This is the most genuine observational film I have made so far.
The series, as a whole, bears the stamp of the distinguished Marcos Gastin, who, in this case, was behind the concept of the series and had undertaken the role of producer as well.
And he carried it off in the best possible way.
I would say, it is an extraordinary documentary series and one of the best in the history of Greek television and perhaps beyond.
The original idea was for 12 observational documentaries to be made over time by an equal number of directors, who were going to be in charge of camera and sound themselves and have overall responsibility for the film.
The main objective was 12 observational documentaries, each one having a personal style and filmed over long periods of time, without any interviews, narration, archival footage or background music.
Each film was intended to focus on a specific location in the city, for instance a store, a schoolhouse, a nightclub, a car mechanic’s workshop, a hairdressing salon, anything, and to send out a discernible hint of the financial and social crisis.
Three or four meetings had already taken place between Marcos and the selected filmmakers, who were (and still are) to a great extent the cream of Greek documentarians.
During those meetings all subjects were open for discussion by anyone. It was a collective process in that early stage.
I was very busy during that time and I requested that I joined in, only at the last meeting and introduce my proposal for the only episode, that had not been assigned yet.
The truth is, that even though after a couple of meetings with Marcos we had agreed on everything else, due to heavy workload I had not had time to decide upon a subject to propose.
On my way to the meeting, at a production house near the ‘Pedion tou Areos’ park, I was thinking that I was about to make a fool of myself, being the only one without a proposal.
On arrival, I found everyone sitting around a large table.
Eva Stefani, Katerina Patroni, Gerasimos Rigas, Elias Demetriou, George Skevas (whose project did not come about in the end), Κonstantina Voulgari (her project never materialized either), Angelos Kovotsos, Stavros Psillakis, Dafni Toli, Fanis Karagiorgos, Popi Legaki, Nikos Zoiopoulos, Giannis Misouridis, were only some of the assembled filmmakers.
Dimitris Kordelas, as the supervising cinematographer, Chronis Theocharis, as the supervising editor and Antonis Samaras, as the sound supervisor, were also in attendance.
I joined the others at the table; I was going to be the last one to present my project.
We were on the sixth or seventh floor and the view was magnificent.
As I was listening to the others talk, my eyes fixed on Mt Lycabettus, on St. George, the small church on top of the hill.
I had found my subject matter, at last!!! Even at the last minute.
My turn had come; I presented my idea, as if I had been working on it for days...
Everybody liked it.
At that meeting, firm rules were set, pertaining to the nature of observational documentary.
No interviews; and the theme of the crisis had to be kept in the background and never become the focal point.
Despite the fact that I had been, in effect, the last one to find a subject, I turned out to be the first in the team to start.
Right away, the following day, I drove up to Lycabettus, joined by Marcos, and immediately found the film’s central character. The elderly caretaker of the temple and her loyal dog were going to be the leading duo in the picture.
I went ahead with the filming, at once. Almost every day I would go up to Lycabettus. Claudio sometimes came with me, but mostly he worked alone and filmed on other parts of the hill, catching some silent action and reported back to me.
The elderly woman lived only a few meters away from the church, next to the entrance of the restaurant, before one reaches the top of the steps.
Every day, she got up very early, opened up the church, cleaned up, removed the candles every two hours, assisted the faithful and the tourists, who visited etc
She was peculiar and it seemed like she lived in her own dimension in time.
Like another Lady of Ro, but living above the city, supervising everything.
Just as we had already agreed with Marcos and the rest, there was going to be no interview.
If she felt like talking to me, she would do so herself. I was there most of the time, anyway, observing her, sometimes up close and other times from a distance.
Apart from the caretaker, we discovered everything that took place on that extraordinary hill.
Day and night.
The daily activities on the hill, when repeated and illustrated in detail, can become fascinating.
They take on another dimension; that of the everyday poetry of the trivial.
People running, others just hanging about catching some sun, some others walking their dogs, kids doing skateboard tricks or bike drag-racing after dark outside the amphitheatre, the faithful lighting a candle at St. George, tourists having their picture taken and taking pictures like mad, a military unit raising and lowering the flag daily, the cable car going up and down and all the things that comprise life on the hill.
And apart from all these or added to these, the old caretaker, a fixed figure of everyday life on the hill, her dog always with her. She gets testy with the candle lighter, who takes over in the afternoons, sometimes she is lost in thought, while other times as in the story with the “hole”, she flirts with the metaphysical.
At the same time, the church has a bird's-eye view over the city. Constantly. There is something else in that circle of endless repetition.
And that is the part of the film, where one becomes conscious of the crisis. From above one can observe Syntagma Square and a massive and terrible demonstration, in late 2010, with molotov cocktails everywhere, the police chasing the rioters and them fighting back, while the old caretaker, without a care in the world, is hanging her laundry outside her little shack.
And then a tourist from Thailand turns to the camera; he is devastated, as he wanted to go to the Museum, he wanted to catch the underground, he wanted many things during these two days he was going to spend in Athens, but the strikes and the riots had ruined everything....
And, of course, the crisis is noticeable in St. George, where the priest in his sermon invites the congregation to donate to the church’s soup kitchens for those who are suffering because of the crisis. And that was back then, in 2010...
In addition, there are some unexpected scenes. Outside the fenced amphitheatre, two girls, no older than 10, are pretend-playing they are actresses in a tragedy; a down-and-out who sleeps on bench at nights, and in the morning puts all his stuff away; a man with an old dog, who gets tired and stops to catch his breath; the rain, the snow, etc.
The turn of the year has a special place in the film.
The turn of the year at St. George is thrilling.
On the one side, there is the lavish restaurant, where one can see members of the financial elite in black tie and famous chefs on New Year’s Eve.
And on the other, only ten meters away, many people have gathered in the church yard in order to celebrate the arrival of the new year and to enjoy the fireworks, being set off all over the city. They are people from the middle classes, as well as many poor immigrants, Poles and Russians, drinking vodka from bottles they have carried with them and homeless people who have the chance to do something different.
The contrast was very interesting, as were the energies of all those people that night on the hill. The ones, quiet and dignified. The others, in delirious reveling and ecstatic gaiety, howled at the top of their lungs and drank until they dropped.
And when the day broke, I was still there, a short distance below the church, on the middle of the hillside, in order to film the canons go off, something that was repeated three times during that first day of 2011.
It was a movie based on silent action and focused on things that seem to be of no significance, with the aspect of the crisis fully manifested and with the old caretaker and her dog making an extraordinary and touching finale.
Many hours of footage piled up and the editing was fascinating. As always, Dora did a great job, while Marcos’ input was very useful.
It is very important to have a functioning producer, who is in a position to contribute.
This happens only exceptionally.
I remember when the film was shown for the first time, along with a few others in the series, at a screening for the members of the team.
In the meantime, things had changed, the subject of the crisis was much more involved in the other films, the no-interview clause was only partly observed.
Being the first one to have started, I was determined to keep to the model of absolute observation without any diversion. And with the crisis having its place, but not being the protagonist., because that would undermine the existential and timeless dimension of the film.
Besides, for me, the opportunity to work wholly with this form, had been the strongest motive for having done this film.
So when the screening ended, I saw only cold faces around me. With the exception of Dimitris Kordelas and Giannis Misouridis, everybody else was rather embarrassed.
Perhaps, because my film was different to the approach the series turned out to have in the end. Even though, essentially, it had been absolutely true to the original idea.
But later on, it was selected for some very good international television documentary festivals, some very good reviews were written about it in the Greek press and overall, I think it was very much appreciated.
It is one of my favorite and my best films.
Not only because of my passion for the hill, which I still visit regularly.
Besides, I live in the neighborhood. I have been living near the periphery of Lycabettus for many years.
I love this particular film, mainly, because I was given the chance through filming a familiar and beloved place for me, to test to the full the limits of observational documentary.
It is a genre that interests me, both as an audience and as a filmmaker.