrong-doing, the self-righteousness, the terrible legacies of all sorts. I evoke all this because each and everyone of us at some point has to deal with it, and to forgive, or to not-forgive, to condemn or to embrace. And I prefer awareness, even if at times it seems nightmarish, to a beat-around-the-bush attitude that at the end makes people so terribly unhappy. As for the senior members, there’s a difference between the older members of the generations in Homeland and A Blast; the grandfather in Homeland belongs to the civil war generation, the generation of our grandfathers, whereas in A Blast the parents belong to the post-junta generation, the generation of our parents, just that this time, in A Blast, there are represented as older, weaker and more two-dimensional in comparison to Homeland. And this is a political choice, to use this generation in this way in my second film. In the new film I’m preparing, they’re going to be even older and more lost.
AM: Both A Blast and Homeland have been constructed by applying similar patterns in form. You move between several temporal levels, past events get mixed with present ones in a confluent juxtaposition. For example, when operating the fragmentation of on-screen reality, you seem to recreate a sense of the lead characters’ confusion. On the other hand, however, it implies a feeling of nostalgia for a better past. What kind of effect do you want to achieve by using this kind of artistic means?
ST: The emotional result is different in the two films, but the means and the goal is quite similar. This fragmentation allows the juxtaposition of contrasting moments in a character’s ‘life’. I think it’s pure cinematic language, something only cinema can do to that extend and to that effect. I find it fascinating, this deconstructing and reconstructing of a person’s life in a new order, and apart from that, it creates a kind of crack in the viewer’s sense of reality that allows hidden notions to appear. It demands a bit more of concentration than usual, but there are fruits to be found there. As for nostalgia, Homeland is a film that wants to destroy the nostalgia for the ‘happy Greek 80s and 90s’ and reveal the rotten root there. In A Blast there is bigger tenderness towards the past, because in the scenes of the ‘past’ Maria is so young and so honestly unaware of the danger. It’s her period of illusion, and illusion always seems safe. It doesn’t last long, though.
AM: What I am personally most interested in, in the New Greek Wave, is the role of language and the disruption of the symbolic order. You experiment with language (especially in Homeland), and show its disintegration – there are quite a lot of repetitions, stuttering, people having difficulty expressing themselves, they spell out individual words. You also analyze the national anthem, which breaks apart like the Greek society. In A Blast you refer to experiments with language in the very first scene, when Maria and Gogo repeat definitions of the human rights. What is the function of language in your movies and how do you use it?
ST: I think in a way language is the core of my films, more than the image. I adore candor and specificity. The right expression for something is to me the most important [thing]. Maybe, because my mom is a poet and a translator of poetry, so I kinda grew up in this struggle for the right expression, the right adjective, etc. A Blast was born when we wrote Maria’s monologue at the women’s group, that’s when I believed we had a film in our hands, a true hero: when we wrote these words that seemed to me candid and real and shocking. Then we wrote Maria’s calm verbal annihilation of her father in the kitchen, and I felt even more sure. In Homeland, the 19th century romantic poem by Dionyssios Solomos, Hymn to Liberty, which is Greece’s national anthem, was the centre around which we built the whole script with Youla Boudali. The heart of the film is in this very desperate and blood-soaked image of freedom the poem has. We wanted a very precise, pure form of verbal expression like this, to contradict the inability of the majority of the characters (and of political life) to express anything in a way that does not convey patronizing, wishful thinking, pretext emotions, and other calculations. Stella – the teacher character – at some point can’t allow herself to speak any more in the middle of that classroom, or injures herself trying to bring her emotions closer to her mouth before speaking on the telephone. The father and the grandson, Stergios, the film’s two reflecting characters, barely speak, and usually groan. Nurses, waitresses and other lower-class characters stutter, because their courage and sense of decency are hurt both personally and socially. The two brothers, Nikitas and Antonis, are always calculating before uttering a single word and when one of them breaks and speaks his heart to his father, it’s really too late for everything. To me there’s no better way to talk about character, than playing with the way and the things he or she speaks. And there’s no other way to challenge pre-fixed ideas or clichés so commonly accepted that pass for truths, than repeating them till they’re worn down or find a new meaning, like Maria and Gogo do in the beginning of A Blast, or Stella and her students do at the end of Homeland.
AM: Being a film director is only one of the roads you took on your cinematographic adventure. You also played a very interesting role in The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas . How did you feel as an actor? Could you tell us more about the film and your cooperation with Elina Psikou?
ST: To be honest with you, I love and I totally enjoy acting in movies, because I can participate in the film process doing something I love, but without having the whole responsibility, the direction, production, the crew, etc.. I’m there just to do the best job I can as an actor, to enjoy myself, and that’s it. It’s actually like a playground for me. Especially in the Paraskevas part, it was literally a playground. With Elina we worked fantastically in this small thing and it was overall tremendous fun, as I had to play this super ambitious TV-persona with the super white teeth, presenting one of those morning shows addressing housewives; so it was hilarious playing a guy like this, ruthless and full of entitlement, but at the same time a true ‘darling’, singing and dancing and doing gymnastics and stuff. But the best thing for me in the film was trashing Paraskevas every way I could – that stupid dad-mentor-old-tv-guy-in-existential-crisis the amazing Christos Stergioglou plays in the film. Anyway, I must say that in all the films I’ve played in so far, from Wasted Youth where I’m this pretty psycho cop shooting a teenager, to the disgustingly rich plastic surgeon I play in Suntan, a film that will be released within 2015 and I co-wrote with director Argyris Papadimitropoulos, I’m always asked to do these sleazy superbad characters. I guess that says a lot about me!
AM: Could you tell us something about your new project? We had to wait four years for A Blast. When are you planning to release your next picture? What is the most difficult thing for you as a director in the creative process?
ST: Hopefully, you will wait less for the new one. The project was just presented this year at the Rotterdam Cinemart and the Berlinale co-production market, where it also got an award. If things move according to plan and financing is in place, we’ll shoot The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea in 2016 and it will be a 2017 film. It’ll be a different film in tone and larger in scope in a sense. It’s our third chapter in what we started with Homeland as Hell and A Blast as Purgatory. This is Paradise and it’s a genre film, a brutal and dreamy crime story about getting your life out of the gutter, set in a provincial port town in the West of Greece. As for the second part of your question, the most difficult part for me is always late pre-production because there’s a lot of instability there and you have to deal with your impatience to go for the thing, instead of planning and dreaming about it. The best part is shooting and editing because you deal with material things that are physical, unpredictable and nature-specific.
Portrait of Syllas Tzoumerkas: photo: Vera de Kok