Alemaya is the first feature-length fiction film I have made. Right from the start, I should stress how hard it is for me to assess this picture or to be impartial about it. Despite all the years that have gone by. And that is because it tells the story of my family. Having as the main character my mother and also my brother, who took his own life, my grandparents, my uncle and the Greek district in Ethiopia. And in there somewhere, there is me.
In effect, I was looking for a way to handle in cinematic terms the bleak tangled family web that had defined me. The key axis of the story starts with my mother’s story and leads up to my brother’s suicide at 29. My brother was the human being, that was closest and dearest to me. We were like one person. I was only 22 when he passed away. It was 31 August 1990.
It is not easy at all to deal with all that through a film. What is more someone’s first feature film. I cannot tell whether it is advisable to try and cope with one’s psychological problems in this manner, to re-enact, that is, one’s family history through a film. But at the time, I was certain, that was the way to go, because I had been carrying an enormous burden inside. So great, it would have prevented me from finding my own way in the cinema. A way that should have been toxic-free from all the venom that undermined my thinking process and my inspiration.
And as if the psychological factor was not enough, I had to overcome the problems of production and funding. There was no producer willing to take the risk and trust a newcomer with a demanding period drama, so I decided to undertake production as well.
I raised, with great difficulty, basic capital from the Greek Film Centre, but the rest of the money, that I had been expecting from ERT, never came.
Therefore, I found myself burdened with a massive debt even before the shooting began. To complete the picture I, a mere novice, was surrounded by a cast of superb actors with great careers in the theatre and equally great egos.
The way I see it, the main problem with the picture was that, right from the start, there were two opposite forces, which had to be brought together. On one side, a family story, overflowing with melodramatic elements and on the other, the visual style, which I wanted to be lean and concise. There was, in other words, an intrinsic dichotomy. Unless we attempted a paradoxical approach of combining abstraction in performance and film-making style with an overdramatic screenplay. Such task would take particular targeting and careful planning followed by a detached approach.
It could have been done and it would probably have yielded much better results. I believe that at the time of my first film, I lacked the necessary courage and boldness to carry through such a tough venture. And I suspect that the cast, with their heavy theatre baggage, would have hesitate to go along with that choice.
There was, for that reason, a watered-down approach, lacking in clarity when it comes to performances and that was totally my responsibility.
But the greatest and more substantial issue was my profound desire that the picture would work as a kind of communication channel between my mother and me, to enable us to talk about everything presented in the film and the hidden reasons behind it. Therefore, that desire of mine defined the style of the film to a great extent. Knowingly or subconsciously (it is of little importance now) I feared that a more detached approach would fail to get through to her and make her understand and feel things we could not speak about in real life, but only through this film.
In the end, no meaningful communication was reached; in that respect, the film was a complete failure. And I am to blame. I ought to have known it from the start; to have known all the time, really.
The film, as a whole, was somewhat exaggerated, and despite having some good moments, I doubt it added anything special to the body of Greek cinema.
If a movie, even when partly unsuccessful, has a strong character, a firm voice and features its theme in a memorable fashion, then it justifies its own making.
That was not the case with Alemaya; from my point of view.
If its subject matter had not been a family story that had haunted me, I would never have bothered with it.
But even so, things have more dimensions than one. I found out that even in failure or damage, one can still find something useful. I ended up profiting in four areas.
1. Working together with so many really great and demanding actors was a valuable life lesson. Working with Ivonni was not easy as I did not want to give her any specific direction or advice, which would have been expected of me, since she was playing my mother. And she insisted I did so. On my part, I wanted for her to find her own way. To get the feeling of the part and interpret it in the most unaffected manner she could, after the full and to the point preparation we had gone through and which rejected giving specific advice during shooting, something I think better be avoided in most cases. Admittedly, Ivonni did a pretty good job and in a way that was entirely her own.
Working with Dimitris Katalifos was a masterclass in its own right, given by a great professional who paid attention to detail. I think he gave one of his best performances on film.
I will, also, always remember my collaboration with Giorgos Mihailidis, in his one-off appearance on the big screen, Rania Ekonomidou, Anna Mascha and Michele Valley, with whom we have been maintained a meaningful friendship ever since.
In general, I should say that attempting to make a period piece (for a good part of the film), very dramatic and with the constant need to regulate the strong emotions running through it, was a great experience for me. I am surely not going to make another movie that spans 35 years or use young actors for roles that will be played by older ones later in the film. These things do not work anymore in the cinema. No matter how well-made they are, they are never convincing; either in Greece or in Hollywood.
2. I was left with a heavy burden, huge financial debt I had borrowed to make the film. The load was so great that two years later, seeing that no matter how much I worked, I could not pay back, I decided to let my hair grow long. I told myself, I would have it cut only after having taken care of that monstrous debt. It was something like a sacred oath.
For the first time in my life, I saw myself with long hair, worn in a ponytail. And I was not in my teens, but over 35. That sacred oath proved to be redeeming, it was like taking a bet with myself and winning. Moreover, it was very amusing to be seen looking so different, like I was in disguise.
But most importantly, I had to work hard, beyond belief, in order to get out of the red. In six years (that was how long it took) I made 80 (!!!) documentaries, full-length and short ones.
The greatest advantage was that making that gigantic effort not only did not pull me down, but on the contrary it set me free. I learned how to handle many different things at the same time, which ultimately allowed me to spend more time on each documentary.
Shooting three or four subjects concurrently, over extended periods of time, while working in the editing room on some others, gave me the opportunity to make continuous improvements, as the ideas had time to mature. In other words, I had expanded the time spent on each work.
On the outside, it might have seemed like I was doing too many things all at once, thus impairing the quality of my work. However, the exact opposite was true. I had more time available for my subjects to ‘ripen up’, compared to other filmmakers, who made documentaries for ERT at the time, for “Paraskinio” as well as for other programs. What is more, during the same period I made “Makronisos”, which was the work of a lifetime for me and a highly demanding project, from every aspect.
By all means, all of the above would not have been possible if I had not reached high levels of autonomy and initiative, in processing the original idea, in preparation, during production and of course during shooting, which often I did myself with one camera and for an entire year, in many situations. In the case of “Makronisos”, in particular, the shooting took several years. Therefore, I would start very early, planning out everything, finding all the right people, starting shooting without the pressure of a deadline and when I was ready, I informed the producers, who usually agreed on the subjects I had suggested and then I went on with the editing.
As a result, those six years, despite the hurdle of the debt, left behind a great legacy; enormous accumulated experience, technical command, ample room for experimentation, a different manner of work, mental and physical stamina as well as composure. After six years of having worked non-stop, I was a different man. I had learned to operate a camera on my own, to manage time effectively, to plan out production, to withstand difficulties and to be able to enjoy all that very much.
3. Another great benefit that came out of this film was, without question, the mental factor; or the psychological factor; or perhaps both.
Prior to that time, all the short films, that I had made had the scent of death and the images of my mother and my brother, who had committed suicide, haunting my thoughts and whatever inspiration I might have
It is remarkable and also very touching (for me, not for the audience) that it took only two scenes in Alemaya for the weight of my brother’s suicide to be lifted. And I am talking, of course, about the act itself and all the events around it, because the loss, someone feels in their heart, is not something that can be relieved or ever forgotten. It feels like half your body is gone, like you are a war invalid.
Shooting the suicide scene was extremely difficult for me. And at the same time, there was nothing I wanted more. Standing next to the camera, half a meter from Panagiotis Thanassoulis, as he grabbed the rifle and pressed it against his head, inside me everything stopped. I mean time literally stopped for me. I had the chance to recreate an image that had haunted me for years.
To recreate my brother’s suicide to the very last detail. To be able to see the look in his eyes, as he put the rifle on his forehead, while I was standing only a few centimeters away. To be able to feel his breath.
Just that. The firing of the gun was filmed later with the camera pointing at a wide shot of the trembling door as seen from the outside. The main point, in other words, was the scene, during which Panagiotis had placed, slowly and excruciatingly, the gun against his head. We did two takes. When I yelled ‘stop’, it felt as if a tumor had been removed from inside of me; without an operation; without any stitches. It was like when an inflated bag gets pierced and all at once the air inside it is released.
The second scene was about something I had experienced myself, I was a part of. It was the scene in which my mother hears of my brother’s suicide. In order to play it down, I decided to film it behind a glass window and with no audible dialogue. Throughout the entire filming, however, I was in tears. And, of course, that was contagious. Everybody on the set ended up crying together. It might have been totally ridiculous, but it proved very soothing. When you have lost someone so close to you and in such a violent manner, at such a young age, you surely never forget; ever. It follows you till the end. But filming those two scenes freed me of the burden of those haunting images, that would not leave my mind and my soul at rest. It feels like removing one’s head from a vice, but being left with a headache. Even that counted for something.
It might have been a somewhat expensive way of psychoanalysis, but it paid off to a degree.
4. Perhaps the greatest gain that came out of that film was my cat, Arkadin. In Alemaya, there was a cat, that was the companion of the main character, played by Ivonni. In real life, my mother had Polydouris, whom I adored.
We were lucky enough to have found a cat on location, at the house we were using for most of the filming. He was an old cat and easily manageable. And he was a ginger cat.
A kitten was needed to appear in a scene as the old cat several years earlier. We found a kitten of the same colors. That scene was shot in my apartment. The shooting wrapped up and the little kitten stayed with me for 12 years until he died of an illness that lasted only few hours, on 17 January 2016. He was Arkadin, and he was a precious gift in my life. And if Alemaya makes me somewhat uncomfortable, I always remember it was the reason this wonderful and unique creature came into my life.