Posts Tagged 'interview'

Escape into the world of fiction at Syros film fest

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By Harry van Versendaal

Cinema buffs have a chance to escape the barrage of tough reality in Greece and seek comfort in fiction at the upcoming Syros International Film Festival (SIFF).

The brainchild of three American 20-somethings with a dream, the festival, inaugurated three years ago, showcases 30 features and 40 shorts, as well as 14 documentary films. This includes 10 Greek works as well as films from 17 other countries around the world.

Among this year’s highlights is a tribute to Romanian film director and screenwriter Corneliu Porumboiu, recipient of the Golden Camera prize for his satirical comedy “12:08: East of Bucharest” at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006.

Organizers have also planned an extensive program on the theme of place in cinema, featuring rare, new, classic and diverse films. A drive-in venue is expected to take the cinema experience to a whole new level.

Meanwhile, organizers have planned a series of lectures on the impact of technological progress on cinema production and distribution by distinguished guests including British film director Peter Greenaway.

The festival will open with a multimedia show by the Grenoble-based performance collective Maki. The act brings together 16 mm film projection, shadow play, music and dance – all specially designed for a remote field on the island.

In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Jacob Moe, the festival’s managing director, spoke about this summer’s offerings, the island and the trio’s battle with the host country’s financial woes.

What are this year’s highlights?

If we have to narrow it down, I would pick out three things. First of all, we are hosting a full retrospective on Corneliu Porumboiu. The great Romanian filmmaker will be attending each screening, and we’ll be screening all of his features, including the Greek premiere of his latest film “The Treasure,” in addition to several of his fantastic shorts. Second of all, we have a massive program on the theme of place in cinema, titled “Where: Cinemas of Place.” These will feature rare, new, classic and diverse films, all grouped according to different sub-themes within the greater question of how place is articulated and expressed in cinema. This program includes the drive-in cinema we have built, which will show, of course, road films, describing the “no-where” place that is the open road. And finally, our lecture series on the technological transformation currently under way in the production and distribution of cinema. It is called “Film to Digital,” and we’re having several speakers (Peter Greenaway, Albert Serra, Louis Benassi and Elektra Venaki) all talk about the pleasures and pains of the two media, the gap between them, and the language they may or may not share.

This summer we also inaugurate Khora, an audiovisual residency founded in the hopes of creating a space for production within the framework of the festival, as well as creating an opportunity for artists to engage with certain places on Syros and to create site-specific pieces.

The residency will take place at the Syros Institute, housed in a refurbished 16th-century Jesuit Monastery in Ano Syros. Participants have the opportunity to work with two internationally acclaimed guest artists, Michael Pisaro (composer, California Institute of the Arts) and Deborah Stratman (artist and filmmaker, University of Illinois at Chicago), who will also contribute their own projects. The resulting works will be screened as completed or in-progress pieces during SIFF 2015 in a special showcase screening.

What film will open this year’s festival?

Actually, it’s not a film – it’s a performance. Maki, a multimedia performance group, will create a live experience of “expanded cinema” incorporating dance, music, shadow play, and live 16 mm projection. All of the basic elements of cinema will be at play: movement, light, dark and sound. The event will take place outdoors and under a full moon, on a sloped hill by the sea, directly across from Fanari, the lighthouse island. We’ve created a path down to the projection site, so any spectator will be able to wander down the hill and choose their own seating freely. It’s a unique event, really embedded in the locale and experience of the island, which fully kicks off the theme of this year’s program – the “place” of cinema.

Why did you pick Syros? Where do you stand now, three year’s since the first event? What are your future goals?

We chose Syros at first because we had close personal ties to the island. It became clear from the first year however that Syros was a natural choice for the location of a film festival, given the cultural seat it occupies in the Cyclades. People can expect many cultural offerings on Syros; the island has always been known for this. Now, in our third year, we could not think of moving the festival somewhere else, unless some huge turn of events took place. We have developed relationships with many venues, groups and, of course, viewers on the island that contribute greatly to the success of the festival. We also feel as though the festival has been shaped by Syros as a place: Syros is an island with a rich and varied history and you can see this in the landscape and buildings all around; it is impossible not to notice several layers of history existing at once here. We in turn have tried to make our festival’s program and screening spaces exist in this same way, revealing to the viewer the many different strands of cinema and approaches to watching it we can take. This is perhaps our greatest goal as a festival, to create really compelling screening experiences, understanding that both the material viewed and the context of its exhibition creates an overall film-watching experience.

What makes this festival different from similar events, besides its location?

SIFF is most distinct in its dedication to creating truly special film-viewing experiences that inform the specific films being shown, and, also, the more general experience of watching a film. While we are committed to showing recent films on the festival circuit, SIFF is not like many other film festivals that show contemporary film. We are not only a film festival; we are also a film event, a celebration of film, and, hopefully, a space for people to engage with film in very immediate and intimate ways. We try to program recent film with old film, films from nearby and far away, from all genres. We show in movies theaters and an opera house, a shipyard, an abandoned field, and more. We show in 16 mm, 35 mm, and various digital formats. We host talks about film, an artist residency, performances and exhibitions around film… Perhaps what makes SIFF most distinct is the space it tries to inhabit between film festival, film repertory and something else entirely.

Where does the festival budget come from?

Our main sponsor this year was the Onassis Cultural Center / Onassis Foundation. They provided crucial support for different programs within the festival, including the opening event, our lecture series, our first filmmaking workshop for local teenagers and a curation of films created for their C.P. Cavafy Digital Archive. In addition, we have received substantial grants from national consulates, including the American Embassy (which will support our artist residency and a large program of films by American directors who only completed one film) and the Romanian Embassy (who will sponsor the Porumboiu retrospective), In addition, we have received substantial municipal and regional grants and generous in-kind sponsorships, ranging from a post-production house – 2|35 – which will generously provide the award for our competition of debut feature films, to the local vineyard Fabrica and nearby artisanal brewery Nissos that will provide the refreshments for all of our events.

Has the financial crisis and overall uncertainty affected your plans?

Of course. Like any non-profit organization here in Greece, we have been confronted by reduced funding opportunities, both from the private and public sector. From private funders, especially when it comes to sponsorships from companies, we have experienced many instances in which they simply do not want to hear our proposal, because they have had to end their sponsorship programs. On the public level, there is a great deal of uncertainty at times, and so even support that had been approved sometimes can change in form, or even fall through. At the same time, the current climate can encourage funders to want to help: Especially from larger cultural institutes, we have received great support this year, in some part due to their understanding that it is becoming increasingly difficult to put on a cultural event like ours. From individuals as well, we have received this same sense of understanding, that they recognize we put on the festival in this period of uncertainty and that they appreciate the event all the more for it. While not financial, this support is a huge help. So, the short of it: We plan on continuing the festival – we just need to constantly come up with new ways of receiving financial support, and that is definitely a source of creativity.

Stranger in a strange land

By Harry van Versendaal

Not everyone’s home videos have the makings of a modern-day Greek tragedy.

Alexandra Anthony’s family documentary “Lost in the Bewilderness,” which earned warm reviews at the recent Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, tells the story of a long-lost hero who, after many travails, finally returns home to claim his rightful place in the old country.

The story begins in the early 1970s, at the house of the Psychopaidopoulos family in the southern Athens neighborhood of Nea Smyrni. When Anthony’s cousin Lucas is born, he is instantly immersed in the typically Greek overdose of attention and affection bestowed upon the first male child of a generation. But at the age of 5, Lucas’s parents separate.

That is when the drama begins to unfold, and the story is elevated from Super-8 home movie memories to something darker. One day the boy disappears with his mother, throwing the Psychopaidopoulos family into a state of shock and mourning. A worldwide search, also with the help of Interpol, is of no avail.

But 11 years after the abduction, a telephone call from Maryland in the US sets the drama back in motion. It’s Athena, asking Orestis, her former husband, to take impossible teenager Lucas back to the homeland and off her hands.

“When the kid was found, it was like, ‘Get the camera and go,’” Anthony says.

Live your myth

Filmed over the course of 30 years, the 97-minute documentary is a mixture of archival footage and cinema verite. It takes off thanks to masterful editing, a clean structure, and captivating narration by Anthony herself whose matter-of-fact delivery seamlessly meshes the ancient myths of Oedipus, Perseus and Odysseus with Lucas’s story.

The 61-year-old director was born to Greek parents in Charleston, South Carolina. She spent her childhood in Athens and her adolescence in London, before moving to the US to study art history at Wellesley College and filmmaking at MIT. She now lives in Boston, but visits Greece every summer, always with her camera equipment. Over the years, she has filmed several ethnographic films in numerous remote areas of her native country.

Hence, it comes as little surprise that Anthony knows her Greek mythology well, and cleverly chooses just which parallels to draw between Lucas and ancient Greek heroes.

“I’ve always had an interest in mythology, in ancient Greek theater, drama and tragedy. I find great beauty in all those stories. I grew up with them. They are part of who I am. But it was really an organic process, not a forced thing. It became more and more apparent to me that there were so many parallels with ancient mythology and the archetypes of Orestis who was exiled, or Euphrosyne, his grandmother, who was one of the three Graces. And then, as I dug deeper, I saw there is a theme with all these young kings and heroes who, at a very young age, as babies or toddlers, are taken away to be killed or exiled so that they don’t take over the throne or whatever. But in every case they return on the cusp of manhood to reclaim their rightful place on the throne or in the family. Especially Perseus, whose own mother took him across the sea.”

However, the central metaphor for Anthony was the Orpheus and Eurydice story of a man losing his beloved early and made a deal to get her back from the underworld. Orpheus could not keep his promise of not looking behind him and, as he made his way back to the world of the living, he lost his love for a second time.

“I really love the idea of Orestis going to this netherworld, which is shown as black and white and gray – which is the US as a kind of underworld – to bring Lucas back to life, and it’s then in full color when he comes to Greece.”

Being a student at the MIT film section under direct cinema pioneers Richard (Ricky) Leacock and Ed Pincus, Anthony was inevitably schooled in the orthodoxy of cinema verite, always recording things as they happened. For this project, however, she used old pictures and – in a somewhat liberating betrayal of the verite rulebook – she recreated the back story using vintage-style footage of her own daughter and the daughter of Nana, a family friend.

“I wanted to introduce the characters so by the time you got to the actual story you could kind of see it through their eyes and have empathy with what they were experiencing.”

Lost in translation

The director was there when Lucas first landed in Athens. As soon as the boy walked out of the airport at Elliniko, she sensed his unease.

“I think he was just a deer in headlights. Here he is, a stranger in a strange land here in Greece. He did not know he had a Greek family, he doesn’t speak the language and all of a sudden his mother has turned him over to these strangers.

“He was uncomfortable anyway and here is this camera in his face. And I felt really sensitive. Life comes first and then comes film. I didn’t want to make his life more difficult for him. So I slowly withdrew a little bit after the first two weeks and I thought I ‘d let them just find themselves, they have enough to deal with, without me there. But I didn’t think I had enough for a film at all.”

Despite this, “Lost in the Bewilderness” became Anthony’s hobby, as she kept on filming the family in their garden, in the living room, on the beach, every time she came to Greece over the years. Without realizing it, she also captured images of a changing society.

The film is a rich parade of modern Greek history, from Lucas’s namesake, his grandfather – the archetypical Greek gentleman of the 1950s – the glory days of PASOK founder Andreas Papandreou during a 1984 rally, and through to the tsunami of “antiparochi” deals between landowners and contractors that led to the brutal destruction of many old private houses. The Psychopaidopoulos family home, which we get to know and love as intimately as its owners, is too knocked down, without any warning, by a yellow bulldozer, to make way for a modern apartment building.

And all that’s left at the end is a story, a visually rich, suspense-filled ride.

Fateful encounters

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By Harry van Versendaal

John Appel knew he wanted to make a film about chance; All he had to do was wait for the right sequence of events. So when Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik went on his murderous rampage on July 22, 2011, the Dutch director reached for his camera.

“I wanted to make a film about how people deal with fate. It had to be based on a tragic event,” Appel, 55, said during an interview at the Olympion Theater after a screening of “Wrong Time Wrong Place,” part of Thessaloniki’s Documentary Festival which wraps up this weekend.

“I didn’t want to concentrate on who committed the crimes – only on the victims. This is a story about why people found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said of the film that opened the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November.

After setting off a car bomb outside government headquarters in Oslo, the 33-year-old Breivik went on a shooting spree on Utoya island, where more than 500 people had gathered for the Labor Party’s annual summer camp. Eight people died in the bombing and 69 were killed on the island. More than 240 were injured. Breivik claimed the killings were “cruel and necessary” to protect his country from being overrun by Muslims.

The documentary follows five people who either narrowly survived the massacre or had a close friend or relative killed in it. Harald, a Norwegian civil servant, had just arrived at the office that morning when the bomb went off, killing several of his colleagues and leaving him partially blind. Ritah, a pregnant woman from Uganda, only decided to go to the summer camp at the very last minute. She escaped by hiding inside a toilet with another two people. One of these was Hakon, who had noticed Breivik on the ferry to the island. Visiting from Georgia, Natia managed to escape, but her friend Tamta was the last person Breivik shot before being arrested by the police. The heartbreaking account of her parents is central to the film.

Convincing his characters to take part in the documentary, especially so soon after the tragic events, was not easy. “Some people did not trust me,” said Appel, adding that people were naturally put off by the sensation-hungry media. With others, he was able to convince them that his motives were different.

“I had to persuade them that I did not wish to exploit the drama. It was not my intention to investigate why the killer acted the way he did. I was not interested in his story, but in the story of the victims that were able to survive,” he said.

Quite fittingly, chance also played a big part in making the film. Appel started filming before he had found any characters or a story. “I was looking for characters and then, during filming really, by chance I met the individuals that appear in the film,” he said.

“I totally could not find the lady from Uganda [Ritah]. I wanted to tell the story of the people who hid inside the toilet but I could only find two of them. I was looking for Ritah in Uganda but I could not find her, and then, thanks to a coincidental contact, I found out she was living in the Netherlands, where she had applied for political asylum,” he said.

“I visited her, the next day I filmed, and the day after that she gave birth to the baby. I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Watching the film, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the way cultural and religious differences affect the way people deal with tragedy. The mother of Tamta, who can be seen praying in an apartment filled with religious icons and family pictures, appears to believe that the fate of her daughter, her only daughter, was sealed in old religious texts. “It was a relief for her. It was a relief to discover the book that had predicted what happened – that is being born on Christmas Day – meant something special and this was in the hand of the gods and she had to die anyway,” said Appel, who is not religious himself.

He says the cold Nordic character is perhaps more suitable to deal with such circumstances. “Look at how they dealt with the court case and Breivik himself. They were extremely civilized. If it had taken place in Greece, maybe people would try to kill him. Norwegians are different,” he said. Judges declared Breivik sane and sentenced him to at least 21 years in prison.

Appel, who has directed more than 30 documentaries for cinema and television, says his next project will be completely coincidental – including the starting point of the film. “If you make a coincidental film, you meet one person that leads you to the next person, and that leads you to another person, and this whole thing will reveal everything life is about,” he said.

Does he think that the realization of this unbearable lightness of being, as it were, should make us treat life a bit less seriously? “Yes, I think so. One of the views I want to express in this film is that life is not controllable. You can try to live as safely as you can, but you never know what is going to happen. You may get sick or get involved in a serious accident,” he said.

“So you should be a little more open to the unexpected and not try to control everything in life. It’s really not worth it.”

American finds the meaning of life in orphanage for HIV+ children

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By Harry van Versendaal

Rocky Braat went to India “seeking authenticity.” When he got there he found a bit more than he had bargained for.

The hero of Steve Hoover’s documentary “Blood Brother,” which scooped up the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is also his best friend. Hoover decided to make a movie about his former flatmate after their lives started to follow totally different trajectories about five years ago. It was then that 30-year-old Rocky, born into a dysfunctional and borderline abusive family, decided to quit Pittsburgh PA and a potential career in graphic design and instead move into an orphanage for HIV-positive children in the Asian country’s southern Tamil Nadu state.

Rocky – whom the kids call “Rocky Anna,” Anna being the Tamil word for “brother” – spends his days at the refuge where, as the only adult male, he eagerly fills in as amateur nurse, entertainer and father. In the process, he grapples with extremely challenging circumstances, pain and loss – as he is forced to watch helplessly as some of the kids die of the disease. But he has found purpose.

“I was moved and fascinated by what Rocky was doing. Eventually it just kind of dawned on me to document Rocky and share his story,” Hoover told Kathimerini English Edition in an interview ahead of the film’s screening at the 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“He had been inviting me to come and visit him in India anyway. After sharing the idea to do a documentary about him, he was very much open to the idea and so I began to move forward with it,” said Hoover, who had until that time been making commercials and music videos.

In early 2011, Hoover took a plane to India with a crew of six. He returned to the village later that year for another three weeks to shoot the second part of the movie. They all stayed in Rocky’s ramshackle, rat-infested hut. Inevitably, being there and making this movie has been a transformative experience for him too.

“It was the first time I had ever been out of the First World and the first time that I had ever made a personal connection with HIV/AIDS. Those two experiences alone had a profound impact on me. I began to care deeply about things I had never given a second thought to. I gained a tremendous amount of perspective on the life of my best friend and learned a great deal about true sacrifice,” he said.

Mostly shot with Canon 7D and 5D cameras (several scenes have been captured on super 8 mm film), “Blood Brother” is a beautifully crafted movie that manages to be heartfelt and inspirational without giving in to easy sensationalism or sentimentalism. Working on the movie has caused Hoover to re-examine the value of his time and energy, he says.

“In the words of Rocky, I want my life to count. I don’t want to spend my days only to accomplish nothing. I know I’ll have to continue to work on things that are empty and meaningless, but that can’t be all that I do,” he said.

The first trip to India was crowd-funded through Kickstarter. The team used up the funds, and had to dig into their own pockets for the second trip. So far virtually everyone has worked for free – donating their time, talent and expertise toward the project.

“I was impacted by the amount of support we received. It’s humbling to look back on and realize how much of this depended on the generosity of others. Receiving that much support from so many different people gave me a lot of hope for how much people actually do care,” Hoover said.

The creators say they have zero debt and are set up to donate all their profits. They are using all of their monetary gain from the film to support the hostel and Rocky, as well as other HIV/AIDS initiatives around the world.

In one of the movie’s most interesting interludes, visa complications temporarily send Rocky back to his Pittsburgh neighborhood. When he is not bored, an obviously out-of-place Rocky is awkwardly examining products on the overflowing shelves of the local supermarket.

When he finally returns, the film enters its most harrowing episode, as one of the little boys from the orphanage is so sick that even the doctors at the hospital have given up on him. It is almost painful to watch Rocky’s steadfast refusal to leave the boy’s side for days and nights on end, washing his sores, covering him in lotion and refusing to allow him to die.

Rocky is still living in India, happily married to a local woman. He certainly doesn’t seem to have lost any of his energy or purpose according to Hoover. He is now making plans to build a halfway house for the kids in the hostel that reach the age limit – the refuge cannot hold kids beyond the age of 15 – and have to enter society and live on their own. He is also planning to start small businesses that the kids can run and operate when they come of age.

“The businesses will be fair labor hours that the kids can handle with all of the challenges that come from having HIV/AIDS. We plan to accomplish all of this with money generated from the film,” Hoover said. It’s a fitting ambition.

Back to the roots

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard to decide what to make of Pavlos Kozalidis. If nothing else, this 49-year-old photographer is a curious man who lives to click.

Born in Piraeus before moving to Canada, Kozalidis grew up listening to the nostalgic stories of his aunt, an ethnic Greek from Ordu, a town in the conflict-prone Black Sea region, who was forced to migrate first to America and then, having been displaced from Ordu for a second time, to Greece.

When he first laid hands on an SLR camera in the late 1980s, Kozalidis started to travel. Initially he wandered in India and Central Asia, but curiosity about his origins prompted him to trace the roots of his family. Between 1995 and 2003 he traveled from Turkey and Georgia to Russia and Ukraine at least once a year. He did so with scarce resources, mostly riding on dilapidated buses and staying at cheap hotels – a habit that only added to the experience. “It’s better to have a small seat next to a big window than a comfortable seat beside a tiny window,” Kozalidis says in what seems to translate as a life-rule.

Somewhere along the way his work won support from the Benaki Museum in Athens, which in 2008 for the first time made public a small part of the growing material. “Searching for a Lost Homeland,” some 60 black-and-white photos taken during his Black Sea journeys, is currently being showcased at the Photography Museum of Thessaloniki through April 18.

Kozalidis is not a technical photographer and does not pretend otherwise. “I make a lot of mistakes,” he tells Athens Plus in an interview at the attractive brick and steel warehouse building that houses the museum.

But Kozalidis’s candid admission is hard to believe as you stare at this arresting piece of work documenting the lives and customs of the Pontian Greeks who stayed behind.

Not bad for someone who used to steal magazine pictures from his local dentist office.

Keeping needs simple

Do you have a regular job?

No, no. I have my own means, not a lot, but I still have the capability after so many years to do 16 hours third class on a third class bus on a third class road. I don’t need a lot of money. I spend more money every day on film than my hotel room. And I try to stretch whatever I have. I would gladly spend anything I have to buy film or a ticket to travel by road or by plane.

Do you teach?

No, I am not a teacher. I can’t teach people. You can teach somebody the tricks of photography. It’s kind of like juggling. You can learn to be a good juggler, but if there is no heart in what you’re looking at then… it’s like a cold coke on a sunny day. After a while you start feeling thirsty again.

I think everybody wants to see something true, even when you go to see all that art kind of photography; sometimes I must admit I get a little bit jealous of the attention it gets because it’s new. My work is passé, my photographs are kind of “classic.”

Why did you hold on to this material for so long? Why didn’t you publish anything for 20 years?

To publish something you need time. And that time takes you away from the clicking, the development. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I still do. I’m so bad that I used to cut up my negatives and then try to pick out something I wanted. I didn’t go to photography school. It’s sort of something that I picked up and in a way saved myself from myself. There’s two ways, you know, up and down.

I can now carry 36 kilos of film and 10 kilos of camera equipment, plus another 20 kilos in my bag. All the rest,  looking at it, I can do later.

Are you not afraid that it may no longer be relevant?

It’s just a journey. A lot of people are on a journey and they don’t leave anything. At least mine, even if it’s not relevant, is still something. The rest is ego. You want to be like “forever,” your work to be “forever.”

I am not finished with these places; China, Asia, Africa, South America, I am not finished. I’ll never finish. I just did 10,000 kilometers on a third class bus on a road in Africa; the entire trip took four-and-a-half months. And now I am leaving in ten days. I can do it now. But at some point I won’t be able to. That’s why I didn’t show it. Not because I didn’t want to. I mean I want people to see it. It’s wonderful when you come up to me and saw “wow.” It’s nice because it’s really extra. It’s like having a girlfriend and you take her out and everybody goes “wow she’s really beautiful.” It’s really nice because for a long time you thought only you saw her as beautiful. Everything has it’s time. It’s like flowers, they don’t all bloom at the same time. But the thing is… I’ve made mistakes and I continue to make mistakes and I say a lot of romantic cuckoo things. But I am irrelevant, I don’t make these things. I just see some things because they are good photographs. I don’t think I am particularly talented photographically. I just have an ability to get close to people.

Can you tell us about your Black Sea journey? Why did you go there?

It had to do with my aunt and her stories because she was born there. And in the exodus some went to New York, some went to Russia, some went to Japan. It was a big family. She kept telling me there was a house there which still stands now and I just went back. And I would go by road from Athens, I would get on a bus, a Georgian bus, and I would do the whole journey through Istanbul, 3 days, 4 days if it didn’t break down. And then I would meet people and they would speak my grandmother’s language. And that was really cool. And it was like you made friends after 4 days because you wake up and you have breakfast, chicken, sausages, bread, Russian cigarettes, and vodka, vodka, vodka.

Camera is my journal basically. It is my life, but it is also the life of the other people that I see. That’s what I am basically doing. Journaling others but using my own means.

Did you expect to find something specific?

It didn’t start out that way. There was no focal point. At some point you collect and collect and collect and after 5 years of doing it you start seeing things happening. I photograph everything basically. I go somewhere and I photograph everything. I don’t go there with an idea. Sometimes I envy people who do that and they come up with wonderful work, but very few. I just observe. I just look and anything that makes visual sense I go to it. But it has to have spirit, it has to be not happy but dignified.

The subconscious playing with the image

Do you ever stage your photographs or are they spontaneous?

That’s a hard question because it’s full of lies and truths in the sense that any photographer will say “ah everybody stages.” Look at W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay “Spanish village,” it’s basically all staged. But it’s the end result that counts. As for myself… if there were things in the photograph that were still, that weren’t moving, and I put a human being there, a child basically, would I do it? Yes. But in the end it’s how I feel about what I have to show when I am at the table by myself and picking them out, what truths I want to say.

But you do seem to want a human element in your pictures.

This has to be. I read somewhere that every time you look at a photograph, subconsciously you look for a human figure. It’s kind of cool – you just don’t know you’re doing it. I basically have to act when I photograph, because I don’t want them to be looking at me. If there is a scene, I pretend that I am waiting, you know looking at my watch, while also waiting for them to calm down, so that I can enter their space. I try to go close. I don’t know if it is “to tell the truth” and all that stuff. I don’t know what that means. I just go because it’s interesting. I am there. I go to get something to eat and something beautiful appears in front of me. And I photograph, then I move on. And no eye contact.

In the Black Sea project I was cheating simply because I was a Pontian Greek, I was from these people. I understood some of their dialect which helped. I was Orthodox. I was Greece to them. I was Greece coming to see them because they couldn’t go to Greece for one reason or another, which was great because I was the pasha of the village. I was like the Martian everybody comes and pokes at, to see if he knows any tricks. But there was the other side too; all their complaints and all their problems, no doctors, no medicine, no school for their kids. And I did not go there to change the situation, but I lived with them. I ate a lot of water potatoes in those years. It was right after Russia had collapse. There were buildings that had just stopped in time, farming equipment that stood in the middle of the field. German too, no Mickey Mouse Chinese stuff. German, beautiful machinery, stopped. People just left. You would go to a village and you would see a generation of children and then old people. Because the parents had left for Russia, Kazakhstan, Greece.

Without wanting to superimpose any meaning on your work, some of your photos seem to be conveying values, like dignity. People are poor and hungry but they look dignified.

You can show even misery and ugliness in humane ways. There is a photograph of this couch and water that was seeping from the roof and it was kind of beautiful because of the textures and you could see it was a dump and this poor person had to sit on that seat. I don’t need to go down that path. I would rather show a cold child warming its hands. You can see it’s poor but then you can see another photograph of the table with the food, so you know they do have food. It’s where you point your camera.

Black-and-white versus color

Do you take only black and white photographs?

I have a small body of work that is starting up to be color. I started out with color. I grew up in the States and Canada looking at Life magazine and National Geographic. I used to steal a lot from dentist places, I used to have a collection of stolen dentist office National Geographic and Life magazine photos…

Black and white suits me; let’s say you can lie better. With color you know it’s color. Black and white fits me better like a coat. I don’t know digital. I don’t even know technical photography. To go digital would be a quantum leap. I don’t even know mathematics and times tables and you tell me to do equations. I would be lost. And I like the roll of film. I like coming home after being on the street for 8 hours and dropping the film, cleaning and looking at it and thinking… and I would never be ready to see it right away. I can’t deal with this right-away. I need to collect over years. And when you take it out of the water and you have the light and you look through and you kind of relive everything, it’s a whole process, it’s everything.

Crossing a desert for dates

By Harry van Versendaal

“European women are not beautiful. They have small noses,” jokes an African woman watching a Western soap opera with her friends in Bilma, an oasis town in northeast Niger. There is a lot in Belgian director Nathalie Borgers’s latest film to suggest that everything in life is relative. But, again, there’s even more to suggest it is not.

“Winds of Sand, Women of Rock,” which was screened this week at a packed theater at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, follows three women of the Toubou tribe, in south Sahara, as they undertake their annual, 1,500-kilometer on-foot journey across the desert to collect dates and earn money for their families. Domagali, Amina and Mariama must guide a caravan of children, camels and goats through extremely inhospitable terrain braving draught, heat and sandstorms.

Looking back on the exhausting and perilous three-week journey, Borgers, a striking figure in her mid-40s, keeps no secret of her admiration of these female nomads.

“I was struck by the self-empowerment, their capacity to resist different things like their social system, the patriarchal structure, the adverse environment,” she said during an interview with Athens Plus in the northern port town. Borgers flew to Thessaloniki from Paris, where she has lived for the past 10 years, to present her documentary which is screened here as part of the festival’s Africa section.

Living in a culture where men are camel breeders, while they are reduced to their household routine, the annual caravan is these women’s only chance to break a rather suffocating, male-dominated pattern. In a place where camels are the measure for all things, women are apparently worth just half the price of men. The strenuous path to Bilma is also a path to economic independence, pride and self-confidence. Money collected from the dates will allow them to feed their families for a year and they can spend some of it to treat themselves some with some womanly stuff like new clothes and jewelry.

But first they have to get there. We watch them walking in the desert, taming the rebellious camels, praying, cooking, educating their kids, resting. And then back on their feet.

Beautifully crafted (excellent panoramic landscape shots – kudos to director of photography Jean Paul Meurisse), the movie also does a good job in exposing the women’s daily stresses and hopes. Amina dreams of a less arduous life in the city, while Mariama, who has run away from her husband whom she married in an arranged wedding, wants to go back to school and become a nurse.

Were the Toubou women as interested in the Belgian as she was in them? “Probably not,” Borgers said, describing how the protagonists were rather skeptical of the pant-wearing female crew members. “They don’t understand why we dress like men. They just don’t get it. They don’t envy us that much. They want to have a bit more comfort in their life, material comfort, but they are not so eager to look like us in any way,” she said.

Few would blame the Toubou women, however, for having felt a bit envious under the particular circumstances. The mainly-Austrian crew was traveling in five cars and a truck so that they could carry their 1 ton of equipment, which included everything from film cameras and lights to coolers for the rolls of the film. Despite previous agreement, the nomads were soon tempted to rid themselves some of the load.

“We said: ‘Sorry but this is our deal: We do our thing, you do yours. If we start doing this [helping you out], we will no longer be filming what this is for you,’” Borgers said.

Involvement with the subjects is a very delicate issue for doc makers but in a few rare cases the crew found it hard to resist. “If someone got sick and we needed to run or when there would be a delay because of us and they were lacking water, then we would give some to them. But that only happened once or twice,” Borgers said.

“It’s not 100 percent pure in that sense. It is a complicated situation because you have more means than they do,” she said.

This is where bourgeois guilt usually kicks in with the privileged western observer. Although Borgers couldn’t help it when she first visited the place in a Jeep to do research before the actual shooting, the uncomfortable feeling gradually faded.

“You can hardly feel bourgeois when you do all that work. We carried a lot of equipment but we hardly carried any equipment for ourselves. We had one cook with us but there was not much to eat anyway. Nor did we have better conditions to sleep. We were in the heat, working as hard as they did.”

“Winds of Sand” is an interesting, even inspiring movie. But is it a feminist one?

“In a way I would say ‘yes’ but it’s not made in a holding-up-your-fist kind of fashion,” Borgers said.

”For me it’s more like ‘let’s look at these women, see what we can learn from them’. I don’t know if this is feministic.”


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