“Joy” first emerged in my mind as a mere vision, before any story or idea, that could develop into a film. More specifically, it was the faint black and white image of a woman, at a turning point in her life. Just a very vivid fantasy in my head. It had first loomed several years before and since then, it kept coming and going. That by itself, of course, meant little.
But in late 2009, after six years of hectic work on numerous documentaries (reaching about 80 at the time) I had managed to pay off all outstanding debts from my first feature film and found myself for the first time going through a relaxed and calm period, without any pressure or anxieties. I started going on long walks and I felt like everything inside me had been effortlessly released, in a way that had not happened before.
At some point I came across a short piece of news on the paper. A woman, deserted by her partner, steals a baby to make him return to her and their supposed newborn child. She spends a day with the baby and then gets arrested. Just that; nothing more-
Within a minute, that story became the basic narrative of Hara as it was finally captured on film. The main thing was that I immediately knew, I wanted to make this film no matter what.
I got down to the script right away. At first, the main character was to be a woman close to her 30s. Soon, I realized that it was very important for her to be a woman beyond her reproductive years. I needed a somewhat mature actress and thought of Amalia Moutoussi at once. We had been good friends for some time, after having worked together on three documentaries for “Paraskinio”, one of which involved filming her for an entire year.
Surely, that by itself is not enough to guarantee a successful collaboration.
In the spring of 2010, I offered the part to Amalia and she accepted. What was most important is that I realized she was genuinely interested in the part. She could relate to Hara and found her challenging.
We began working together, we had long discussions, trying to shape the character, she was going to play. It was a very meaningful and creative process, even though we had to squeeze it in in our time off from other work commitments. It lasted for about a year.
In September 2011, I had been well into the seventh draft of the script when pre-production and regular rehearses began.
The situation in Greece was already pretty grim. Financing from the GFC and ERT had been suspended, but I was prepared to go on with the film (at least the shooting) with funds I had raised through working non-stop in the previous years and through borrowing.
The thought I was getting myself yet again into the anguish of a huge debt, like in my first picture, was terrifying, but there was no other way.
I was absolutely determined to make this film. Even if the economy hit rock bottom, the country was destroyed and we were left penniless, at least I would have made this movie.
Aside from financial obstacles, there were many other difficulties. An infant, of no more than three months of age, had to be cast and not for a small part. Principal photography was scheduled for what was to be a very cold November. In addition, I had decided to shoot on a costly 35mm celluloid, to achieve the best black-and-white canvas possible. I had come to that decision for a number of reasons concerning aesthetics, and at the same time because I wished to use the same means and the same material, that the films that had inspired me were made of. Becoming a filmmaker was the result of being an ardent cinephile. As a child, cinema was my passion and my hideaway.
Among the thousands of films I had watched, the ones that inspired me the most were those of Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer; shot in 35mm black and white film. That was what I wanted the photography in Hara to look like. By no means, was I trying to put myself in the same intellectual and aesthetic rank as those two giants. That would have been laughable even as a mere thought. It was just the only way I felt I could be true to the source of my inspiration and that meant a lot to me at the time.
I knew all too well that celluloid was dying and that this would be (for me at least) the last time to use it. And indeed that is what happened.
The main influences in the making of Hara can be found in Barbara Loden's “Wanda”, the only film the actress ever directed, in Kelly Reichardt's “Wendy and Lucy”, in “The Trial of Joan of Arc” by Bresson as well as in a literary character, Bartleby from Herman Melville's short story by the same name.
Hara was shot in a period of just 18 days, between mid-November and early December 2011.
My intention was for the film to move on a dual axis.
On one hand we had a main character, a woman captured at a most critical period in her life, which to the abduction of a newborn. It was an act of such extremity and, by virtue of that, almost poetic.
On the other hand, there was visual style; photography. Through simplicity and almost documentary-like realism, uncluttered, free of directorial man-oeuvres and melodramatic overtones, comprised by long continuous shots that left little room for the traditional directorial approach (wide shots and closeups), which immediately alluded to filmic construction and with neutral black-and-white photography, but not at all expressionistic, not aiming to interpret or overdramatize. What is more, the focus would be on off-screen (audible) action.
Above all, I had decided that the film’s point of view would be directly linked to the presence of the heroine. She was going to be in every single shot. I’m not talking about a style, in which her perspective would be expressed through a series of POV shots, but through her continuous presence, energy and, ultimately, her very existence. Everything was shown within a frame, in which Joy was present and dominant. A choice like this, when executed consistently, talks directly to the audience’s subconscious mind. Everything is seen through her soul. The first choice (opting for a POV narration) goes only one-way; in the second one, the audience gets involved. They are invited to enter into this world.
Merging those two elements, the heroine and the cinematic style, could produce (as I had hoped and aspired) a result with the attributes of real life, when looked at from a certain angle. A slight shift which essentially allows us to feel and to be moved but in an unadulterated, almost unmediated way. That slight departure from representational reality is the most crucial thing for me, whether this concerns art or life.
We did a lot of work towards this end, to be able to do away with it and arrive at absolute simplicity/purity.
The main goal was to achieve a degree of significant preparation, while during the execution (that is, during filming) the unpredictable, the fruits of the moment would set the tone, in order for an utterly poetic soul to be featured like a rare piece of evidence; like someone who has been near us for years, but we move passed them, not giving them a second glance.
And at the same time in order for the world offscreen to be captured (not just the authorities, but to a great degree society itself) in a manner which highlights bigotry and intolerance. I believe, that Greek society in particular, for many years now, has moved away from reason and logic, from moderation and tolerance and has found itself on the path of extremity and conservative populism or radical nihilism. The debt crisis was an outlet for all and the situation keeps going downhill.
These are the kind of people, Joy has to put up with. An intolerant, suspicious society of fanatics, with a pervasive shortage of justice.
By no means, are there no exceptions in this situation (as plainly shown in the picture) nor is it peculiar only to Greece. It has been associated throughout the ages with the human condition.
Looking at the film from a distance now, I think that the second part, at the courthouse, could have been shorter and could have had more closeups of the main character, so that the focus would remain on her.
And the script could do without some instances of explanatory dialogue (such as the allusion, by Joy’s mother, to her lost baby sister). On the other hand, in the first part of the film, there was room for expansion. These were my mistakes which I regret.
But even so, I think that the film has a strong voice and I feel that, as a whole, it maintains a high standard.
Surely, the film owes a lot to Amalia Moutoussi and her world-class work, as much in the long preparation period as during filming itself; notwithstanding the adversities and the pitfalls; in a role admittedly tricky and on a tight rope, all the time. She managed to keep the performance at such a high level that despite playing this controversial character (who has carried out a series of unlawful deeds and seems like a case study for the mentally disturbed) she shed light on her and gave the audience the opportunity to ask themselves what kinds of feelings the encounter with such a bizarre personality would bring out in all of us. In other words, how much intolerance prevails over acceptance, even if this feels uncomfortable because we think of ourselves differently.
These are the subtle political nuances I wanted the film to have. As a matter of fact, I believe that truly political films can only emerge from existential stories, while the opposite never happens.
Apart from Amalia, the rest of the cast gave fine performances; Lida Protopsalti, in particular, was amazing. The same goes for all the main artistic contributors: cinematographer, Giorgos Argyroiliopoulos; editor, Dora Masklavanou; sound designer and sound mixer, Kostas Varybopiotis; production manager, Anna Zografou; costume designers, Triada Papadaki and Eva Kamberidou and of course Apostolia Papaioannou, who besides being an excellent assistant director, she was an invaluable collaborator in the film.
It goes without saying, that Alexander Voulgaris' (aka The Boy) contribution was considerable, equally as a song writer and as an actor in a small, but key part.
I regard Joy as my best work so far. Better than all my fiction films (either feature-length or short subjects), better than all my documentaries (both for TV and for the cinema). And I say that, from a time distance, which allows my judgement to be more accurate. I am always the hardest judge of my movies, anyway.
I think of “Joy” as exceptional in my filmography. It is dense and full of substance, consistent in style. Free from pomposity, it presents a memorable female character, through her own contradictions and her darkness; it preserves a sense of humor; it is discreetly political, open to the mysteries of the world and ultimately it tells a timeless story.
Further than that, I am pleased with the result, because I succeeded in defining a cinematic and psychic territory, which could make it possible for me to go a few steps further in the future.
To me this was the first truly significant step, I took in the cinema profession.
The film’s journey onward was as contradictory as its heroine was.
I could have taken my chances, like most directors do, and submitted it to all the major festivals, like Cannes, Berlin or Venice. But I knew too well that without a producer to back it up and give it a boost or a European co-production to open doors for it, it wouldn’t be given another glance, in order to be selected. I decided to send it to the Thessaloniki Film Festival, where it was chosen for one of the two slots available for Greek movies in the international competition section.
In both screenings in Thessaloniki, the film had a warm reception from the audience, but a cold and almost hostile response from the majority of fellow filmmakers and producers as well as mixed reviews from film critics; some were raving, some were negative and others favorable, but expressing reservations about the second half of the film.
The picture later travelled the globe for a year and was shown at over a dozen international film festivals, some of which were very prestigious, like the Edinburgh Film Festival, the Festival in Karlovy Vary (the film was included in the section Another View, which showcases a strictly limited array of international films that are unconventional in form) and also the Shanghai Film Festival and the Adelaide biennial Film Festival.
In all of those destinations the film's reception was very good; in certain cases, I dare say, warm. I discovered that it had absolutely got through to all audiences, while it received special mention at the Edinburgh Film Festival, one of the oldest and most esteemed film festivals in the world.
I will never forget the moment when the festival’s former artistic director, Chris Fujiwara, came up to Apostolia and me with only kind words about the film. He also commented on the great value of the film with astonishing respect. I was further impressed by the fact that next to his admiration for Amalia and the difficult, yet convincing, scenes with the baby, he praised the second part of the film and claimed that it was the core of the picture and where the original idea was justified. An opinion which was at the other end of the spectrum from those I had heard or read in Greece.
In addition, following the film’s journey around the globe, some very flattering reviews were penned by difficult and demanding critics, like that by the Eye for Film’s Michael Pattison, among others, or the review published by the Hollywood Reporter and of course that by Bill Mousoulis, who runs Senses of Cinema, one of the most valid sites on cinema in the world.
We met right after the premier in Thessaloniki. Yannis Bakogiannopoulos had spoken of him to me with very kind words and had described him as an exceptional man. Mousoulis expressed to me his admiration for the picture and a few days later he wrote a short note on the film which is the most important and deeply honoring text ever written about a work of mine.
It read: “…Although I haven't seen all the movies of the year, in order to comprise a list of the best ones, I’m still short of the ones by Leos Carax, Abbas Kiarostami, Chantal Akerman and a few others, I would definitely place Joy at the top of my list. It is a masterpiece that would occupy the first place on my list compared to any other movie I might have seen. Joy is clearly the best film in the renaissance of Greek Cinema that has been going on in recent years, but is also a magnificent work, regardless of its country of origin. A film worthy of recognition…”
Everyone involved in the arts and mainly filmmakers the world over, have developed a more or less oversized ego. It is impossible to survive in this ruthlessly competitive film business in Greece, unless you have one.
It goes without saying, that the inclusion of “Joy” in foreign Festivals and better yet the acknowledgement it got and the positive reviews it attracted, proved to me that my original choices, concerning the film, were correct.
I’m not in the habit of blowing my own horn, as far as my films are concerned, quite the contrary, but from the moment it was a script on paper right to the time it was a finished film, I had great faith in it.
I was reassured of what I already believed in the first place, which always needs encouragement and assessment by people of merit, who are not connected to you nor do they belong in the same close circle. In other words, I was convinced that Joy is a powerful film with great authenticity, despite its tough, almost repulsive subject matter and its terse style. And it is a picture that made it possible for me to take a step toward substance and not mere appearances.
Had I dwelt on the film’s reception in Greece (with some notable and favorable exceptions), I’m not sure I could have found the courage to carry on.
As I recall, the film had not even been chosen that year, by the Hellenic Film Academy, among the five to compete for best picture. The same went for best direction, best screenplay and even cinematography (!), despite being the only film shot on 35mm film-stock, on which Giorgos Argyroiliopoulos had achieved superb black-and-white photography. So many reviews and other texts abroad spoke highly of the film’s cinematography, and in Greece it wasn’t even given a place in the best five. Only the performances of Amalia Moutoussi and Lida Protopsalti (for leading and supporting female role respectively) were deemed worthy of entering the competition, but even them by a narrow margin, as I was informed.
I also recall the ice-cold, almost annoyed expression on my filmmaker friends’ faces or on the faces of people, who had been my long-time collaborators, when they met me after the screening. I do not know the reason behind my colleagues’ cold reaction. Perhaps the film’s genre and style does not appeal to those involved in the domestic film business. Or perhaps it comes naturally in a very small and extremely competitive field such as the one in a country like Greece.
For me, “Joy” was an invaluable experience, Amalia and I will always share. Our collaboration was a superb experience for me. I think of her as one the dearest people close to me,
“Joy” was also a personal legacy. A path to follow in my next film, which will not be of the same style, characteristics or content as Joy, but it will have something of its ethics, its cinematic consistency and its spirit.