My second film was also in the region of the surreal. It was not a fantastic film this time, but rather, a dream fantasy.
“Patagonia” was influenced by Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and the atmosphere of David Lynch’s films; all that, of course, in terms of inspiration and reference-taking and not in the form of emulation or transcription.
“Patagonia” is an elusive, utopian area of redemption. A song, which had lend its name to the title, is heard playing faintly on the radio, in one of the film’s scenes,.
Everything we see in the picture, the troubles of the asthmatic young man with the domineering mother, and the oedipal feelings between them or the breakdown of the bus, he rides to work on, that leaves him alone and helpless without his medication, are merely a nightmare he is having after an acute asthma attack, while he is on his way to the emergency room.
Until he is saved (in the film’s final color sequence), and while he fights for his life, imaginary and real characters are intertwined together in a black-and-white nightmare, that serves as the projection of death.
The picture was very troublesome for me as well, in regard to its development as well as its unorthodox progression.
It was the film that made me realize how tough my life would be in the cinema.
The film had no funding, just like the one before it.
In “The Last Act”, Lefteris Pavlopoulos had offered his production house and his crew for free.
As far as liquidity was concerned, we both contributed (myself a bit more), whereas the cast had been paid with the prize money, that came together with the award.
In “Patagonia” things were way more difficult; the production was much more demanding, with lots of intricate location shooting. The film was of longer duration and it featured more characters, both principal players and extras.
The only thing I did have at my disposal, was the production house of Pantelis Voulgaris, with whom I had worked as an assistant twice in the past.
Yet, there was no money to speak of. It just so happened that back then, I was not working, and did not have any income to cover necessary expenses.
Ultimately the film’s funding was secured in the most unthinkable way.
The first step torwards financing was taken through the sale of a family heirloom.
My mother was in possession of a precious gem, which her father had given her as a wedding present, at a time when he still had a big fortune in Ethiopia, before he was ruined.
She had never mentioned it to me, but she had been holding on to it for a rainy day. When she saw how desperate I was, especially after my screenplay got turned down by the Greek Film Centre, she mentioned the gem.
She had a tendency to exaggerate about everything that was associated with the ‘golden’ era in Ethiopia and she assured me that the jewel was sure to fetch around 10 (!!!) million drachmas or perhaps even more, since her father had told her that he had paid a fortune for it. I am not sure whether it was an overstatement on his part or he had been conned, but I had it evaluated in three different places and everybody agreed it was not worth more than one and half million, at best.
Eventually, despite my mother’s unwillingness to accept it, that was how much it sold for; 1.1 million drachmas. That provided the initial capital for the film. But still, the money was not enough.
And then it dawned on me that since the film’s main character suffered from asthma and his medication was pivotal to the plot, I could look for sponsors in pharmaceuticals. From a practical standpoint, that idea seemed to lack realistic basis.
That became more evident once I started to have meetings at the publicity departments of several major companies. It was a complete fiasco!
They would listen to me and either never answered or in some cases they laughed at me, thinking that I was at least naive or out of touch with reality (without saying it to my face, they implied I was foolish and full of myself...) if I truly thought that any well-respected pharmaceutical company would be interested in a screenplay of a nightmarish story and unwholesome characters, which would be black and white and, what is more, a short subject, that suggested a zero prospect of commercial success.
I remember a top executive in one of the top pharmaceuticals, surrounded by his yes-men, who were laughing up their sleeves, made fun of me and asked me whether the film’s title “Patagonia” had anything to do with my...agony of raising money.
Finally, and after multiple failed attempts, quite miraculously I came across someone, who apart from being a top executive of a major pharmaceutical, he was also a film buff! (When he was young, he used to be a member of the Arta film club). This is how we got involved in a long and excited conversation which kept shifting from De Sica and the “Bicycle thieves” to “A Man escaped” by Bresson. I felt that I had escaped myself, if not death, then certainly depression, when he announced to me that his firm would sponsor my film with the sum of 3.5 million drachmas!!!
The only things they required were for the name of the medication to be mentioned twice throughout the picture and for the film to be released and screened before a feature film and later for it to be shown on television. I replied with confidence “...certainly...”, even though there was no guarantee that the film would be screened.
Things turned out that way and all the necessary screenings took place.
Furthermore, I was asked not to include the company’s name in the film’s credits, as they were effectively interested in the film only for intragroup purposes, to screen it as part of the firm’s innovative activities, and not as a mainstream sponsorship targeting a commercial audience. That is the reason I have not mentioned the company’s name to this day.
And that was how the rest of the funding was covered.
Consequently, I was all ready to begin. The original cast had been entirely different than what we got to see in the picture.
I admired Amalia Moutoussi and Michael Marmarinos and I was very impressed, at the time by “Electra” and “Hamlet”, they had made together, and for that reason I offered them the two main parts. The central male role to Michael and the female role to Amalia.
They read the screenplay and accepted. But shortly before rehearsals began, and a month prior to filming, Michael suddenly realized that he was too old for the part and felt that we should not go on with it. Amalia, on the other hand, would not do it without Michael.
Both felt really bad and I was devastated by that development. We met at Zonar’s, we discussed the situation and then we parted nice and courteously.
Immediately after that, I turned to Panagiotis Thanassoulis and Maria Kavoukidi, who liked the story and we agreed to move on.
I still needed to cast two other parts; small but crucial.
One was the role of a crazy old lady, who tries to help the main hero, when he seeks assistance with his medication. I had offered it to Aleka Paizi, who after reading the screenplay, accepted.
However, at our first rehearsal appointment, at her place, she announced that we were not going to work together after all, because she was distraught over her sister’s illness.
Even though I had been given the cold shoulder, I stayed with her for three hours absorbed by her astounding accounts from exile and Makronisos. Those accounts planted a seed.
The part later went to Tasso Kavvadia.
For the other part, I approached Yannis Vogiatzis. It was a supporting role, a balancing act, with elements of black comedy and also a weirdness and aloofness, but which had to be kept within limits.
At first, Yannis Vogiatzis also agreed to do the part, and quite enthusiastically so, but then he invited me to his house and he told me, in remorse, that if he was to make a comeback after all those years, it was going to be in a leading role.
The part was played eventually by Manos Vakousis, with whom we had already worked together before, in my previous short film.
It is truly remarkable that with all the people, who had turned down this film, there was going to be a substantial follow-up, later in time.
With Amalia, we had maintained casual contact for eight years, only to to develop a more meaningful relationship, in 2006, when we started her profile for “Paraskinio”, for which I filmed her for over a year. We became very close friends, we did four more documentaries and “Joy”, in 2011-12. We finally got to make a black-an d-white film together, but 14 years later.
It was as if the fruitless contact for “Patagonia” had been the harbinger for “Joy”, in 2012.
With Michael, we would meet, from time to time, in the theatre, either at his productions or others’ and we worked together briefly, in 2009, when he contributed to a two-part “Paraskinio” on “The ‘sanctity’ of the Epidaurus Ancient Theatre”. However our collaboration did not become more substantial until 2013. First, in the “Trip to Delphi”, a film by Apostolia, which featured Michael and Amalia on a trip to the Ancient Theatre in Delphi and for which I did the camera work.
It was there, where we got back together and decided to do a documentary on Michael’s staging of “Faust” at the Onassis Cultural Centre.
It was a film that brought us very close and yielded a very good result.
With Aleka Paizi, there followed one more rejection to contribute to a “Paraskinio” portrait of Eleni Papadaki, in 2002, but eventually everything changed in early 2007, when it was time for her own portrait for “Paraskinio”. The resulting film was extraordinary, we became close friends, she trusted me completely and took part in my film about Makronisos. In there, the stories I had listened to, disconcerted, in 1998, when she had turned down “Patagonia” were used to their full potential. We remained friends until her death and never mentioned her having turned down “Patagonia”. Besides, it is certain that she had completely forgotten it.
Finally, with Yannis Vogiatzis, our paths crossed again 15 years later, in 2013, when Apostolia and I had gone to Epidaurus for the filming of Nikos Karathanos’ “Golfo”.
We had a very friendly interaction and a wonderful co-operation, but “Patagonia” was never mentioned.
Evidently, a coincidence repeated is no longer a coincidence. It seems that nothing is wasted...
Watching “Patagonia” today, I believe it is very powerful, atmospheric and has achieved an effective threshold between nightmare and reality. Giorgos Argyroiliopoulos’ black-and-white cinematography (for the bigger part), helped immensely to that effect. That marked the beginning of our steady collaboration and our subsequent close friendship.
In a psychological and emotional respect, the film conveyed a feeling of death, derivative of my brother’s suicide and our mother.
It was an attempt to exorcise, to the best of my ability, the impact their relationship had had on me.
It would take one more film to achieve that.
All the performances where very good. Panagiotis Thanassoulis, who for some reason I saw as the cinematic alter ego of my brother (and who eventually played that part in “Alemaya”), offered me an idiosyncratic performance with an unrefined quality that may have seemed off-putting at first, but I think it was very profound.
We have remained good friends with Panagiotis, even though we do not get together very often. He is someone very dear to me.
I also have great memories of Maria Kavoukidi, daughter of the well-known cinematographer, and of her husband, Kostas Koukoulinis as well, who played the bus driver.
Equally, the collaboration with Tasso Kavvadia was very nice. Despite her rather difficult character (there was a reason she had been always cast as the villain), we managed to work harmoniously, she was very good in her role and, what is more, she was pretty good company.
I will definitely never forget working with Elena Nathanael. She was extremely gracious. She might have been a big star, but she never behaved as such. She was thoroughly professional and never caused any difficulties.
“Patagonia” marked the beginning of a close relationship between us. We were going to work together in “Alemaya” as well, in which she was going to hold the leading role, next to Alekos Alexandrakis, with whom we had been preparing for two years. We had gotten very close, but at the last minute everything stopped. Production changed hands, I finally had to take charge of production myself and I decided to replace most of the cast and move in an entirely different direction. That was the end of my five-year friendship and collaboration with Elena Nathanael. Our last contact was sometime in May 2003.
Undoubtedly, “Patagonia” had some weak and awkward moments, which in certain cases I attribute to the film’s pace. There was a scene in the picture, which I had shot and edited, but it was only shown once, at an informal first screening for the cast-and-crew and friends. It was a color scene, set on the beach, upon which a song written especially for the film was heard (sang beautifully by Christos Stergioglou) and it showcased the film’s title. It was entitled “Patagonia”. (An undigested influence of “Brazil”). The entire scene was appalling. According to my original plan, it was meant as a playful and subversive scene, but it turned out pompous and meaningless. As I recall, after that first informal screening, I cut it out immediately with a pair of scissors (!!!) and we put the acts back together with tape, as there was no money to print a new copy.
I kept that film-strip, so that I could see it every day and never make that mistake again.
Alas! I made it again! Ιn “Alemaya”, the first version of the film included a dreamlike scene on a beach...
It was not as bad this time, but still, it was bad enough.
I had it taken out again.
It seems that those dreamlike beach scenes were haunting me.
Eventually, my losing streak ended with “Joy”. We shot a scene at Schinias’ beach with Amalia and the baby. It was widely regarded as being very good, I reckon. And, of course, I kept it this time. As it seems, the secret was unaffected simplicity and realism. There was not the slightest hint of a dream, an allegory, a flashback or any kind of symbolism. It was that easy...
‘Making the same mistake twice does not befit the wise’. In my case it was not two but three times, if I count the awkward inserted flashbacks in “The Last Act”. So, it took...four attempts to get it right. Everybody needs time...
Next, I submitted the film to the Drama Short Film Festival. I recall some people had insisted that I talked with the festival’s director, Antonis Papadopoulos, they asked me whether I knew him, etc.
I didn’t know him at all. We had shaken hands once and I did not get the impression we had anything in common.
I remember that there was a circle of filmmakers very close to him. A wide circle, I would say.
I could not have imagined that “Patagonia” had to have this kind of support, in order to enter the competition at the Drama festival.
Yet, the film was not accepted! It was reserved for the informative section, where the ‘bad’ films went.
If, after all these years, I make a mention of that here, it is because it was a very powerful shock; one of the most powerful I have ever experienced. Perhaps I take things too seriously and too hard. Perhaps I am not as cold-blooded as I should be. But I felt that the rug had been pulled from under my feet. I had gone through way too much trouble, in order to finance it and then shoot it, only to find out that a film I regarded (and I still do) as very effective and powerful, was banished to the informative section. One might say, that’s what the jury had decided. What can you do?
My own opinion, as well as the opinions of many others (directors, producers, film critics, who had been very favorable from the start) aside, the film’s career came to prove me right.
Because the film went on to win three awards, even though it came from the informative section and nobody had seen it. One state award from the Ministry of Culture, one from the Greek Film Centre and a prize for best screenplay from the Kotronis Foundation. Moreover, it was selected for the competition section at one of the leading international festivals, the PortoFest, where it was screened and highly praised, in February 2000. By and large, despite its lengthy duration and its singular subject, the film was very well received, everywhere it had been shown.
I think what happened to the film was that it had no support. I had no ‘circle’. I had come to realize that, pretty early; since the preliminary jury situation in Drama. Had I had such a circle, there would have been no chance that the film would have been
banished to the informative section. And despite all the years that have passed, all the works I have done and all the awards I have been given, this situation still holds.
Now, of course, it does not involve the entry into a competition section anymore. It is the old provincial mentality and ‘system’, where ‘one is required to have ‘circles’, backing, buddies, connections and patrons...