LAGIA YOURGOU for PLAYBOY
A no-beating around the bush discussion with an… Angry Balkan about how decades flash by.
Nikos Nikolaidis has been around in Greek cinema for twenty years – if we are to accept that such a thing exists, something that he seems to have serious doubts about.
He essentially began in 1967 with the short film “Unconditionally” and now, two decades later, he’s completed “Morning Patrol”, a film that hasn’t been released yet, whose fate is still unknown.
He started, or rather got serious as a filmmaker relatively late – of note for those who are secretly alarmed at the rate decades evolve without leaving their mark. Before he surrendered himself to film, he wandered the vast expanses of the written word – an emotional bond that for Nikolaidis is still unresolved – and in the visual arts, at the side of the great teacher and stage designer George Vakalo. This fertile trajectory is discernable in his films: His apprenticeship in these forms of expression has left its mark in Nikolaidis’ cinema, one that is personal, ‘cinema d’auteur’, and, above all, one that has disturbed the critics more than perhaps any other Greek director. Along the way, he inspired dedicated fans and vitriolic detractors.
Nikolaidis’ work has made waves and has found a receptive audience with the young in mind and heart, as his films violently judge any form of authority, whether state or the surreptitious dictates of the massively consumed culture.
In Greece, where anything is possible, Nikolaidis’ films are controversial and yet frequently awarded: “Eurydice B.A. 2037”, his first feature film – after the short “Lacrimae Rerum” – is a black and white film which was revealed in the dark movie theaters of the 1975 Thessaloniki Film Festival. And it impressed. It won the award for Best Director and the Critics’ Award. After a few years, a critic would compare it to Polanski’s “Repulsion”.
In 1979, the fuss that greeted “The Wretches Are Still Singing” even reached the ears of the Greeks of the diaspora in their post-dictatorship euphoria. He is given the award for Best Director and the Critics’ Award in Salonika and the enthusiasm of a new… youth which acclaims this newfound director. A sign of the times, which some acutely perceived and interpreted: Something’s changed in the country and we can but await developments… The protest seems to have had a greater range than was suspected by those in denial as well by the self-proclaimed believers…
In 1983 the impact intensifies. The projection of Nikolaidis’ film “Sweet Bunch” in the Thessaloniki Film Festival takes place in front of a packed audience. Reliable sources talk of seats that are occupied by two or three viewers. The film is received with extended enthusiastic applause and generates feverish commentary. It obtains the Critics’ Award.
Many will talk about the revelation of an unexpected facet in the psyche of the young people: Beyond the protest against and the ridicule of central authority and its manifestations, a new protestation arises: The rebellion to throw off the oppression of the guilt brought on by decades of suffering endured by the Left, the tendency to get rid of a Left which is excessively paternalistic to be able to criticize, a Left which is not truly fit to handle or take advantage of that guilt. A Left, if you prefer, that is either good or cannot be allowed to exist… Or, taking it further, the demand for a ‘different’ citizen in a ‘different’ relationship with a ‘different’ political scene…
Perhaps Nikolaidis’ intent wasn’t exclusively that, and it wasn’t. It remains that with his subject matter and his cinematic language, he seems to strike at the core of this preoccupation, to a large extent because his films refuse to behave with proper respect towards paternalists. And this raises hell…
Just as, in ’76, Nikolaidis had raised hell with his book “The Angry Balkan”, which would soon become a best seller, but will never become a film… ‘I can’t raise the money’, Nikolaidis will maintain. For god’s sake! It would be easier to believe that somewhere inside himself, the author’s exhausted the subject and that the director is not one of those people who live off the fumes of narcissism emanating from their creations. Anyway, he could have rested on the laurels of the 1964 collection of short stories “The Grave Diggers”. But he didn’t, just as he hasn’t after the “Angry Balkan”: Nikolaidis has not yet written his last word. His waking hours are dominated by many manuscripts which he claims that he intends to incubate for a lot longer. Until then, he’ll stay silent.
But when volcanoes lie dormant for a long time, it’d be wise for everyone to worry… Just in case, PLAYBOY sent a correspondent, Layia Giourgou, for reconnaissance. This is what she wrote:
‘During the first half-hour of the conversation with Nikos Nikolaidis, I was beset by an intolerable desire to jack it in and leave. I got the impression that he was looking down his nose at me (maybe I wasn’t far off…) and that he was bored to tears.
He persistently resisted the questions, like a hermit pledged to silence who’s constantly weighing whether there was anything to gain by diving into a whirlwind of words. The tape recorder registered long silences. I don’t know what he was thinking. Nor did I ask him later when the interview had heated up. At that time, all I was thinking of was that at least he could’ve declined the interview so that I wouldn’t have had to slog, in the first punishing heat of summer, all the way up to his lair, somewhere in the northern suburbs. While I waited however for night to fall so that the thermometer would relent enough to make my way down again, the conversation started to take on a life of its own.
“Truth is, I can’t tell how much of a snob Nikolaidis is – but it probably doesn’t matter. What I can attest to now is that initially he resisted, just as he started off avoiding talking about filming – about his life in other words – because it deeply eats him up just as a love that we know will never be over consumes us as grievously as an ongoing love-hate relationship. I picked that up quickly enough and thankfully managed to keep my detachment from this story of great passion which always ends up with the murder of the… referee. Nevertheless, I stand up behind this statement: Nikos Nikolaidis loves filmmaking and knows it as few – counted on the fingers of one hand – Greek directors. And it is this love that will be the end of him…’’
L.Y. I suggest we begin our discussion with our cinematic matters.
N.N. I propose to leave them aside.
L.Y. Is there a specific reason?
N.N. There is one significant reason. I don’t have anything to say about… our cinematic… matters.
L.Y. We can discern a strong dose of irony in your voice.
N.N. How else can you handle discussions about non-existent subjects? (He looks down at his shoes). We can, for example, talk about these shoes, whose existence cannot be questioned. They’re here, we see them, I’ve had them several years, I look after them and it happens that a number of people like them.
L.Y. In short, are you a part of the group who has declared war on Greek Cinema, hurling barbs such as: “Too much money for something no one understands”?
N.N. First off, there is no war and there is no group. We must attribute the phenomenon to a kind of spring fever which infects competing directors when the Greek Film Centre announces their subsidies and their work hasn’t been approved for one. We’re therefore speaking of a seasonal phenomenon. In addition, Greek cinema – just as Greek television – are fated to be the sacrificial lamb in a system where nothing does well, and that’s because cinema projects a visual image, or to use a common phrase, it has transparency… nothing remains hidden. And to dispel a misconception that lurks waiting to pounce: We also cannot talk about the Greek industry, agriculture, academia, rock music, painting, literature and other boring and clichéd things which survive – unlike cinema – camouflaged under overlying issues.
L.Y. Not to disagree with your observations about the Greek industry, agriculture, or rock music, here’s the first, hopefully pointed question: Why did you initially accept and then turn down a position as a member of the screening committee of the Greek Film Centre?
N.N. I hope you’re not expecting a direct answer, and this for the simple reason that the question is tragically naïve, since it is addressed to an individual who is still competing to materialize his visions and his intellectual integrity. And since we’re talking about my shoes, let’s just say that I wanted to add another resignation to my resumé.
L.Y. We’re confident that we’ll arrive at a conclusion reading between the lines.
N.N. Why such insistence?
L.Y. Because we reckon that your resistance expresses anger and it is common knowledge that you are the predominant ‘angry’ director of Greek cinema – which is, in fact, why young people love you.
N.N. Young people love me, not because I’m angry, as you insinuate, but because my films never forbade them to challenge me and, furthermore, because I persistently refused – a fact that they appreciate – the cut-price crutches that the ‘refined’ progressive intelligentsia has been handing around for years. I refused to play that game of offers and terrorism even when it originated from the viewers, because it’s simply a power game, the state’s view of cinema, when it is well known that the state never watches any films. And as far as ‘angry’ is concerned, I don’t accept it as a label from the moment that my frequencies have been swamped by the static emanating from a number of charlatans granting interviews (every glossy weekly must host or even nurture one of these) where they run down everything and everyone as they have nothing to offer and strive to carve out a space in a special, unsullied environment that does not belong to them nor represent them.
Ultimately, all these misfits comprise a part of the System and they act as a smokescreen so that unseen, the state mechanism can grind undisturbed. And woe to those unsuspecting ‘real’ things who step into the trap and allow themselves to be ‘branded’ without ever wondering which decision-making authority awarded them the moniker of identifiable anarchist, a question which rears nastily in their face when they discover that although the tag can sell, it can also be sold.
L.Y. You accept however, that there are impasses. Is it the Messiahs that bother you?
N.N. Between you and me, I’m disinterested in whether things go well or badly.
L.Y. You’re not convincing.
N.N. Okay, I prefer when things go from bad to worse until the complete rotting of the bones. In any case, it is futile to search for the causes. Because the causes are always set in advance and inevitable, and we offer alibis to ourselves, adopting the attitude that following some “legal” path will lead us somewhere, which proved not only naïve, but even born of a reaction. Very few amongst us predicted the consequences and these few were rewarded by treachery while the rest, the masses, were made to pay the price.
So, the whole bloody lot of us lost.
L.Y. In order to refuse the legal path, surely you have an illegal one to suggest in its place.
N.N. In cozy interview lounges, one can suggest anything without fear of punishment. So, let’s talk facts. The “Wretches Are Still Singing” is an illegal film as far as both content and production, and the trials and tribulations of its projection prove it. The same happened with “Sweet Bunch” only that there, a trap was set which, of course, failed. In other words, proposals that contain great risk and don’t generally promise good returns, are ignored. I can’t deny that there have been one or two attempts, but their perpetrators confused illegality with its trappings and settled for that.
As far as I’m concerned, and for the first time in my life, I’m overcome by a deep sense of indifference which I enjoy very creatively. Today’s situation and the film industry as it presently operates, do not affect me. They’re not allowed to affect me. At this moment I’m not interested in learning anything, nor in looking into something if I don’t first scrape away my sensibilities which, as the theory goes, an artist should adhere to. I’m definitely not under the influence of the Aemilian Monaes syndrome and I certainly feel no jealousy for those who are presented to us as the real deal. I can, however, with conviction tell you that it’s becoming more and more difficult to obtain funding and make a film using legal channels.
L.Y. Unless, of course, it gets funded by the Greek Film Centre.
N.N. The Film Centre… The Film Centre finances some films, just so that something keeps moving… It’s like that director who made a documentary about the Struggle of the Blind and had a special showing one Sunday morning – at the ‘Apollon’ – and she invited all the blind people to watch her film… It’s the same bad joke.
L.Y. Do you also believe the controversial opinion that there’s no concrete policy and that the people who fill the posts there never find long-term solutions?
N.N. I feel ashamed to speak, not about the specific or general policy of the Centre but for those who attribute to the Centre the right to have a policy. And those long-term, inspired solutions that get announced occasionally, – not only in cinema – they’re not even fit to solve the sewage problem in our area. It’s hopeless for someone to start making films thinking of restrictive censorship; who comes out on top, who controls the scripts, who’s responsible and how does funding occur, who distributes the films, and at the end of the day, who and how many get to see them.
L.Y. But that seems to be what happens in practice.
N.N. Yes, and it’s about time it stopped. Time to trash the system and start over. To start by forgetting some supposed first principles, a few so-called big names and the best and the worst filmmakers, because only in that way will the fraudulence, that certain circles have fomented and which has completely dominated the publications, be stopped.
L.Y. Would you be at the forefront of such a movement, to start everything from the beginning?
N.N. I think that your question gives a flavor of romanticism to my proposal and therefore weakens it. Anyway, I feel too weak and/or too indifferent to rise to such a demand which necessitates only dedicated participants. And then again, the crack of the endless stick and whip in the hands of a few control freaks has got us nowhere till now, apart from making us a flock of headless turkeys. Everyone must assume their own responsibilities.
L.Y. This chaotic, anarchic disposition of yours, does that not constitute a worthy ‘participant’?
N.N. I don’t think so and we don’t need to run to mythological definitions to justify a very simple and healthy ‘disposition’ which comes over you and is simply called indifference and not… not a period of reconsideration, of review or any such hollow mental nonsense, whose only purpose is to feed the beast and the misunderstanding…
L.Y. Which is?
N.N. The meaning of making cinema. Somewhere along the line we confused things and allowed the Centre to plot our moves step by step. First, we accepted that they’d approve some of our people, most often with the criterion that they went along with anything the state dictates. Then we accepted the budgets which, again, the state imposes. The budgets drive the interconnection between the idea and the means of production to a schizophrenic level as the means prevail over the plot instead of serving it, to the point where it subsumes all other considerations and ends up as an implement of ideological control simply because it costs money… and anything that costs money must be paid off. The infamous ‘minimum crew’ plays this role. (It’s about time they stuck their nose into art and prescribed a minimum number of colors and brushes). This minimum, which was received with such triumph by the unions and is policed as to its adherence, is nothing more than a light application of fascism in art.
L.Y. What can you suggest to break the spell?
N.N. Censorship and the state must be ignored, no permits or licenses sought, no approvals of scripts and a complete rejection of their judgement of good or forbidden subjects. Even our lack of money should make no difference: There was a time when we’d start a film and only wonder where the money would come from after we’d finished. Let’s begin from what we lack rather than what they command that we have. We must forget luxuries like 60-meter tracking shots, cranes and special takes, circular traverses and suchlike, things that impose and in other cases state a dyslexia and are used to conceal the lack of meaning. Camera technology is a boon, but also a cleverly contrived trap which costs time and money and, worst of all, heavy manning requirements to the detriment of pure cinematic language. It’s been ordained that only the select few can have the time and money to burn. And who gets to decide? The board of directors, the committees and the organized pressure groups. People who, as a rule, lack vision. Thus, every year only one to three political films (depending on what pressure was applied), one documentary, a little experimental production, a quality comedy and one highly commercial film get financed and, if there is a risky contender it also gets rubber stamped and is used as a concession to polyphony or to the so-called “free movement of ideas”. In this last case, the subsidy is widely publicized as it’s known that the financing exposes the film itself and demeans it.
L.Y. You are one of the high priests though, and as we recall, you were expressing different views this time last year. You were saying that there are ten good film directors in Greece, and this has been proved. You implied that you numbered among them and that the money should be finding its way to them.
N.N. For a start this time last year I might have proposed marriage to you. There is no evidence to deny it just as there’s none to confirm your version of what I’d said. Despite that, I do believe that we have ten good directors, without including me. It is to you that I owe my inclusion in the top ten as I haven’t ever mentioned names. I do, however, insist on counting on some filmmakers.
L.Y. Even if we’re not optimistic about getting names from you, is there anyone you’re willing to mention?
N.N. No… Because the denigrated ones, in a crazy kind of way, will be the ones I value and would name. However, I’ll belie, in part, your expectations by mentioning one of the few, Christos P., a director who under appalling production conditions has provided wonderful works for TV, which naturally left the experts, his peers and the manipulators of public opinion absolutely cold, since the director in question did nothing to squirrel himself into the family of the ‘big’ names. Not one of his recognized friends, when circumstances raised them to prominence and gave them the right to add their weight to various group decisions, deigned to examine his cinematographic proposals but instead made a show of ignoring him. He’s one of the irreplaceable few who must be eclipsed because his work is a benchmark that no one wants around. And to sum up, I repeat that patronization has been proven to have buried our cinema. Anyone who still feels like fighting, let them go and find producers to wind up again, who will undoubtedly pressure them and then we’ll see who can take it and who’ll get ahead. The old producers and filmmakers like Konitsiotis, Gregoriou, K. Manousakis and Katsouridis haven’t yet said their last word.
L.Y. Since you’ve mentioned the producers, you who are perhaps the sole filmmaker with his own audience in Greece, how come you’ve never found any willing financiers amongst the producers?
N.N. To book a movie with a producer is a task that needs a specialist, an agent to negotiate, not the director. It happens that I don’t do well in that kind of company and so, any proposals that might’ve come my way went down the drain. It could be that I never went after that sort of collaboration because the Greek Film Centre was somewhere in the background and it doesn’t calculate like a producer does and discussions would finish relatively quickly. The only certainty is that the more things develop, the more sick and tired I get of cinema and all its fuss, at least as it gets done in Greece.
And to return to the Film Centre, I’m convinced that when, sometime, this scam ends, I’ll be pressured, like everyone else, and I’ll turn to the producers and a lot will be revealed. For the time being, we’re a bunch of aesthetes playing with someone else’s money and cranes and 360° tracking shots. In any case, I believe that it’s only under pressure that an artist can really create.
L.Y. To be precise, do you believe that the ideal milieu for an artist to create is psychological pressure or a dictatorship?
N.N. Just so they’re no misunderstandings, I’m saying that we must take for granted that problems in production and the expression of views in films exist and we must rise in defiance of this, because it’s altogether fake. If we don’t, we’ll be reduced to making a film every ten years.
L.Y. Well, you take, if not ten, then at least five to finish a film. You shot “Morning Patrol” about a year and a half ago yet you don’t seem in a hurry to have it screened. Why?
N.N. The movie was just finished a few days ago and will be shown in cinemas this winter. It could’ve been finished a year ago, but I decided against that, hoping I would inspire some other directors to follow suit. I didn’t finish my movie – and others shouldn’t have finished theirs – since I’d honored my obligations, but the Centre hadn’t honored its own. In a word, I don’t think that I should mortgage my house (not that I have one) to conceal the unreliability of the Centre and to chase after bouncing cheques, unpaid social securities and Easter bonuses and to work an extra three years of commercials to get out of the red, just so that the Centre can go on preening that it finances Greek cinema.
This scam called the Film Centre must be stopped and it is shameful for directors to cram its corridors and to have their phones catch fire from our calls. Worse of all, to have a new order of small-time producers created who, through their conduct, prolong the fraudulent policy of the Centre and strengthen the state manipulation of the independent directors. They, in turn, scurry to some equally questionable combinations to finish their projects and to maintain the façade of their independence. Why should cinema go through all this?
L.Y. Going beyond your refusing to rush into this winter season in the theatres, you’re not very enthusiastic about foreign Festivals. Does that have anything to do with your attitude towards the Greek Film Centre?
N.N. Festivals operate through an international network of aesthetes, journalists, cultural and political players and other hangers-on on the fringes of cinema, who decide where cinema should be heading this year and who’re ready, at the drop of a hat, to manipulate or exploit a nation’s participation whether it’s a small or larger country. They surround themselves with trumped up ‘dignitaries’ who take their seats as the critical committee and who are either paid off puppets, or younger puppet-wannabes who aim to become established in this international elite. At least four times I’ve refused to participate in heavyweight international festivals because I was happy neither with the terms of their demands nor the attitude with which these demands were presented by their representatives. Not to mention that these people have an agenda about what Greeks should be filming. Europe’s opinion about the future of our cinema can be squeezed into a triangle with ouzo, blue sea and syrtaki as its apexes. The consolation is that, apart from two stubborn and unrepentant adherents of couleur-locale cinema (and because of this, in high demand at festivals), the bulk of Greek directors refuse to be triangulated. Personally, I’m indifferent to Festivals.
Now, if the Greek Film Centre, which controls 60% of my film, wants to push it around any of those, by all means it should. But it leaves me cold.
L.Y. But it’s well known both here and abroad, that anything to do with film-business inevitably must be pushed.
N.N. I’m not interested in pushing anything, this competitive climate, so ingeniously fostered between us, doesn’t suit me. I enjoy being able to admire my peers and their works and do not desire to run them down… Of course, they also should do something about it. It’s true that I once pushed as well, because some key figures denied me the right to communicate with the public and I had to clear a whole lot of landmines to be able to get close. Now, the narrow track has become a highway with many lanes and a verdant central reservation, and everyone rushes to pay the state tolls/collectors, neglecting the minesweeper who cleared the way for many and for free. Never mind, now we’ll be going into new minefields since we’ve managed to re-establish contact with each other. It goes without saying that when called for I’ll fight the battles to protect my work and my small group of followers as, for example, when the ex-chief of the Greek Film Centre suggested, by letter to ERT 1 (State Radio/television), not to buy “Sweet Bunch” (I needed that money to finish the ‘Bunch’ and with this letter this enlightened individual was basically preventing the completion and the release of the film) as his view had it that “Sweet Bunch” was a film that the Greek public should not see, particularly the youth.
L.Y. Since you brought up the youth, would you like to comment on something that has impressed us in relation to your film “The Wretches Are Still Singing” – which, according to our humble opinion and excluding “Morning Patrol” since we haven’t seen it, is your best. We don’t know how many young people have seen the film, but we do know that its title has been plastered on thirty percent of Athenian walls and that enormous banners reproducing the exact graffiti have been unfurled, at least in areas that have been classified as disadvantaged ghettos. Can you explain this phenomenon?
N.N. I leave it to the analysts and any kind of experts to analyze phenomena. What I do know is that the “Wretches”, despite all the obstacles and bans erected against it, managed to break the barrier of silence and slander that the entire “cultural community” of this country, had raised to stop the film from reaching them. This effort became immediately noticeable by the public and it ended up working to the detriment of their aims and as a wake-up call to the latter. This victory is a first for the creators and the public against the terrorism of the intellectuals, of the agents of confusion and of other technocratic bastards, including the Ford Foundation. This motley crew had laid low for a while but reared their ugly heads a few years back, aided by inexplicable short memories and bolstered by a number of budding successors, as they utilized even more dangerous methods, such as artificially presenting all films as masterpieces, a method which totally perplexes the public. With the “Wretches” I tried out a scheme about the production and the methods of guaranteeing full freedom of expression. These schemes were noticed and then they were clumsily applied ten years later. Perhaps I too am at fault for this delay. I should have persisted more, made films more often and be more at the forefront. It could be that I never sought such a thing and I put the blame for a decisive failing on myself. Personal problems which can be nobody’s business – we’re not looking for mitigating circumstances here – impasses that led to escapes for reasons of health and dignity and, quite often, because of a bad atmosphere.
Anyway, my generation has failed. It doesn’t matter that we produced a good film or two. Because none of us (I speak for us all and the public can shake the truth out) had the courage to put their chest in front, we didn’t lengthen our stride.
L.Y. To what can we attribute that? Did you lack the impetus that maybe was necessary?
N.N. Exactly. But how could a feeble buggy muster the impetus when it was saddled with kids, aunts, uncles and insecurity issues at the very moment that we needed a steadily accelerated take off?
Why are we hiding? Most of them lacked the gumption, lacked the passion and verve to understand cinema’s needs so they accepted to transform their films into vehicles for the delivery of slogans and flags of convenience. They loaned their beings and allowed themselves to be used as messengers between the critics and the public. Nice guys. Very nice guys, generally speaking, and law-abiding artists. Which is why the others gave them a lot.
They gave them media coverage, the venues, the accolades, extra pocket money and a slew of little Festivals. Things they never struggled for and hadn’t earned. Then they became lackeys of the Film Centre since they were worried that they might disappoint it and get left with nothing. That’s why we failed and why the younger generation must strip us away fast, as well as the Centre and all Centres. They must be brash and ruthless and not wait in line for their turn to come, because they get mutated while waiting in queue. Whatever happens, it must be now when they haven’t yet been pigeon-holed nor torn apart. They must enter the fray with fists and boots flying. The “masterpiece” can come later, far away from the grants. Only what they fight for will belong to them.
L.Y. Do you believe that the newcomers know cinema as most certainly your lot did?
N.N. Well, they don’t. Where would they pick it up, anyway? The film schools remain neglected by the state and with the assistance of the committees of the Ministry, produce incompetents. Nothing deals seriously with them and they’re left with whatever talent they had and their lack of education. They can progress by themselves since the video cassette is a great teacher and the video camera a dirt-cheap tool to experiment with. What they then need is to comprehend their role and to resist the easy options that the system – which is on the lookout for new legionnaires of confusion – holds out to them. It isn’t chance that a team has already begun to form among them with a videoclip aesthetic and a Spielbergian manner.
L.Y. Something which we consider extremely likely as many of these kids lack any vision while your generation didn’t. Do you agree?
N.N. And what if we had vision, you saw what happened. How can it matter when whatever vision existed was traded in or deposited as collateral? Avdeliodis might not be as conversant with cinema – according to many – as my generation but he had vision and stood out. I haven’t seen his film, but why did they try to evict him? Were the others any better? And, pray, were those that backed him cuts above the ones that denied him?
L.Y. It’s inevitable that when you go head to head with seven established directors your goose is cooked.
N.N. Established by whom? Certainly not by the public. This misconception and doomsayer attitude must stop. The youngsters must systematically ignore the laws of supply and demand as they are formulated by interest groups and mass media philosophy, and to expel the middlemen and the conservers of spectacle mythology. Because it is high time we see some cinema made by twenty-five-year-olds (and please desist from seeking to revamp cinematographic language because, unfortunately, in cinema everything’s been said) and re-establish the dialogue with the spectator, something entirely possible, as the latter has proved, whenever he was called upon, that he’s here, waiting.
L.Y. We feel that it’s time to change the subject before we raise the temperature even further over such a… nonexistent subject. Let’s switch to another of your activities, writing. It seems that lately you’ve given up on writing. Are you just taking time off or is it irrevocable?
N.N. If you’re under the impression that we’ve been talking about cinema all this time, you’re making a mistake. I make films, I talk about cinema and I’m amazed how all this time you haven’t realized that we’ve been talking about my shoes. In any case, a break that lasts ten years is more than merely time off and the choice of terminology employed is nothing but a philological smokescreen of a shallow and idle decade writing-wise. I don’t think that I want to write again, even though for quite some time I’ve been sitting on a half-finished novel and a few short stories and I still have plenty to say. I think it’s amusing to argue that to confirm the ‘Balkan’ as a literary achievement it needs to be followed by another book every year. I also consider the profession of author quite funny. Perhaps I’ll leave many asking the question: If the “Angry Balkan” isn’t a random one-off attempt, then what the hell is it and where did it come from?
L.Y. Sticking to your extracurricular activities we’ll mention another, advertising. From what we know you’re a director who works a lot on commercials. Do you only do so to make ends meet or also to keep your hand in with films?
N.N. You’re mistaken, it’s only the last two years that I’ve worked hard in advertising, which is a demanding and responsible activity. What particularly attracts me to it is the fact that at least twice a month around 6-8 million GRD (a fairly large amount at the time) are spent for a thirty second clip. There’s a thrill and a fear that cinema doesn’t provide you with, simply because films aren’t as frequent and cost much less. Advertising is a dangerous game, like pulling the pin of a very sensitive explosive device in a field of unlimited experimentation.
L.Y. It’s been said that your engagement with it has been seriously detrimental to your work as a creator-director. What do you have to say about that?
N.N. Let them say what they will. But why grouse about advertising when they want to discover the negative aspects of my filmmaking? The truth is that ‘anything’ could affect my cinema very badly. They blame advertising because it is an easy target. Anyway, I owe to advertising the strength to resist many of the influences that were aimed my way, because I simply got beyond them by trying them out, and so I finished with them. I further owe to advertising the fact that I can make films 50% cheaper than my colleagues because time management and production organization are more demanding for commercials than for feature length films. And who’s complaining anyway? The arch-disseminators of confusion and those who delved into advertising and were spat back out?
L.Y. It seems hopeless, but we’ll make another effort to turn the conversation just a little way from cinema. You spoke of production organization; would you describe yourself as a methodic man?
N.N. Method and I have a very warm relationship. I believe that I’m extremely methodical. Every evening, for example, I take some very important decisions and sketch out actions for the next few hours. The most vital decisions are taken after crises, most frequently neurotic crises and secondly those arising from colic of the kidneys. But as soon as these pass and the time comes to apply the programs and the plans, then my methodical side kicks into gear and with a wise and resolute way leads me to the conclusion that it’s all bullshit and that it would be vastly better to sink into a catatonic stupor, known in our house as ‘Dad-is-just-pondering-his-next-film’. You can tell from that glassy eye focused at the ceiling, the trademark of my fixations and of my not being there anymore.
L.Y. Don’t you go to the movies?
N.N. No, because every time I went, I argued with the viewers who talked, and the others chewed. I was annoyed by the bad sound or bad projection and by intermissions and, on top of that, I get cold. It’d be ideal to construct my own projection room, but that’s too expensive and so I’m forced to watch them on video, and I do watch many. Ten to fifteen a week.
L.Y. You say that you get into altercations in movie theatres. At work and in your personal life, do you clash with others?
N.N. All the time and always face to face. Especially during the shoots.
L.Y. A rumor has it that you’re very harsh when you work.
N.N. It’s not just a rumor and since I’m fully aware of my situation when I work, I make sure that I warn everybody, starting with my family and finishing with my crew. I’m especially hard on my actors because months before shooting begins, we start working very closely together. We work on the script, we re-write entire scenes or adapt other ones, we analyze them, we rehearse in the prospective filming locations and the trickiest we record on video, correct them and shoot them again until we reach a result we’re all happy with. Then everyone together finds the costumes and checks out their suitability to the scenes. Then, we intervene in the décor and, when possible, we enrich it with elements that’ll help the actors play their parts. At the same time, we research all the sources that’ll provide information and insight about our story and its interpretation across the range of cinematic expression. This process, and I don’t make any distinction between leading or third rank supporting roles, can take up to six months. Therefore, when after all that, during shooting, an actor turns to me with a panicked expression of “how am I supposed to act this now”, I fall into a deep depression that lasts three days and then I abandon him to his own devices. Naturally, the editing of the movie adapts to his deficiencies so long as it doesn’t derail either me or the film from its mapped-out path. After all that, the rumor comes out claiming that I’m harsh. In the end, my relations with the actors (for they’re the ones who accuse me of being difficult) are complicated and fascinating. Sometimes I look for, or even create, artificial strife just to free them from my influence, at other times, I might just lead the way and correct their course with a friendly pat on the back. Things aren’t at all easy with them and it hasn’t happened only once that on the eve of the first day of shooting, I’ve got rid of a leading actor and handed his role over to a supporting actor. They are insecure individuals and they need a lot of tenderness and continual approval, facets which I often, and whenever the role demanded it, took advantage of. Anyhow, I’ve always shown my respect and always given them the time and the film that they demanded and, somewhere along the line, I feel great since I know that at least five of the protagonists of my films, unknowns and unfamiliar with cinema when we’d first got together, now belong to the ascending forces of our cinema and are much in demand.
There’ll come a time, however, when they’ll have to sit and really work out how much they owe to their talent and how much to my rumored ‘hardness’.
L.Y. How would you describe your films in one word – if that’s at all possible?
N.N. Good claustrophobic movies.
L.Y. And how would you describe the relationships between the heroes?
N.N. I’d say that they’re not straightforward, they’re unexpected at times, quite tender, only that they’re afraid to admit it, and definitely attractive behind their defensive ambiguity. These are relationships that I’ve come across in life or I’ve tried to create. Never, neither they nor I, have experienced calm and regular relationships, at least with women and, having been lucky enough to find myself with some pretty powerful characters, I can state that I’ve been put through the wringer fiercely but also beneficially.
L.Y. But why do you refer to the past? Aren’t you still too young to be summing up accounts?
N.N. These are just flashbacks, not accounting. It’s just that over the years I’ve discovered that one can have very lively relationships, ones full of experiences, without resorting to ‘bone-breaking’ ones.
L.Y. You said that throughout life you’ve found yourself with women who stood very well on their own two feet. How come this doesn’t seem to occur with many of the women in your films, as they seem to be dragged around by others and behave stereotypically while the menfolk make fun of them and are contemptuous?
N.N. This is a classic Maoist perception – one found in the Kolonaki area. But Eurydice kills Orpheus because she chooses her own hell and refuses him the role of the liberator. Rita of the Wretches is the bloody mama of the 50’s, free and uncompromised. She consciously elects a madhouse as temporary refuge where the others believe they’ve isolated her. Sophia of the Bunch slaughters the blond guy and leaves him to bleed out in her bath and Marina, after she finishes him off, goes out and robs a gun store so that they never go down without a fight. And as for the woman in ‘Morning Patrol’, just wait and see. Where did you find this sexist crap? My heroines have a strong and independent personality, and even if they take aboard some male behaviors (since when is murder just a male affair?) it’s because the idea of comradeship which they serve, to exist, must be supported without being deprived of love, and most importantly, disregarding gender. We cannot refuse any woman the role she wishes to play, even androgynous ones. Of course, in “Wretches” there are some clueless chicks wandering about and they’re naturally treated by the heroes as such, since the latter are circling around their own approaching death, at a time of such violent decisions that leaves them no room to deal with whatever problem they have. Don’t forget that in “Bunch” there’s a futilely wandering vagina-bearing creature whose passion to overcome these features of hers and to be accepted in the Bunch, is one of the causes that leads to the final slaughter. There is then a reactionary view which slanders my heroines and is broadcast by several intellectual fascists and other crypto racists, who pretend to be feminists, and which you, a little superficially, ‘dear Playboy’, adopted. A magazine that continuously projects the image of women as mindless, plasticized and ugly on all levels, with the occasional alibi of sometimes lying on either Fidel Castro or John Houston. Basically, the only thing the magazine offers – from the day it was conceived – is a controversy that it engendered between its readers on the desirability of vaginal or clitoral orgasm and nothing else.
L.Y. I wonder, with such a negative opinion, why you accepted to be interviewed by our magazine.
N.N. You’re not the first nor the last mindless publication to host an interview of mine because, unfortunately, PLAYBOY doesn’t hold the monopoly on irrelevancy or mindlessness. That would actually be something! In fact, one could thusly describe nearly the whole of the printed and electronic Greek press. With my presence here, I wanted to provide an answer to all those who are reticent to discuss with you because, categorizing you as a reactionary publication, they were afraid that they’d also be categorized as such, which would obstruct and delay their upward ascent. So, this is a perfect reactionary position, since a self-respecting career-minded individual is not allowed to be seen with you on his way to the highest branch of the monkey tree.
L.Y. Do you believe that PLAYBOY is a reactionary magazine?
N.N. It’s not even capable of that.
L.Y. So, what is it?
N.N. In broad terms, tasteless and odorless. Something like its beauties. Naturally, in the first issues it started by being critical, but at the first obstacle it backed down mumbling something and hid behind the silicone of its girls.
L.Y. If I understood correctly you would like to take a specific and progressive political position and ban porn.
N.N. Specific and progressive political positions are mutually exclusive. In any case, porn is a political statement. So, I think you’d best make do for now with a progressive political position and hardcore porn.
L.Y. This isn’t part of my brief but arises from a personal desire to understand, would hardcore porn be tolerated?
N.N. Why don’t you try?
L.Y. It’s a point of view. Tell me something though, since we’ve just referred to public matters and political positions, it’s been a year since you were last seen at a meeting of the then newly established Union of Greek Directors, admittedly to my great surprise since I expected you to distance yourself from such bodies.
N.N. The truth is that, just as some of my peers, I too find it difficult to operate in these bodies. It was necessary, however, as matters had reached an impasse, since the old guild of directors, controlled for years by the dregs of the political parties and, with the blessings of the state, applied and enforced a strangling censorship at all levels of cinema production, as well as piling new problems on top of those that dragged on from the past. The bribes for the slightest indulgence had exceeded the limits. The campaign that ninety working directors (as opposed to barstool occupiers) started, aimed not to reshuffle roles as some founding members wrongly assumed, but to serve the need of an across-the-board and meaningful control of film industry matters by the producers-creators themselves. The state’s response was, as always, vulgar. They ostentatiously ignored the movement, provided new funds to the dregs of the nearly defunct guild, mobilized other parties which were in turn panicked by the initiative and paved the way back to whomever of the colleagues chose to submit, since this sort of shaking of the hierarchical ladder is a brilliant opportunity for them to negotiate their careers.
The Fifth Column worked well and with various cleverly set up farces, made us look ridiculous. It doesn’t matter, they did get the message and our gain was that a few masks were finally dropped.
L.Y. And the Guild- the other solution- did it break up?
N.N. It exists but is inactive, just like so many things in our country. And until it gets going again, a little machine, a story, two-three locations and a gang of mad actors, will find a way. Anyway, I’ve got my little computer…
L.Y. Which I presume belongs to…
N.N. Only I play with it. I recently bought it to arrange my cinematic files. That’s books, video cassettes and recordings that mostly cover the 40’s to 60’s period for which I have a…
N.N. More like curiosity. Now that I’m quite distanced from that terrific second decade (50’s) and its events, I think it’s about time (since I believe that I’ve banished the seductiveness of the era) for me to study it.
L.Y. And what were the conclusions of the study?
N.N. I haven’t entered all the data in the machine, but very roughly, I can say: The Moon. From four thousand titles of songs I’ve entered so far, fifty percent feature the moon. Women’s lips, their eyes and their names get very high percentages. The night, my coming near you – my going away from you, gets the rest. It seems that they loved women very much in those times.
L.Y. Do you reckon they don’t now?
N.N. It seems not. Otherwise why did they deny them their form and their myth? I think that this famous equality is nothing but a male construct.
L.Y. Do you think that equality is a misconception?
N.N. More than a misconception, a con I’d say. They think that they share the dominance because now they have cafés just for women. However, they’ve done nothing more than reproduce some enemy features, copy men and disguise themselves. The female judge, member of parliament, soldier, Prime Minister, cop, is not just a transferal of responsibilities aiming to gradually transform males into drones and restrict them to positions of authority unapproachable by women, who will proudly take on the role of guardian-hound, but yet one more proof of their progressive metamorphosis to a new domineering and, of course, male figure. At the same time, there are interchanges and appropriations of opposing behaviors that exacerbate the confusion in the process wisely orchestrated – with awareness of its weakness – by the male gender. And as the small, evil and vulgar demon in me would say: Strip the garters and the languorous long lashes from the woman and what you’ll get facing you is a twentieth-generation computer. (You saw what they did to Sigourney Weaver in Alien II or do you think that it was by chance that they stuck her into the mechanical exo-suit cargo loader, which under the guidance of her exquisite female brain, trounced the monster?). And now that we mention it, I’m thinking of poor Philip Marlowe, without Velma and Lisabeth Scott, confused in the midst of the peripherals and the exotic Motorolas of Super Amina PLX searching for her lips and his old familiar death… We’re done.
L.Y. And one last question. Do you have a social life, do you have a good time? I’m asking because I truly wonder how difficult it is for someone who lives so far from the center, here in Kefalari to have a social life, when, from what I’ve been told, you don’t drive a car.
N.N. From a very young age and up to now, apart from a seven-year period, I’ve lived outside the city. I purposefully haven’t learnt to drive as with traffic as it is, just for a ten-kilometer distance, you must put your brain to work very hard, and I avoid such tribulations on weekdays. I have a terrible looking scooter, something between a chopper and an organ grinder which serves me whenever I need to exercise my right of self-mobility. High top speeds and accelerations come from elsewhere and certainly don’t lead me to Athens, a place that fails to cover my unreasonable expectations of it. Thus, I rarely go out and do what you call social life. Of course, sometimes I get the desire for a good time out just like a recent night when, just before calling it a night, I got up, I shaved, put on my best and said to my wife: ‘We’re going out.’ She gave me a strange look since I don’t usually act like that. “Let’s,” she answered for all that, “and where shall we go?” “To a night club”, I said, “to listen to Rita Hayworth singing.” “I don’t think that particular Rita is singing in the center of Athens,” my wife commented as she looked at me oddly. “So then, aren’t I quite right to stay at home?” And after I got undressed, I laid down to sleep.
(Shortly after this interview, Gilda – Rita Heyworth passed away).