Saturday,15 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Saturday,15 December, 2018
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Greek mascot

Greek director Elina Psykou told Al-Ahram Weekly about her sophomore feature, Son of Sofia 

Elina Psykou was born in 1977. She studied filmmaking at Lykourgos Stavrakos Film School and sociology at Panteion University; she also studied cultural history in Paris and participated in the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2007. Her debut was The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas, a 2013 film that premiered at the Berlinale and received the FIPRESCI, Best Actor and Hellenic Association of Film Critics’ awards at Thessaloniki Film Festival. That year she was among Variety magazine’s 10 European Directors to Watch. She had already received an award for work in progress at Karlovy Vary IFF in 2012. 

Son of Sofia, her second feature, was selected to participate in the Berlinale Residency programme and the Berlinale co-production market. It won the Works in Progress Award at the Les Arcs EFF in 2015 and premiered in competition at the Tribeca FF in 2017, where it won the Best International Narrative Feature Award. Psykou is currently researching her first documentary Europe, oh Europe, supported by Creative Europe and EAVE, while also writing her third feature and doing occasional work as a producer.

The Athens Olympics in 2004 forms the backdrop to Son of Sofia. But for Psykou it wasn’t there from the start: “Not in the first draft, anyway. It came during the script development. This is the way I work. First I have a first-level idea about narration and the characters and throughout the script development I search to find a very special set for my script. In Son of Sofia I decided to set my story in the summer of 2004, the summer of the Olympic Games in Athens, I saw that it was an alluring event for two reasons.” 

“First, it was a good connection with Russia or the Soviet Union, which hosted the Olympic Games in 1980 and the mascot of the Moscow Olympic Games was named Misha — like my young protagonist. The second reason is that the summer of 2004 was the end of the renaissance for my country, the days prior to 2004 were the end of our glory days before the downfall began in Greece. The metaphor here was the end of the renaissance and my young protagonist Misha coming of age. For the young protagonist it’s not political of course but it’s about his life, coming from Russia as an innocent child. But it was the end of his childhood in Athens, he’s not a child anymore. He’s becoming an adolescent.”

Psykou’s technique of blending reality with fantasy is an interesting approach to narration. “All children around the world have their own fantasies,” she says. “I was yearning to discover this fantasy world in my film given that my protagonist is a child and through him I blended reality with his fantasy world, and I remembered Misha the mascot of the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980, which was a bear, so I decided that the name of the protagonist would be Misha and during the drama he would become a bear like this mascot — all of this fantasy world came along during the development of the script.” 

Psykou was not too worried about how her blend of fantasy and reality would be received: “I wasn’t hesitant. I wasn’t too worried whether people would like or not. The truth is that some people might be confused by the film in the beginning but at the end they like it and apprehend the beauty of this fantasy-reality mix of the two worlds that I wanted to highlight.”

One of Pyskou’s characters in the film is Mr Nikos, who was a children’s TV presenter back in the 1970s. Psykou presents television in her drama as one of the illusory tools that distance the family from the harsh reality of Greece. “I like to exploit the idea of television using it as a tool in my drama,” she says. “In my opinion television is used negatively and in the wrong way in Greece and I believe that it’s not something that happens only in Greece.” 

Psykou goes on to comment on the performance of the Arab media during and after the Arab Spring. “I don’t know what kind of media you have, but I can imagine. In Greece we have dishonest and poor quality media and propaganda, it’s pervasive. Television can play a very positive role, but the people who direct these TV shows and the media prefer to present that other kind of content, it’s easier and cheaper and they think that this is what people want. 

“In my opinion people like this kind of media because it’s the only thing they have. If you offer them different content they might like it as well and the same is true of the cinema. In Greece and in all the Balkan countries, cinema producers think that people don’t watch artistic films and that the audience only prefers commercial cinema with popular actors, but the audience doesn’t have so many options most of the time and these non-commercial films are only screened on one art house in Athens, which makes them very hard to find.”

The fall of the Soviet Union is also present in the film, perhaps that was inevitable? “Sofia is between two worlds,” Psykou says. “Russia, the country where she came from and Greece. She’s also between two men: her young son and her husband. In a sense she has to be married to this rich elderly Greek man whom she doesn’t hate but doesn’t love. She regards him as a good and generous man and that way she can have her son with her in Athens. 

“On the other hand she doesn’t have the courage to tell her son the truth about her marriage, consequently she is making compromises both ways, trapped between the two. She was trying her best to be honest but she had to tell lies occasionally, leaving her son vexed. In a film there is no absolute good or bad, this whole family is facing a disturbing situation and the three of them have their good sides and their bad sides. Sofia is torn between two worlds living in a big apartment at the centre of the capital Athens but the only place she can be alone and true to herself is the bathroom.”

The world is reduced to this maze-like house, full of doorways and magic, in which Misha must learn to live. Psykou has a very unique style in directing. “This is the style I love and this is the style I like to watch in other films, the wide shots. And I like the big locations like this big apartment in which I like to place my characters among other elements inside this frame. I dedicate a lot of time during filming to put together the frame that I adore. The picture is another mode of narration.” 

This clearly places her outside the mainstream: “If you mean by mainstream, the commercial films then yes of course my film is not one of the mainstream films, but there are lots of Greek filmmakers whose films are participating in international film festivals like Cannes, Venice and Berlin and their films have a very good festival career, but again it’s very hard to find your true audience in Greece.”

Concerning production, she says, “We don’t have enough money as you can imagine, especially after the financial crisis in Greece, but we have certain amounts of money from the Greek Film Centre and also from public TV which reopened for production. However, another way to do it is to organise a European co-production, that’s the case with my film. It’s a co-production between Greece, Bulgaria and France. 

“That’s the only way to reach real money for production, but of course it’s not easy due to a huge number of producers and various opinions of evaluation. But there is another way that is always a solution and that’s to make independent films on very low budgets, which was the case with my first film. It was difficult paying the crew but you worked with your friends, who will dedicate a lot of time and effort for free…”


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