Shortly before the end of her life, Aleka Paizi unveils herself on camera in a unique way and reveals a wise timeless woman and a magical creature with the soul of a child.
One of the most outstanding and defining (opening a new path for me) pictures I have ever made.
With Aleka Paizi it was as if fate had brought us together.
I approached her for the first time in 1998, asking her to play a part in my short fiction film, “Patagonia”.
She read the script and told me she liked it and was going to do it. When I went over to her place for our first discussion-rehearsal, she took my jacket and hung it on a chair and while we were still standing, she announced to me that she was not going to be in the picture after all. The reason was vague and she didn’t bother to clarify. Nevertheless I stayed there for two hours and listened to her recount some overwhelming stories of her life. Then I said goodbye and left.
About three years later, I called her again to ask her to take part in the “Paraskinio” portrait on Eleni Papadaki. She had, of course, no recollection of our previous two-hour meeting. At the sound of Papadaki's name alone she was infuriated. It had always been alleged that she had been instrumental in the events leading to Papadaki’s murder, without her actually having been implicated in any way. She almost hung up on me.
Another four years after that incident, Lakis Papastathis, suggested I made a piece about Paizi, on the occasion of her recent success in Dimitris Mavrikios' adaption of Henry IV by Pirandello, staged at the National theatre.
Papastathis joined me at the theatre and we went together backstage to to discuss this with her. She said she agreed.
But when I went to her dressing room for the first shooting, she told me she was unwell. The next time, she showed me her aching leg. I stubbornly kept on going. Suddenly, one evening, everything changed. She welcomed me, smiling brightly: “I only have a small part in the play...most of the time I sit around in the dressing room...why don’t you come over and have a talk with me while I wait?...”
It goes without saying that I went. She started talking and soon enough I felt like I had been struck by lightning. Before me, was a 90 year-old woman with the heart of a small child and the aura of a fairy. A creature beyond the limits of time, genuine and enchanting. Her words, but mostly her manner was riveting, as she talked about her childhood in Crete, her mother, her father, her early years at the National Theatre, the German occupation and the civil war. It was the preview of a unique account that joined the present, the past and the timelessness of the universe all together.
At one point she asked: “haven’t you brought the machine with you?”, hinting to the camera.
A couple of minutes later, the camera was set up and running and the filming began; before I had the time for proper lighting or even to wire her up with a lapel mic. Sound was recorded through the microphone on the camera. Thankfully, we were very close to each other, as the dressing room was pretty small.
At some point she got up and left the room to go on stage. All alone in her dressing room, I was feeling so blissful and excited, I needed to check the camera and make sure that nothing had gone wrong and that everything that had just happened had been recorded. Something like that has never happened to me since.
That’s how the entire shooting went. It lasted a full month. In the dressing room, in her home and finally outside, on the street.
It was then that I really grasped the true meaning of the term “Direct Cinema”. A condition that forces itself on the filmmaker. Aleka was so stimulating and exuberant and never left any time for framing or lighting. She would start ranting like an impetuous stream and I only had to turn the camera on. But that didn’t matter in the least. This” is the real essence of Direct Cinema; when it’s born out of necessity (set by the subject) itself and not as a style used merely for impression.
In any other case, the poorly lit, rushed and careless framing would be annoying. I would be the first one to be annoyed, myself. On this occasion I was like a friend visiting Aleka and filming looked after itself. In the same way that watching a major event captured on cellphone not only does it not bother us, but on the contrary it becomes more engaging because its clumsiness adds up to its authenticity.
An unsophisticated image that derives its true value from its subject matter, in other words from Aleka herself.
I remember we had reached such degree of intimacy that it felt like the camera was not there. I shot over 50 hours of footage.
Among other things she referred to Eleni Papadaki. She had forgotten that a few years back she hung up on me, when I asked her to speak about that story.
She talked extensively about Papadaki and with great bravery. I will not disclose any of what she said, because it was a spontaneous recount of her own story and not a conscious interview for a documentary on Papadaki.
Since Aleka used to talk very freely about everything, I thought it would be advisable to call her to the editing room, so we could take out anything she didn’t like or she felt it would inconvenience her.
There was a part, where she talked about losing her virginity. I asked her if she wanted it out. She replied that she would be very angry if I dared do any such thing. And she went on to say that it would make her ex comrades and fellow prisoners, on Trikeri and Makronisos, very uncomfortable because they had grown too conservative over time.
When the picture was ready and broadcast in May 2007, it received rave reviews, by expert and non-expert audiences alike.
There were some who took exception to the film, among them Aleka’s former fellow prisoners, as she had accurately predicted, who thought that I should have protected an old woman who had lost her good judgement of what was proper to say or not. I disagreed with them then and I still disagree today. I had already protected her during the editing, whenever there was need for that. But I would never censor someone who wished to be genuine and sincere. Aleka spoke on camera in full consciousness, mental clarity and emotional maturity, like she was leaving a will and testament of her own soul.
In my opinion, this picture is not a live document of Aleka Paizi, but rather of a remarkable woman of the 20th century; of a woman that had to pull through in a strictly male-dominated society, while preserving her independence and self-identity; who fought hard for her beliefs and lived outside standards and conventions.
Aleka was very pleased with her “Paraskinio” portrait; and of course so was I.
For one and a half years we were best friends, despite our 50-year age difference.
She did me the honor of participating in my film about Makronisos, although she had decided never to return there.
She came and offered a marvelous finale to the picture.
We were planning to work together on a staging of the Moonlight Sonata at the National Theatre.
We had already gone into rehearsal and it was going to be something truly exceptional, as Aleka wanted it to be uncontroversial and we were on the same page, as to the approach.
The play was included in the schedule of the National Theatre for the season 2008-2009, but Aleka broke her arm and subsequently fell very ill and she eventually died in February 2009.
I will forever keep her in my heart.