Filippos Tsitos, “Leaving my country made me want to explore it»

Filippos Tsitos 2014 ©Angie Saltambassi

Filippos Tsitos 2014 ©Angie Saltambassi

He says Berlin is still the open, friendly, multicultural city which he came to know more than 20 years ago, when he moved here from Athens. An award winning filmmaker, Filippos Tsitos, describes the way his experience of living and working here helped him grow into the person he is today, about the way it affected his relationship to his crisis-ridden homecountry, and about cinema – mostly about cinema and why it’s so seductive to try to make films that aspire to say the unsayable.

 

Before meeting you I watched, once again, your first film “My Sweet Home”, which had premiered during the 2001 Berlinale. It takes place in Berlin and tells the story of one night in the lives of of a group of immigrants. Woud you still recognise that small world within a world, in contemporary Berlin?

I didn’t even recognise it at the time; it was not a realistic world. The characters were not interesting to me as immigrants in Germany, but as people who have found themselves away from home. They could be practically anywhere. I mean that the story could well have been placed in Greece, but then of course it would be a different cast of characters, with different backgrounds and different dreams.

 

 

What are the dreams of these strangers in Berlin?

Actually what is important about them is not the dreams each of them may have but they mental and emotional state they are in at that exact time: They are all wondering whether they have made a right choice in leaving their home countries. Have they made a right decision in coming to Berlin or should they go back to their place of origin? Will the future prove them right in moving away? Every discussion and every argument they are involved in comes down to this question they are all facing. And this question they could be facing anywhere.

 

 

Your experiences living as a Greek in Berlin didn’t in any way inform the script?

The film was in fact born out my experience of living as a foreigner in Berlin; not as a Greek in Germany, but as someone who is not native. At the time I did the film I had already spent a decade here. Before that I had not lived anywhere else than Athens, where I was born.

 

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Harvey Friedman in “My Sweet Home”

 

Was this emotionally demanding?

Sure it was. But it would prove to be gratifying, too. It was the first time I was abandoning the city that was my comfort zone, and moving into an unfamiliar place. One is inevitably thrown a bit off balance, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Having grown up in a city with a largely homogeneous population I suddenly landed in a truly multicultural society. And as a matter of fact, it was in Berlin that I got to know and hung out with Turkish people only to realise we got along just fine.

 

 

Did that come as a surprise to you?

It did, yes. Everything we had ever been taught about the Turkish people and how they supposedly see us collapsed. All this bullshit about Greeks and Turks keeping up a tradition of mutual suspicion…I realised that I had absolutely no clue, I did not know the first thing about them. Yet this realisation was merely a symptom of the huge change that I had brought on to myself – I had simply moved from the periphery to the centre. And that had been a true shock.

 

How did that cultural shock express itself?

You want to know what the funniest thing about it was? That I suddenly started to really look the way of Greece. Leaving my country, made me want to explore it. It was only after coming to Berlin that I began to get a true interest in my country of origin, to read history and to try to create my personal picture of Greece. Wouldn’t I have distanced myself, geographically, from the society that shaped me, I think I would not have felt the need to take a very penetrating look.

 

Film still from "My Sweet Home"

Film still from “My Sweet Home”

 

 You didn’t come to Berlin straight out of school, though; In fact you were already 25 years old when you entered the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie.

This is true, but at 25 I was still a rather naive guy, who had lived a very sheltered adolescence. I was still «grün hinter den Ohren”, as the German saying goes. That’s why this process that I just now described was unfolding over the years during which I was actually growing and striving to become my own person. I suddenly found myself confronted by questions like where was it best for me to live, or where did I wish to be? And what would happen to my relationship to what I knew as my home? Would I be able to call this new city a home? How do I deal with the family I left behind?What does it mean for me to be away from my friends, or to be away from the sea? Finally, inevitably, the ever-returning question was what would be the centre of my own universe? Where was my home?

 

 

Then all those characters in your first film are versions of you at a certain moment in time?

Absolutely. They always are. They’re either versions of you or projections – but they’re always, inescapably deeply connected to the person who makes the film.

 

 

By the way, “My Sweet Home”, was the only German movie taking part in the Competition Section of the 2001 Berlinale. That must have been quite unexpected. Or maybe not?

My nationality did not play any role in the selection of the film by the then director of the Berlinale, Moritz de Hadeln. I have no idea about the specific criteria upon which he picked it to represent Germany, but the reason was that he obviously liked it enough to do so. But he had to face some very angry reactions from the people in the film industry.

 

Antonis Kafetzopoulos in Tsitos' second film "Plato's Academy"

Antonis Kafetzopoulos in Tsitos’ second film “Plato’s Academy”

 

There were reactions because he picked a movie by a non-German film director?

For a long time Moritz de Hadeln had been in a sort of conflict with the people in the industry; film critics and producers, basically, had been accusing him of not supporting German cinema and not doing enough to help German film-makers. He was saying he didn’t care to support any national cinema and that he was merely looking for good films. That year was going to be his last as director of the Berlinale; he picked my film to represent Germany in the Competition section and Fatih Akin to represent the country in the Jury.

 

 

What was the reception of the film?

Well, as soon as the film critics realised that Germany would be represented by a low-budget production, a low profile film by a director fresh out the Academy, they started commenting very negatively; before even having watched it. So the atmosphere was truly not at all welcoming. During the press conference I had to answer a few quite aggressive questions, like «If there were no foreigners in your film, would you have ever found the money to produce it?» I was truly and deeply traumatised by my Berlinale experience. Actually I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over it.

 

 

Nine years later, you won wide critical acclaim and awards with “Plato’s Academy”, which is a comedy. In it the protagonist, a kiosk owner named Stavros is suddenly told, by his dying mother, that he has an Albanian brother. This bit of information does not sit at all well with this guy, who sees Albanian immigrants in Greece with contempt.

And I believe that three years later, this kind of man would cast his vote for the neonazi Golden Dawn party.

 

Film still from "Plato's Academy"

Film still from “Plato’s Academy”

 

Why do you say that?

To begin with, he does not actually think for himself. He belongs to a group of friends who strongly influence one another; It’s a group of middle aged men who hung around together every day and are representative of a certain type of Greek man who could easily be convinced by the hate speech and the propaganda of the far right.

 

 

Would you describe the kind of Greek man that Stavros and his buddies are representative of?

This is a man who’s never been taught, or even told, that there is a whole world outside his small yard and his small neighbourhood and that he can get out and explore it. He hasn’t been taught that there are dreams one can go after, that there are wishes one may strive to fulfill, that there is more to life than to take it for granted that someone –a family or a state- will make sure you will have the minimum to survive. This a guy who didn’t care to learn anything that would make demands on his certainties or on all that he took for granted; He was brought up that way. His natural curiosity was never aroused either by his family or by his schoolteachers. He is a man who was brought up in a society that didn’t give a damn about individuality, or about pushing him to rise above his narrow horizons.

 

Is Greek society indifferent to individuals’ self-fulfillment?

Yes, absolutely and this is true for all parts of it. Of course, as happens everywhere, things are all the more worse for people with less financial means, as is the case for the characters in «Plato’s Academy». But really, one doesn’t have to be poor in Greece in order to be brought up to believe that your personal world has the limits of your garden, whose the sole owner you are. That also means you are not encouraged to imagine another life for yourself. So finally you turn out to be the person you were told you are; you do not become.

 

Film still from "Plato's Academy"

Film still from “Plato’s Academy”

 

In what way does this incapacity to rise above one’s narrow horizons breed xenophobia? Specifically in the case of these Greek guys who star in your film?

Well if you are convinced that there is a certain corner of the world whose sole proprietor you will always be, just because you happened to be born in this little corner, then it is inevitable that you will feel threatened by any newcomer. And you will strive to drive them away. This is what happened to the protagonist, that’s what he views as his personal drama. This is the kind of racism that was apparent in Greece and that I was familiar with until a few years ago. Roughly until 2008. And that’s because I was totally naive and absolutely misinformed; because things were already much worse only I couldn’t see it.

 

Your protagonist, however, doesn’t seem to be content with the life he has, even before his Albanian brother comes along.

Yes, this one is the personal drama he doesn’t recognise. He feels he cannot go on leading the life he has learnt to take for granted, either. But he does.

 

Among his group of friends, Stavros is the only one who gives the impression he’s a tortured soul; and he definitely does not look cruel. I am insisting on this, because I would like you to elaborate on why you think that a guy like him could today be voting for the Golden Dawn neonazi party.

Yes, I do think it is highly likely he would vote for them. He’s no monster and he’s not evil, sure. He is a bit more sensitive a person than his pals, that is why he is suffering – he doesn’t exactly like himself. And that’s why we feel for him. However, in real life -as opposed to movies- living in Greece he would not have been given the opportunity to widen his horizons and to open his mind.

His only hope for salvation is the love he feels for a woman – and if she is a little smarter than him, she might be able to steer him away from extremist choices. Other than that, this guy is easy to manipulate: the indoctrination by the family, the school and the society has prepared the ground for the Golden Dawn. A few years later than the end of the movie, when the neonazi thugs visit this character’s kiosk and tell him that the ones to blame for his poverty are the foreign workers who are stealing Greek money, they will be providing him a scapegoat. Now he will have someone else than himself to blame for his misery.

 

I can recall that you have said, in reference to “Plato’s Academy”, that “the Greeks’ biggest problem is that they are Greeks”. Would you elaborate?

Our heritage is a huge burden; it’s almost a curse to have to start life with such a burden. Naturally there is a very enticing side to this, it’s so flattering to be told that you belong to a long line that goes all the way back to Homer. But, come on now…Everything about the antiquity is viewed with awe, too much awe. It’s practically considered a sacrilege to attempt a modern take on one of Euripides’ tragedies.

 

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Growing up did you actually feel this burden? How did you feel about constantly being reminded of the greatness of your ancestors?

I detested it. I was fed up, I couldn’t stand another word about Aristotle. It took me a long time to get over this. Luckily I did and I finally stopped seeing it as a burden. There came a point, finally, when I could revisit the Greek classics and read and discover them on my own.

 

Earlier you mentioned that coming from the periphery to the centre, from a largely homogeneous-looking to a multicultural society, you became more open. What was your experience as an immigrant? Did you feel welcome?

Absolutely. I only have good experiences. But I was coming from Greece and I am white. I am not at all sure that this would have been that case if I were coming from Pakistan. White people don’t get harassed by racists. And there are neighbourhoods in Berlin when it is not safe to walk if you have dark skin.

 

Which was the first neighbourhood you lived in?

I rent a place near Viktoria Park, in Kreuzberg. It was beautiful then, as it is now. What made it even more beautiful to my eyes was the fact that I was living alone for the first time in my life. I was in paradise! For the first time in my life I would wake up with a feeling of expectancy and joy for the day ahead: «Let’s go to school, let’s go out and live!» I recall that I would take the bus just so that the trip to school would take longer; I relished it. It was true happiness – just myself, my life and my dream of becoming a film maker.

 

And what were your first impressions of the city?

I loved it, I was amazed, absolutely amazed. First of all, the Wall had just fallen so the air was full of enthusiasm, there was a feeling that everything was happening right here. Then it’s this sense of history that is nowhere as strong as it is in Berlin. You simply have to go down a road and you are walking past apartment buildings which still bear the marks of war. And there’s this whole mythology about West Berlin’s underground culture of the ‘70s, about the squatters, the anarchists, the music…You know, it’s funny how some stories stay with you: I had this class mate in high school who used to say that any musician who has some respect for his art has to go to Berlin. He had obviously been reading something about David Bowie and Lou Reed. We were only 14 years old at the time and I still remembered that when I was 25, and I still do to this day. Naturally there was no trace of that underground scene. But then, I would not have discovered it even if I had lived in Berlin in the 1970s. I am the kind of person who needs to feel safe, I’m not the one to be wild. I enjoy the legends but I would watch the wild things from a distance.

 

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Sketch for the film “Unfair World”

Did you feel that the city is friendly and welcoming?

Very much so, and I believe it still is. As for me, I came from a society where everyone is observing everybody else and is critical of each other, to a city of absolute tolerance.

 

Did this affect your decision to stay here?

There was no decision to take, because there was never a plan to return to Greece full time. What was important for me was to be able to make a living as a film director. This is not feasible in Greece, one has to do all sorts of other jobs in order to survive and then manage to maybe make a film every ten years. But I did not wish to do any other job. That is why I left; In order to study and make film making my profession.

 

Your most recent film, «Unfair World», tells the story of a man with a strong personal sense of justice. He is a very nice guy, unusually nice; some would even call him naive. And he is a cop. How did this character come to life?

He sort of came along in the course of writing the script for a police drama for the German television. Together with Dora Masklavanou, we were working on the story of a cleaning lady who accidentally cleans up the site of a murder. Along the way she bumps into this policeman, who falls in love with her. As we started working on his character it turned out that he is the one facing the tough dilemmas. So it came naturally that he ended up being the protagonist; OK, he’s also male like me, I guess that played a role.

 

Αδικος Κοσμος (5)

Sketch for the film “Unfair World”

But it was never made into a TV film?

No, the script was turned down. We sort of expected that because there are certain rules to writing for TV and that script did not abide by them. Nevertheless we decided we would make a movie.

 

You earlier mentioned the dilemmas that the male character, this cop by the name of Soritis, is facing. Would you explain what kind of dilemmas those were?

The central idea is that Sotiris makes the decision to start awarding justice; and he does so according to his personal code of ethics. He questions the people that are arrested and end up in front of him, and takes it upon himself to decide whether they are guilty or innocent. Regardless of the law.

 

Yet most of the time he decides that whoever is in front of him is innocent.

That’s right, he’s not the punishing, bitter kind. He is a man who has decided that his life is completely empty of kindness and beauty, and therefore the only thing that could make it meaningful is to save people who do not deserve to go to prison. Sotiris is a man who cannot stand injustice and dishonesty, he cannot live with lies and deception.

 

While «Unfair World» seems almost to be made by a different person than the one who made «Plato’s Academy», they do have something in common: this middle aged man who looks like he’s ready to give up on life. A lonely, sad, next door guy who’s good at nothing.

That’s right. Both of these guys are the products of a society of narrow horizons where immorality and low ambition are the norm and where individuals are discouraged, if not prevented, from seeking self-fulfillment. Both men have professions that they probably did not consciously choose, in the sense that they were not aware of all the options that should normally be open to them. Both live in lower middle class neighbourhoods in Athens. That’s about it as far as their similarities go. In what ways are they different, though? The protagonist of «Unfair World» is closer to the abyss, as I see it. He has lost hope in the world. He is a guy who can offer hope, but saves none of it for himself. Whereas Stavros, the kiosk owner in «Plato’s Academy» is a guy who could still be satisfied with less; he has not yet stared into the abyss.

 

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Sketch for the film “Unfair World”

With «Unfair World» you won the Best Director Award at the San Sebastian Festival, in 2011. What was the film’s reception by the audience?

It was a bigger success among Greeks than in other countries. I guess it is somehow more clear to them, they could relate to this unfair world onscreen: I have thought that maybe it has to do with the absence of strong morals and honesty in our society.

 

The cinematography brings to mind the paintings by Edward Hopper. Was this a conscious choice?

Yes, I wanted the loneliness and sadness of the characters to stand out inside a familiar, everyday setting. And that is what happens in the paintings of Edward Hopper.

 

Are there film makers to whose oeuvre you keep returning to?

I like those who have managed to create their own universe and every time you see one of their films you enter this personal artistic universe of theirs. Federico Fellini is one of them, John Cassavetes is another one and Aki Kaurismäki, definitely. The stories they tell are not taking place in the world as we know it, not in the real world, neither in the world of all other movies – no, they are taking place in a world of their own creation which we have come to recognise as their own. And I guess that is what each filmmaker aspires to do – to create a his or her own universe where houses look a certain way, people talk in a certain manner etc.

 

Why do you enjoy movies that use a realistic setting less? What are they lacking?

Maybe it has to do with the fact that I generally like to able to distance myself from what I am watching or reading. Or, to be more precise, to be able to step in and out of them. Realism tends to suck you in, while I like to be able to take one step back. That’s how comedy works, for instance. And that’s one reason I like the genre so much.

 

Christos Stergioglou and Antonis Kafetzopoulos in "Unfair World"

Christos Stergioglou and Antonis Kafetzopoulos in “Unfair World”

 

Judging by what you have done so far, when working on a story with the option to make a film, what is it that you are always looking for?

Even though I am not sure it is a rule, I would still say that I am looking for a character who’s experiencing a strong internal conflict. Let me give you a very simple example; Let’s say you have an extremely shy guy who wants to flirt with the girl he’s in love with. How does he try to overcome it? What does he do? This sort of thing interests me. I am moved by the story of a person who prevents himself from getting what he wants. My heroes are like that.

 

When you read a novel, do you catch yourself imagining what it would be like to turn it into a script for a movie?

No, never. Unless of course the novel takes me by complete surprise because it suddenly offers itself as such a perfect idea for a film. But in general when I read fiction I get completely sucked into the story and buy into anything, I believe everything.

 

Can you recall the last time that a story you read really took you by surprise, so much so that you actually thought it would make a very good film?

I don’t remember the title but it was a story by Georges Simenon. The most seductive thing about film making is that you aspire to do something other than tell a story, you aspire to say the unsayable. In that sense cinema is closer to music. Claude Sautet is a film maker who does that – his films are about seemingly ordinary love affairs, or stories about unrequited love, but there’s always something else to them –  something that is never being said, yet you feel it. The story by Simenon that I am talking about was that kind of story. I’ll have to get back to you with the title.

 

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Sketch for the film “Unfair World”

Are you the kind of film maker you doesn’t miss a new film?

On the contrary, I only watch older films. I believe that very few good films were made after the late 1970s.

 

And why would that be?

Because simple stories were marginalised. And the same is true of aesthetic pursuit. I am a believer in what Godard has said – that you only need a girl and a gun in order to tell a story. You one need very few things. Because when you work with less, you are able to concentrate on what runs under the story, on the unsayable. At some point mainstream cinema turned towards what is seen as «catchy» stories. And as time went by this tendency was driven to extremes. This obsession with creating something special or extraordinary does not interest me at all.

 

You have been working for many years for German television, as a director for crime series. What is it that you find so attractive about crime stories?

What makes this job very satisfying, is that it feels so good to serve this genre, to always try to become better at it, to outdo yourself. How many times will you show the crime scene? Twenty times? You have to do twenty scenes with a cop arriving on a crime scene and not one must be like the last one you did. There is a deep satisfaction in trying to do the same thing in a different way, to teach yourself new things all the time.

 

Do you read crime stories?

Only those written by Georges Simenon and Patricia Highsmith. I’m not that interested in crime stories where the plot is all about finding out who is the murderer.

 

Film Still from "Unfair World"

Film Still from “Unfair World”

 

Your wife, Eva Stefani, is an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Do you talk about each other’s work?  Do you ever find that your work bears influences from hers?

It’s inevitable that we spend a lot of time talking about our respective projects. As far as I am concerned, Eva is always the first person to read a script and comment on it. I can count on her being very open and honest in her opinion. And as a matter of fact I have realised that our work has a lot in common. She is attracted by characters who are moving near the margins of society, or people who you would not look twice if you passed by them on the street. The same is true for the characters in my film.

 

Are you working on a new film right now? Would you share the plotline?

I am working on two films, actually. But I will tell you about the one that’s already far ahead. The protagonist is a journalist who is on the brink of collapse, in almost every sense of the word. He has lost his job, it’s been a long time since he last paid his rent and he is striving to avoid being thrown out into the street. On top of that, he has to find something to eat every day. And all the while he demands, in an almost militant manner, that people treat him not with pity, but as an equal. In other words he is trying with all his might to keep his self respect intact. This means that he is not willing to steal or to cheat, or that he will do simple kind gestures of kindness and generosity like give up his seat on the bus.

But how does he manage to get his daily meals? Well, he comes up with the idea of crashing receptions for all sorts of events –the kind of receptions to which he was once invited to. One day he sums up his courage and sneaks in. Casting guilty glances around, because he feels ashamed of himself, he approaches the food and fills up his plate. There he meets a group of people who have also shown up uninvited. But they have no need for a free meal, they have jobs, money, home and families. They simply do this as a hobby, for the fun of it; they’re simply vulgar. When the protagonist talks to them about self respect they mock him. There is a conflict among them, but eventually he crosses over to their side. This is so easy to happen. Until one day he organises a robbery…

 

It’s a crime story after all?

No, it’s a comedy. Our protagonist plans the robbery of the Goethe Institute in Athens.

 

One cannot help to think that this is connected to the crisis.

It’s not something we could avoid. But there’s no mention of the crisis in the story.

 

Filippos Tsitos during filming of "Unfair World"

Filippos Tsitos during filming of “Unfair World”

 

Do your German friends ever ask you to explain to them what is happening in Greece?

During the first years, yes, they would ask me all the time. They wanted to know everything about the situation in Greece. And I so much wanted to explain, that I would translate article after article from the Greek press and pass it around. At some point, though, I realised that there was no reason to do that anymore. People live in a capsule, anyway. At first they were curious as to how we bankrupted the country. Then they got bored and stopped inquiring about it. They don’t really care about what’s going on Greece. And why should they?

 

While growing up in Athens did you watch a lot of movies? Was your love of cinema something you discovered early on?

Not at all. I was not encouraged to involve myself with the arts. My dad had never read a book. My mother knew her piano and her French, but in general nobody ever tried to excite my curiosity about art. I discovered cinema as a student in the university, where I enrolled in order to get my parents off my back and have some peace. Since I was in the university they would stop asking me what I was going to do with my life. So even though I had no interest in studying Finance, I did so and luckily stumbled upon the school’s film club. We would watch old movies and talk about them. It was a revelation, I suddenly knew what I loved to do.

 

Is there a film out there that you are terribly jealous of? That you would have liked to be the one to have directed it?

8 ½ by Federico Fellini. I know it by heart, I know every little thing about it. I even know the scenes that he left out and threw the material away. There is documentary, La Ultima Sequenza, where they try to find out what the hell happened and why he suddenly got rid of so much material. He had filmed the final scene.

 

If a friend asked you to recommend one film, or one book about Berlin what would that be?

I wouldn’t give them any film or book; I’d give them a bicycle to ride through the streets of the city.

 

 

Interview by Katerina Oikonomakou, July 2014BerlinInterviewslogo