Interview with Syllas Tzoumerkas
The obligatory start-up question. What is the filmmaker´s point of view about the recent commotion of the contemporary Greek cinema? Plenty of new talents emerging, interesting formal approaches… why now? What is behind the blossoming of your national cinema?
A combination of things, I think. Above all is the personal work of the directors but also of the actors and all the other artists involved in those films. Another factor is the determination of this generation of directors and – this is very important – producers, not to follow the path of greek cinema of the 80s and 90s, but sort of reinvent it and put it in direct dialogue with world cinema. Of course, another thing that enhanced the edge of our stories and their appeal, was the coming and the deepening of the crisis in greek society and economy during the last 5 years. The most important factor though, I think, is a renewed sense of urgency that has established in both film and society.
Another obligatory question would be the relation between filmmakers and state considering you debut feature Homeland whose central story is set against the backdrop of public riots in Greece, the connection is kind of obvious. So, what about your filmmaking and the state (funding)?
National television was actually a bit cautious about what Homeland was about (the combination of the poem that is our national anthem with lines like ‘fuck the socialist, fuck the right-wing, fuck the Greeks’ were a bit hard-to-swallow) – however this generation of filmmakers found back then the support of Greek Film Center at different and critical points of production. Greek Film Center and its president back then, showed determination and decisiveness in the policy of supporting new talent emerging from short films. I think that gradually, but not without difficulty, everyone got used to the fact that the new greek cinema has sharp teeth and it bites. Right now though, the situation as far as it concerns public funding of films is dramatic. And it’s a pity because new greek cinema is at its peak.
Before switching directly to the domain of cinema, you are very prolific person… theatre, acting, screenwriting, directing… Where do you find time and ideas to all of it? What´s the difference between Theatre Syllas and Cinema Syllas?
The mediums are different. I’ve studied acting and I enjoy from time to time playing in friends’ films and in theatre. Original dramaturgies (devised theatre performances) is something that I also love and it’s close to my scriptwriting work. It’s what I choose to do or what I can do at a specific time, and it has to do a lot with the people involved and a current of exchange we keep running. To give you an idea, I’ve worked in theatre with the Blitz Theatre Group who are Christos Passalis, Angeliki Papoulia and Yorgos Valais, actors who’ve played in my films, or I collaborated with the Erasers, a live cinema band who are half the members of Drog_A_Tek, aka the music composers of Homeland .
There has been a lot commotion about the contemporary Greek cinema, more precisely the eccentric branch of the current Greek cinema. What is your opinion on this and are you part of it? Most of concerned filmmakers denounced it.
I understand that our films have to be categorized in a way, but I think their diversity in style and theme, makes it hard. I’ve also realized that people practice a lot the defense mechanism of calling ‘weird’ or ‘morbid’ or ‘extreme’ or ‘over-the-top’, things that, in my opinion, are nothing but very good reflections of reality. In any case, our only true common ground is socio-geographical, that we all come in an era in urgent need of redefining ideas and social norms, and each one of us does it in his or her different way, varying from dramedy to saga, with film references reaching from Haneke and Seidl to Chan-dong Lee or Trier, to give you some filmmakers’ examples.
Are you following the works of your colleagues in the industry like Lanthimos, Tsangari, Makridis, Lygizos, Papadimitropoulos (you starred in his film Wasted Youth, so that´s clear you have seen this film)…?
I certainly do and with most of them we’ve known each other for many years, from when we first presented our short films back in the late 90s-early 00s, and there are many and diverse currents of collaboration and exchange in this group of people.
Your short movie The Devouring Eyes is sort of avant-garde style. What your relation to avant-garde?
I was 20 y.o. when I shot the film and I was pretty much experimenting trying to find my idiosyncrasies in narration, visual style and editing. I guess that’s what makes the film avant-gardish. In my mind, this was never very conscious; what is conscious in me is thatwatching cinema, theatre and visual arts, I get greedy and eat a lot of candy. Godard’s Sauve Qui Peut (la vie) and, obviously, Dogme ’95 were my major influences.
Few of the aspects from The Devouring Eyes were used also in your feature length film Homeland. Is there some link between these two works?
There is. When I started working on Homeland I decided that I had to go back to that short film to find my most primitive expression. There are 2-3 scenes in Homeland that refer directly to the Devouring Eyes. Another thing that connects the two films is that they both tell stories from the large pit of the greek urban middle-class, the class I come from and that is filled with people that I love to love, attack, challenge and debate. Amalia Moutoussi (the actress playing the mother in The Devouring Eyes and the teacher in Homeland) is also a link between the films.
Homeland has an interesting narrative structure. Could you provide us with some insight into story-development-process?
We started from the basic idea: to work on the patterns that applied to both family and public life during the post-junta era, the era of our growing-up. Then, we developed the story in a way that would allow me to use editing in this particular way that I find plausible, funny, harsh, and revealing, creating a caleidoscopic way of viewing history in relation to character. As for the dialogue, we used the good-old-Chekhov technique of constant clash between the characters via double-meaning lines emerging from day-life.
In Homeland, you have interweaved story fragments with a footage of actual rioting in sort of journalism manner underlying documentary style or enhancing the realism of the story. What led you to such interesting choice?
I developed this mix on a documentary I did on American poet Ezra Pound for Greek TV. This documentary together with the job I had for a few years as a director for a TV-show which was something like a greek version of ‘60 minutes’, exposed me a lot to archive and news material. Gradually, this kind of footage became part of my visual language. These images carry on them the banality of politics and public life, and I love the way this banality can mingle in all sort of contrasting or tautological ways with the characters’ wishes, mindset and action.
The Devouring Eyes is focused on two women (or women and girl), in Homeland, I find female characters more interesting than male. You next film will feature another interesting female character. Is there some special reason for this? Because it seems like you personal poetics to focus on women. Von Trier is also, but they called him, I believe wrongly, misogynist.
The truth is that I feel much more at ease writing and developing female characters. It’s quite subconscious and I don’t very much control it. Men, are sort of a hopeless case, anyway. (As for misogyny, misogynist is the preoccupation that women can’t or shouldn’t exercise their freedom and go to all sorts of different places, wonderful or terrible, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, stupid or ingenious. Well, any novel by Doris Lessing or film by Lars Von Trier could be a cure for this type of violent stupidity).
You are currently developing your new feature, we have already mentioned, A Blast. The synopses is really interesting, there is also a hint that similarly to Homeland, there will be some political subtext, but also some existential road to self-discovery. Where did you find the idea for this film, what has inspired you?
The main idea I’m working on is radicalization. It’s a very different story than Homeland, and it is not an ensemble piece. It’s about a woman who literally blows her whole life-up. Its political frame is the dramatic last decade of Greece, the years that led to the country’s collapse and the effects to had to the generation of people who are now in their 30s.
The synopsis also implies that you will use non-linear narrative structure, sort of film mosaics. Is this so? Could provide small insight into your creative thinking/process?
A Blast won’t be entirely linear, but I would use the ‘film mosaics’ (or ‘caleidoscopic way of viewing’ which is the term I use) only for Homeland. A Blast’s structure is very different as it will develop around a central character. Apart from narrative style, what I try to do in general, is to decode the social dynamics in people around me and push them to its extremes.
When and where can we see your film A Blast?
If all goes well, A Blast will be filmed this summer, which means it will be a 2014 film.
What about other projects? Is there something else on your mind? What are you planning to do after launching A Blast on festival circuit and promoting the film?
We are now writing a new screenplay with Youla Boudali my co-writer, but I’m not sure yet if I’m going to be the director, or if we will give it to someone else to make it. I also keep doing some weird documentaries for Greek TV. But A Blast is my main thing now.
I have found out that you took part in Berlinale Talent Campus back there in 2003. This year, there´s been a quarrel where it serves the right purposes. What is your opinion? Is it necessary, did it help you?
I was selected at the first Talent Campus in 2003, so it’s been many years since then and I can’t really tell you something about the way it evolved. It was fun when I did it, especially since all the industry part of film was still a very unknown territory for me back then. In any case, whatever manages to cultivate extroversy for filmmakers is good.
Homeland, Dogtooth and The Idlers of Fertile Valley share one bold feature. They are using rather eccentric family as a central character/s and which in the same time serves as a parable or metaphor. I believe that you used family because it is a base cell of the state, but also as parallel to the actual state breakdown. Correct me please if I am wrong.
I think it’s true. The use of family is very different in the three films, but, in all cases, it does serve as a parable. In Homeland’s family, ‘we have the same blood’ means ‘we have the same disease’; and this is true not only for this family and all families, but also for the country as well. It’s a ‘Mauvais Sang’ story.