DiamantisTedTed Diamantis is a 1st generation Greek-American Born in Chicago. His father was the principal of one of the largest Greek schools in Chicago for over 40 yrs and had Greek radio programs for over 55 yrs ( the oldest continuous running Greek radio program in the US at the time ). His mother was also a Greek school teacher and on air personality on the radio programs with his father. He graduated from Northern Illinois University, with Degrees in Economics and Political Science. In his first steps of his business career he worked for Allstate Insurance Commercial Division and later on for Gallagher Basset/ AJ Gallagher. In 1992 he launched Diamonds importers and since then he imports Greek wines to the United States with an ever-growing success.

In this interview* Ted Diamantis is telling his formidable story of how he started and gradually expanded a fabulous Greek wine import company in the US, about his business tactics, the obstacles he faced, the persons that gave him a hand or inspired him to become the big importer of Greek wines that he is today, his plans, vision and all about imports of Greek wines to America for the last 25 years. Ted Diamantis explains how the perception about the Greek wine is considerably improving in the US and how stronger marketing is still needed for the Greek wine to further penetrate the vast American market especially in the off-premise sector.

He also explains which Greek wine varieties are prominent in the US and underlines that the ancient Greek varieties are the future. He makes clear that Greece cannot be a player in the high volume/low price world but should focus on producing high quality wines at approachable prices. Ted Diamantis believes that there are ways to reconnect the 2nd and 3rd generation Greek-Americans with Hellenism and believes that the Greek-American organizations have a decisive role to play on that.

He finally considers that bringing people closer to quality Greek agricultural products is of the utmost priority for the image and growth of Greece.

How did you get to the choice to import Greek wines?

After graduation from university and dipping my toe in the corporate world (insurance risk management) I decided to rediscover my roots and quit the corporate world in 1989/90. I traveled to Greece to see family that I had not seen for 12 years and more importantly, to me at the time, to discover/identify business opportunities in Europe because of the new thing called the European Union/Common market.I lived and based myself in Athens; I traveled through Europe to get a feel of this new consumer group which was to be the largest consumer market in world. I attempted to identify the needs of this new market.

I launched my entrepreneur life as an exporter from the USA and Canada to Europe/Greece. My first venture was in medical equipment and heavy construction machinery for the new infrastructure projects that were pending for Greece and financed by Delors packages. My experiences in this world was less than fruitful since at the time 99% of healthcare was run by governmental agencies and layers of ineffective bureaucracy. A simple thing of introducing an electronic thermometer proved to be herculean task because of the graft and bureaucracy at the time. During this educational process I was undertaking ( I was only 26 yrs old at the time ) I met a young visionary in the wine world named George Skouras. This was totally fateful and began my foray in the wine world! Skouras was a young winemaker / entrepreneur at the time as well, and he sold me on the idea of wine as a way of life, and the potential of the Greek varieties, the land and the people of Greece.

Over the next year, George slowly convinced me to start importing his newly created labels (Skouras himself started in 1986 with the ground breaking wine, Megas Oenos). So in 1991/92 I returned to the USA and launched Diamond Importers as an importer/distributor in the Chicago market.

This was an aggressive undertaking because of many reasons.

1. the process of federal and local licensing 2. Incorporating 3. creating an infrastructure 4. no money

So I asked the most obvious person, my father, for a loan of $10,000 to start this new venture, which he gave me but with a lot of advice attached with this loan.

First, his advice on working with Greeks was that I have to possess a certain mentality that is not innate to non-native Greeks. It's a skill set that needed to be learned, because growing up in the United States, we tend to be a bit less cagey and sometimes do not understand the nuances of dealing with a classic Greek business person. Secondly, he told me, don't expect Greeks in the US to help you just because of your Greek origins or because of my father's position in the community. I would need to be persistent and patient if I wanted to have success. Apart from the warnings from my father and what I soon came to realize on my own, Greek wines were generally not accepted at the time and Greece was not considered a country with quality wine production. The wines were pigeon-holed in the Greek ethnic world only. Additionally, Greek wines were stigmatized by the American consumer, from their experiences of consuming Retsina and inexpensive, less than adequate wines being offered in Greek restaurants in and around Chicago and the rest of the US (Chicago was the second largest Greek community in the US).

Not paying heed to my father’s advice and being a stubborn, determined Greek, I went head first into the wine world with zero experience and no guidance except a dream and a belief in the opportunity, because no one was talking about Greek wines in 1992/93. I quickly realized that I could not depend on the ethnic market to support or understand the new artisanal wines. The wines that Skouras was producing (please bear in mind that this was a new thing in Greece as well) were focused on quality and not as price sensitive commodity, I then came to the realization that I would have to go to the mainstream market and abandon the Greek restaurants, until they themselves evolved.

This made absolute sense once I thought about it. The Greek restauranteurs were not in the mindset, position or able to sell quality Greek wines to their customers. Additionally, they generally dealt with the old school Greek importers, which were old standing relationships. This made it difficult to enter the market, and on top of it all, they were not great at paying their bills in a timely fashion, if at all. Understanding this and learning very quickly that the mainstream market was much larger than the myopic ethnic market, which every mom and pop ethnic Greek food and wine importer were trying to feed on, I pivoted to trying to get non-Greeks to drink Greek wines and offer them in their stores and restaurants.

This proved to be monumental task. The lack of knowledge on the part of the American wine drinker about Greek wines, the lack of marketing of Greek wines by the Greek state, the lack of quality wines available, and the prevailing image of Greek wines created massive obstacles. In hindsight, it is absolutely true that sometimes when you don't know all the challenges, you’re much more inclined to take chances. To take on this challenge, I knew I had to educate myself on wine. I took wine courses, I worked harvest for Skouras for 3 seasons and eventually, I strategically started working for highly respected Illinois distributor Heritage Wine Cellars in order to learn the business. I was lucky that a sage veteran of the wine industry, the late Gerald Hirsch, took me under his wing in 1995 to “teach me the business.” This is when I truly started to understand and learn what it takes to build wine brands and create a new category of wine.

For the next 12 years, I worked as a salesperson and then as a key account specialist, selling, learning and becoming exposed to some of the great wine producers from around the world. During this same time period, I was developing my company and marketing my Greek producers (at the time: Skouras, Antonopoulos, Chateau Carras) with the encouragement of the ownership of Heritage and guidance of wine producers from the US and around the world that I was working with as a Heritage employee.

This afforded me the opportunity to move slowly but carefully in identifying potential markets and meeting distributors across the US. Most importantly, acquiring knowledge and information in turn helped Skouras and my other producers hone their craft. This was done by supplying them insight and information that other Greek producers didn’t have access to at the time, such as trends, labeling, consumer profiling, price points, marketing strategies, farming techniques, winemaking techniques..etc. These are some of things that Skouras and a few others grasped on to in order to help themselves fast track their success in their early years.

Flash forward, Diamond Wine Importers has evolved into a full-time job and company. We have carefully and painfully developed a distributor network in 47 states. Since I was around at the birth of the renaissance of wine making in Greece, I was fortunate to work with, I believe, the pioneers of the modern Greek wine industry. I have curated the portfolio to represent the original “disruptors" of the Greek wine world. These individuals, such as Skouras, Sigalas on Santorini, Alpha Estate in Amydeon, or Douloufakis in Crete, to name a few, are the type of visionaries that we work with.

Ted Diamantis: “What makes Greek wine unique it’s about the ecosystem of Greece, its coastal Mediterranean climate, coupled with more extreme mountain climatic conditions as well. The soil profiles are varied and contain many trace minerals. The proximity to the seas also allows for favorable maritime climatic conditions to occur and of course, its wide array of ancient indigenous varieties adds to the rich tapestry of the Greek wine landscape”.

DiamantisTed2How competitive is the Greek wine in the US? What should be done to further boost its competitiveness?

Today, because of the heavy lifting of building a base of understanding of the Greek varieties and regions which has been done by individuals and companies like my own, Greek wines are very competitive when given an opportunity in terms of quality. Even though there has been an evolution of wine production in Greece, the USA still proves to be a challenge. USA is the most competitive market in world-therefore to penetrate and establish a wine or wine region requires many factors.

1. Price quality ratio 2. Proper labeling so the US consumer can read and remember 3. Education of the consumer of the region and what makes it special – differentiation 4. Engaged distributor partners 5. Constant reinforcement of the above mentioned points 6. Branding of Greece and stick to the overarching brand of Greece, which currently doesn’t exist.

Today Greece only exports approximately 400,000 9L cases of wine to the USA, which is a remarkably small quantity, compared to the size of the entire US wine market. For example, a single California or Spanish label sells as much as our entire country. We lag behind Israel in total case exports and Portugal (dry wines). While this can be considered disappointing by some, especially some individuals that may have been involved in the effort for over 25 yrs, I consider it an opportunity for growth.

The nominal value per case has grown considerably, which means we are replacing the inferior inexpensive wines with higher quality wines. The acceptance of Greece as a quality wine producing country has changed, and now wine professionals deem Greece as one of the great wine producing cultures on the globe. Consumers are starting to seek Greek wines and have a positive opinion, compared to the negative opinion when I started my crusade.

Much more still needs to be done. We have not scratched the surface in the efforts to attract the everyday wine drinker…Greece is still exotic to them and this is mostly due to lack of information and awareness. We have some very positive, measurable success in the on premise trade (restaurants), but we are horribly behind in the off-premise sector (retail stores). This is very important because 78% of all cases are sold in retail and 55% of all dollars spent on wine is in retail. For example, as a category Greek wines are approximately 85% on premise and 15% off-premise. With a lot of hard work and a lot of emphasis by our salesforce and distributors, we as Diamond are at 65% on and 35% off. That is why we as a company are seeing more growth, as our long-term goal is to be 50/50.

As we see it, there is a finite amount of Greek wines that a non-ethnic restaurant can or would represent on their wine list. This sector has become much more competitive in the last 6 years, with the entry of more Greek wine labels and more importers entering the market. Therefore, to go fishing where the fish are at (the retail world), Greece needs more help via marketing to communicate its message to the consumer directly, to create pull.

Importers and distributors can create push, but consumer pull is needed to convince the retail that if they create a Greek section in their store, the products will sell and sell with velocity, generating repeat customers. As a country we have to create awareness, and there are many different and contemporary ways of accomplishing this that Greece is not doing!

What Greek wine varieties are the most popular in the US? Would you think that more Greek wine varieties can make it to the US?

The wines and varieties that are leading the charge at this time are mostly white wines. I believe this has happened because Greece has high quality white wines and for the American consumer, the white varieties of Greece are easier and more familiar flavor profiles to grasp. High acidity, minerality, tropical or citrus fruit profiles on the palate.

Of the Greek whites that are leading the charge, Assyrtiko from Santorini is the breakout champion over the last 8 years, and now Assyrtiko from other parts of Greece is  getting some attention because of Santorini. Moscofilero is still prominent and I think it will have a new resurgence. I believe that Vidiano from Crete will be a popular variety because it produces wines that have more richness, and that age extremely well (Vidiano is still an unknown in Greece, but so was Assyrtiko 10 yrs ago). There are also the non-indigenous varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, and blends of native and non-indigenous varieties, that are working well in the market.

In regards to reds, they are on the rise as well, with xinomavro getting the most attention right now, but Aghiogirtiko and Liatiko have a bright future as well as Mavrotragano.

Overall, it is the ancient Greek varieties that are the future of Greece. In recent years, because we have better understanding of our indigenous historical varieties and are using proper farming and vinification techniques,  has resulted in producing better wines with identity that are not homogenous. This will eventually create a consumer group that will stay loyal and captive to Greek wines for generations, or until the other wine regions around the world start planting our varieties.

What’s special with the wines of Greece that would make a real difference between other wine producing nations?

What makes Greece unique from other wine regions? First, it’s about the ecosystem of Greece. It's a coastal Mediterranean climate, therefore temperate but coupled with more extreme mountain climatic conditions (Greece is the third most mountainous country in Europe) as well. The soil profiles are varied and contain many trace minerals. The proximity to the seas also allows for favorable maritime climatic conditions to occur and of course, its wide array of ancient indigenous varieties adds to the rich tapestry of the Greek wine landscape. Therefore, we have diversity and complexity in a very small geographic footprint. This affords Greece the ability to make wines that have great expression of the fruit characteristics, elegance and high natural acidity. While all this seems great, Greek vintners tend to struggle with their identity and potential position in the US market.

In my opinion, Greece can never be a player in the high volume/low price world of wine production because of these aforementioned factors. We cannot achieve economy of scale because of the lack of supporting infrastructure such as glass production. Also, our geographic position (southern and eastern most country of Europe) isolates us and makes shipping of bottles and corks, capsules, machinery, etc. more expensive than Western Europe. What we can do as a country is produce high quality wines at approachable prices for the US consumer. Actually the fastest growing segment in the US wine market are wines that retail between $12- $22 per bottle. Greece is uniquely equipped to be a strong player in this segment. Overall our wines tend to deliver at these prices, but we must stay vigilant to keep these price points, because at these prices consumers will take a chance on an unknown wine, like a Greek wine. Of course, there are many factors when it comes to pricing such as currency exchange rates, grape scarcity and wine demand.

Please tell us about the role of Greek-American organizations in promoting Greek businesses and supporting Greek issues.

While the financial crisis of Greece over the last 10 years has been a horrible experience for Greeks in Greece, it has led to some positive outcomes. One of these results was the galvanization of groups within the Greek diaspora to help Greece via lobbying and/or direct engagement. This is best illustrated with the creation of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC). HALC was a new type of organization led by professionals and patriots with a true agenda of activism and full engagement with the American political system, local and national, and the Greek political world. They also created a forum for discussion and involvement, which has absolutely helped to create networks and bridges within the Greek American community and Jewish- American communities. For example, co-lobbying on energy and security issues has really helped Greece in Washington DC.

HALC has directly and indirectly helped Greece and Greek products. It has achieved this by getting young Greek- Americans involved and exposed to the process of lobbying and activism, creating awareness of the geopolitical issues that have an impact on the eastern Mediterranean and have ramifications to US policy as well. In terms of helping Greek products, it has helped elevate the image and educate new Greek-American consumers, who in most cases do not have direct contact with Greece, since most are now two to three generations removed.  What I believe is that it is not only hard diplomacy that wins the political and diplomatic battles, it at times can also be soft diplomacy, winning of "hearts and minds” that helps carry the day. The old adage that “all advertising is good advertising” has held some credence for Greece. Americans, who are less informed on certain topics, suddenly heard about Greece and! its issues. At times they became curious and very many became empathetic to the plight, therefore creating a potentially sympathetic image for Greece and hopefully some curiosity for all things Greek. By creating positive imaging of Greek products and Greek people (especially during the height of the refugee crisis) we eventually created a positive emotional connection for 2nd and 3 + generation Greeks and non-Greeks. Wine and tourism can be, and are some of these soft tools that can and should be used to achieve this goal. HALC has made great strides in perpetuating and encouraging this belief. The best ambassadors for Greece and Greek products are the highly educated, over achieving young Greek-American Diaspora. If Greece is to remain vibrant and relative, and if the Greek language is to survive, bringing people closer to quality Greek agricultural products is fundamental. After all, we eat and drink every day. Just visiting Mykonos or going to the ancestral village onc! e a decade won’t achieve this…pride in all things Greek, won’t help creating jobs and industries in Greece.

*Interview by Efthymis Aravantinos, Press Counselor at the Embassy of Greece to the USA

 

RCabral Março 2015

Ricardo Cabral is assistant professor of Economics, former Vice President, and former Economics and Management Department Head of the University of Madeira, Portugal. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of South Carolina.

His research interests include the euro crisis, banking, EMU architecture and governance, and sovereign debt restructuring. He has published several articles and policy papers. He has participated as a speaker in more than 50 conferences and authored or co-authored more than 500 opinion and analysis pieces in national newspapers such as Público and online platforms such as VoxEU.org and eu.boell.org.

He is the co-author of two different proposals to restructure Portugal’s debt, one of which as a member of a Government-nominated Working Group on the sustainability of Portugal’s debt. He has appeared before the ECON Committee of the European Parliament and before the COFMA Committee of the Portuguese Parliament.

Cabral talks to Greek News Agenda*about the post memorandum era for Greece stressing that the Eurozone adjustment programs were quite destructive to debtor economies like Greece’s and Portugal’s, because their objective was to make sure that these countries could service their debts in the short and medium term, regardless of whether the debt was sustainable and or could ever be fully repaid. Further on, Cabral elaborates on the necessary measures for the enforcement/ deepening of monetary and economic union. He also comments that the recent and current Eurozone reform agreements, not only regarding migration, but particularly regarding economic and financial issues, signal a heightened level of distrust between member states and if Eurozone policy makers “stay the course”, as they seem intent on doing, the Eurozone is bound to experience a crisis unprecedented in the developed world.

The recent European agreement on migration was a minimal compromise which could hardly conceal the profound discord between the 28 EU member states. What is your view on this agreement and what does it mean for the EU?

It is difficult to address this complex topic in a few words, a topic that is really outside my field of expertise. It is illegal to refuse entry to war refugees, which many of these migrants are.

But the theory and the laws clash with the will of many of the peoples of Europe who have little sympathy or understanding for the horrors experienced by many of these migrants and who are perceived by many as a threat.

The problem in Europe is aggravated by the architecture of the European Union. Most political negotiations are zero sum, in the sense that for one country to benefit, all other countries must bear the costs.

Given this, I am not surprised about the disappointing agreement over migration achieved by the European Council.

migration

Greece, after the historic Eurogroup agreement which foresees the conclusion of the assistance programmes and guarantees a “clear exit” to the markets, is preparing for its post memorandum era. Could Greece become a success story, following the Portuguese example? Can Portugal serve as a role model for post-memorandum Greece?

The short answer is no. Neither Greece nor Portugal will become success stories in the medium and long term. However, in the short term the economic situation can improve markedly, particularly in Greece’s case, if the ECB expands the Quantitative Easing programme to also buy Greece’s public debt, though this seems unlikely.

Portugal and Greece are both economies condemned to ‘debtors’ prison” by Eurozone authorities. Note that the end of ‘debtors’ prison” was a significant and positive civilizational development (the writer Charles Dickens was no doubt inspired by the ‘debtors’ imprisonment of his own father).

The Eurozone adjustment programmes were very destructive to debtor economies like Greece’s and Portugal’s. Their objective was to make sure that these countries could service their debts in the short and medium term, regardless of whether the debt was sustainable and of whether their debt could ever be fully repaid, i.e., the proverbial “kick the can down the road”.

The adjustment programmes could have failed. Their “relative” success was strongly aided by favorable external conditions, namely the fall in the price of oil, the devaluation of the euro vis à vis the dollar, the more expansionary course of the US economy, the willingness of China to lower its current account surplus through expansionary domestic policies, and the low interest rate environment.

In sum, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and to a less extent Greece, have been able to massively improve their current account, because the rest of the World was willing to run larger trade and current account deficits.

When the current account deficits return, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy will face difficulties again. Moreover, the austerity measures adopted have reduced the growth potential of these economies particularly in the long run, namely due to the large emigration of young professionals and the high levels of youth unemployment, which have negative quasi-permanent effects on growth potential.

ECB

Europe is facing a series of challenges that relate to the common currency architecture as well as its own structural weaknesses and shortcomings. Which measures do you deem necessary for the deepening of monetary and economic union?

The key Eurozone reform occurred in the second half of 2012 with the launch of the Outright Monetary Transactions programme (OMT), whereby the ECB announced it was ready to buy unlimited amounts of a member state public debt. Unfortunately, the OMT was defined as a programme with strict conditionality to be controlled by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

Separately, the quantitative easing programme of the ECB since 2015, particularly the Public Sector Purchase Programme, contributed to a marked improvement in the Eurozone macroeconomic conditions and to bring about a stark reduction in the financing costs of member country governments, with a permanent effect that represented several points of GDP.

Nonetheless, these were among the few reforms since 2010 that contributed to an improvement of the resilience of the Eurozone architecture.

All other main reforms that occurred in the Eurozone since 2010 have had a stated rationale that significantly diverges from their main effects. Thus, one could argue that the stated rationale differs from the true objectives of the reforms. Public policies always have different objectives and effects. The issue is what is the dominating objective and effect.

In my view, the main reforms that were enacted in the Eurozone since 2010 aimed to:

(1) close loopholes so as to prevent financing of government deficits, fiscal transfers, or “stealth bailouts” (e.g., Banking Union);

(2) force debtor member states to service their debt in the short- and medium-term, i.e., put these economies in a sort of debtors’ prison (e.g., Fiscal Stability Treaty and the “adjustment” programmes); and

(3) to prevent debtor member states from a potential “debtors’ prisonbreak”, that is prepare for the eventual disintegration of the Eurozone and otherwise to prevent debtor member states from unilaterally restructuring their sovereign debts or from exiting the euro (e.g., creation of the European Stability Mechanism, the introduction of “euro-CACs”, the recently approved new powers for the ESM, the sovereign debt restructuring mechanism, the proposed harmonization of insolvency laws, the proposed reforms to TARGET2, banking sector risk weights for member state sovereign debt, etc.).

Though there are positive features to all of these reforms (e.g., the lower interest rates on ESM loans), in the whole, these reforms weakened the resilience of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).

A separate question is what reforms are necessary if the Eurozone is to survive and thrive, which, given the format of this interview, it is not possible to fully address here.

In short, I believe, the EMU architecture is flawed and dysfunctional. The EMU can only properly operate if all member states run on average current accounts roughly balanced or in surplus.

To become sustainable the Eurozone needs much larger open-ended fiscal transfers between member countries, particularly in the form of automatic fiscal stabilizers.

These could be based on a new Eurozone (or EU) federal budget with its own fiscal revenues, for example based on a minimum alternative tax for both personal and corporate income taxes. Other possibilities include taxes on income obtained from residents of one member state in another member state or contributions based on member state current account surpluses.

A new Federal Treasury (a potential successor to the ESM) should issue the Eurozone (or EU) federal debt in the markets. This Eurozone federal debt should not be mutualized. This way, if the Eurozone was dissolved, the federal debt would not be repaid.

The Eurozone should run a small recurring deficit at the Federal level, which would increase its spending capacity without direct costs to member state budgets.

The Eurozone budget spending should target foremost fiscal transfers to member states as well as a common Eurozone investment programme.

euro

Can Europe make a fresh start based on a real monetary and economic union, when member states turn against each other, as the migration crisis management proved?

It is difficult to believe in a new beginning in the present. But a new beginning is always possible through political will and vision.

In my view the recent and current Eurozone reform agreements, not only regarding migration, but particularly regarding economic and financial issues, signal a heightened level of distrust between member states. It is as if, in the technocratic details of innocuous sounding accords, member states were already preparing for the disintegration of the Eurozone and for economic conflict between member states.

Is Europe going through an identity crisis?

The European Union and particularly the Eurozone is confronting again its original sin and its dystopian objectives. Its policy makers have wanted to create a single economic and monetary union, a Federal Union, without fiscal transfers.

This is an impossible political objective. Every single functioning economic and monetary union that we know of has large levels of fiscal transfers and significant fiscal stabilizers.

Otto von Bismarck once said “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”. The converse is that politics should not be the art of the impossible nor the art of the unattainable – ‘arts’ in fact that Eurozone policy makers of the last two decades have sought and imposed by sheer will power (‘Machtpolitik’). The decision to practice the policy of the impossible has had disastrous economic consequences and has caused unnecessary hardship to millions of Eurozone citizens.

If Eurozone policy makers “stay the course”, as they seem intent on doing, the Eurozone is bound to experience a crisis unprecedented in the developed world.

* Interview by Margarita Adamou, Head of Press and Communication Office, Embassy of Greece in Lisbon, Portugal.

F.K.

Massalas

Growing up with MTV, film maker Christos Massalas dreamt of a careless adulthood full of wild summers. Too bad it never came to be. It seldom does. So, he constructed his own exotic colony. It’s called “Copa Loca”.

Christos Massalas was born in Greece in 1986. He studied Film Theory at Kingston University, London and Filmmaking at the London Film School, LFS. His short filmsFlowers and Bottoms” (2016), “Bon Bon” (2013), “Woman with the Plastic flower” (2012) and  “Make-Up” (2011), have received multiple awards and have screened at film festivals around the world, including Cannes, New Directors/New Films, AFI Fest, Guanajuato, BFI, Nouveau Cinéma and many more. He was selected as one of 15 most promising directors from around the world at the 69th Locarno Film Festival, 2016. His latest short film “Copa-Loca” (2017) was nominated for the European Film Award, received the Greek Academy Award and has qualified for the Oscars, 2019. He is currently developing “Broadway”, his debut feature-length project, which was selected for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

Massalas talked to Greek News Agenda* about “Copa Loca”, an abandoned Greek summer resort - a place where memories of wild summers disintegrate under the faint winter sun. Paulina is the girl at the heart of Copa-Loca. Everyone cares for her and she cares about everyone - in every possible way. Massalas explains that “Copa Loca” is a reverberation of his experiences rather than a comment. He clarifies that the term “Weird Wave” is not his cup of tea, as is the case with many of his peers. Finally, he stresses that the problem with film making in Greece is the problematic relationship between Greek films and Greek audiences, a distrust that has to be reversed.

copa poster1

You have studied film theory. Has your theoretical background influenced your work as a filmmaker?

First of all, I should say that I don’t think that studying film theory is a prerequisite to making films. Any kind of theoretical knowledge you gain goes into your practice and it’s valuable, but, in reality, talent grows in places which the intellect can’t quite grasp. That’s why perhaps it’s always more difficult to assess why we feel a certain film or work of art is really good, while it’s easier to deconstruct something that we feel doesn’t quite work.

As a filmmaker, you need to gain fluency through practice rather than theory. And you need a lot of practice. Theory is a different story, and you may want to go there or maybe not; that’s how I see it, at least.

In some cases, theory helps you organize your thinking and reveals possible underlying meanings and patterns – and that’s all useful, as long as it doesn’t cancel your capacity to see certain things for what they are, here and now. So, I guess that, through film theory, I’ve become more aware of how certain things are perceived and about visual semiotics and certain frameworks of criticism. And for sure, I have probably inherited certain patterns of thinking.

But I have to say that even in University, I was bit of a rebel in the sense that I wasn’t following the textbook. In one instance, I remember that I had written an essay on “How Green Was my Valley” by John Ford; I hadn’t used any bibliography, I just wrote down my thoughts and I was quite happy about it - it was more of a poetic account than a theoretical evaluation, really. And then, one of my teachers read it and called me in the office to inquire about my references on the piece, because he thought it was quite interesting, but there were no citations. “I just wrote it”, I replied. He was furious – and I got a D.

copa1

"Copa Loca",  (2017)

The film format and photography have the visual effect of an old Polaroid. In Copa Loca nostalgia meets decadence in the form of an anthropological documentary. Is it a commentary on contemporary Greece?

I would say that “Copa-Loca” is a portrait film. A portrait of a young woman and, at the same time, a portrait of a place; or perhaps the cinematic equivalent of a landscape painting; but a landscape painting of a person - if a person were a landscape. “Copa-Loca” is an abandoned summer resort; a ‘tropicalist’ colony in an industrial zone. It’s a wonderland that has fallen apart, revealing a rusty skeleton underneath the colorful surfaces.

There are various ways to look at the film and the relationship between character and setting. But there’s also an underlying idea that after a disaster there’s immeasurable grief but there’s also a possibility to reinvent things, to re-orientate. And there’s always a delay in the process of adapting. First the weather changes andthen your body has to adapt to it, it’s not possible the other way around, even if you can foresee what’s coming. And in this delay, there’s always a sense of absurdity – caught in ambivalence, between the old ways and the new circumstances. So, I wouldn’t use the term ‘commentary’ for the film. Perhaps, I would say that it’s more of a reverberation of my experiences on different levels.

I sense influences by the Weird Wave in your film. Am I wrong? How do you feel about the Greek Weird Wave?

I’m not quite sure what the term ‘weird wave’ means. I assume it is meant to suggest a canon of films with a common, inherent aversion toward ‘normative’ attitudes. By definition there’s a fallacy there, in the sense that by including such films in a canon you make them part of a norm. And this problem has affected both the way in which these films are perceived abroad but also the way in which filmmakers in Greece have been forced to accept this canonical evaluation of their work.

So if we’re talking about individual films of the period rather than a canon then I can tell you that there are films that I like and films that I don’t like. There are films that I relate to and films that leave me cold. And my appreciation of a film can change with time. And surely, some of these individual films have influenced me in ways, even if I’m not fully aware of it.

copafoinikes

"Copa Loca",  (2017)

What is the function of music in your film?

There are three musical axes in the film, which operate parallel to each other – the one fades out, the other comes in and so forth. The first axis, the ‘tropical’ one, is made up of samba rhythms and for this I used street recordings of percussion improvisations that I found. These pieces, blended together, create the ambience of Copa-Loca. The music comes and goes and its source is never revealed, like a ‘ghost’ track performed by the indigenous players, who (never) lived there.

The second axis is where an electro/trance theme comes in. This is where Σtella came in and wrote an original piece, which is the dance theme of Paulina, the main character of the film. We discussed a lot about the mood of the piece, listening to 90s club/trance tunes. This piece corresponds to, what once was, the nightlife of Copa-Loca.

The third axis is one that comes from the outside, from beyond Copa-Loca; it is a song which accompanies the character of Paulina’s mother (played by Jenny Hiloudaki). The character arrives like a blast from the past – and so does the music. The song is ‘Tosa Kalokairia’ written by Mimis Plessas and Lefteris Papadopoulos, performed by Dakis in 1967. It is a Greek nostalgic summer ballad with acoustic instruments and full string orchestra. It was featured in a popular musical comedy of the time (“Gorgones kai Magkes” by Dalianidis). It’s a song written exactly 50 years before “Copa-Loca” and, interestingly enough, it came out just around the time when the political system in Greece collapsed and the dictatorship took over.

So each ‘axis’, each piece of music has an almost narrative purpose in the film; but I don’t expect that spectators will make such specific associations. The music works on its own terms, beyond this semiology and it carries its unique atmosphere.

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"Copa Loca",  (2017)

How would you describe your experience as a filmmaker in Greece?

It’s not easy to make films in Greece, and because it’s not easy you get a real kick out of it when you actually manage to make a film; italways feels like a little feat. And the excitement comes hand in hand with a lot of work; I guess that’s not just a Greek thing. When you make films you have to be prepared to work your socks off and the result may not always be what you expect it to be. So it’s constant risk-taking.

But the cultural landscape of Greece right now is so rich and paradoxical that you can see art flourishing in all kinds of disciplines. The added difficulty with cinema is that cinema is a very costly endeavor and requires a wide audience - it’s a feedback system. And particularly for the latter, when it comes to feature films, there’s still a problematic relationship between the films that are made in Greece and Greek audience. And the problem goes both ways, as if there’s mutual distrust. So for me, that’s really the important discussion right now, how this distrust can be reversed.

You are about to make your first feature film. Would you like to say a few things about it?

The title of the project is “Broadway”. It is the story of a group of street performers and pickpockets in contemporary Athens. It’s a thriller, at times it’s a comedy, there’s a lot of dance in it, a lot of sequins and feathers and characters as rich as the Athenian landscape.

I started thinking about this script a couple of years ago and this last January I developed it further at the Sundance Lab in Utah. There’s still some time ahead to find all the necessary resources to make it happen, but I guess we’re on a good track.

COPA-LOCA (trailer, 2017) on Vimeo.

* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi

Read also: “Copa-Loca” video interview for Academie des Cesar, interview on “CopaLoca”, Clermont Ferrand Short Film Festival, interview on “CL” with Yellow Bread Shorts

raptop1Vangelis Raptopoulos is one of Greece’s most notable contemporary writers of fiction. He published his first book, a short story collection, to wide acclaim at twenty years of age, and has since been a steady presence in Greek letters, with over twenty-five books. He mainly writes novels and short stories, but has also published collections of essays and articles. With studies in pedagogy and journalism, Raptopoulos has also worked as a publisher’s reader and script reader, as well as a radio broadcaster, and has also been a regular contributor to many newspapers and magazines of wide circulation.

Raptopoulos has taught creative writing in various colleges and institutions; his novel The cicadas (1985) has been translated in English, and The Incredible Story of Pope Joan (2000) has been translated into Italian. His first two books have been adapted for television, while his 1993 novel The bachelor has been adapted into an award-winning film by acclaimed Greek director Nikos Panayotopoulos. Raptopoulos has become known for his personal style of writing, often creating a mixture of tragedy and comedy, deliberately verging on parody. This is particularly obvious in his latest novel, The man who burned down Greece, an alternative history book inspired by Greece’s financial crisis, which has already been praised as one of his best.

The book’s protagonist is Dimitris Apostolakis, whom the author himself describes as a “modern day Don Quixote from Greece”. Born with the rare gift of pyrokinesis, the hero often sets fires unintentionally, usually in stressful or unsettling situations; for him, it is a deeply soothing experience yet one with a frightful outcome. During the Greek financial crisis, Apostolakis loses his job and eventually abandons his family to go live on the streets.

Caught in a maelstrom of misery, resentment and, in the end, fury, the hero -who has now managed to master his own powers- decides to go on a mission, targeting buildings he views as symbols of capitalist injustice; he sets a number of destructive fires that trigger massive popular revolts in Athens and all major Greek cities, resulting in extensive damages and multiple deaths – including his own. Vangelis Raptopoulos spoke* to Greek News Agenda about his latest novel, his thoughts on contemporary Greek reality and fiction, and the symbolic theme of pyrokinesis.

Your book is written in epistolary form – where did this idea come from? In fact, it shares many common traits with Dracula, one of the most widely acclaimed novels of the horror genre, which is also directly referenced in your book: it predominantly consists of diary entries but also letters (e-mails), newspaper clippings, messages, transcripts, etc. Was Dracula a strong inspiration for you?

With regard to the novel’s form, or rather its structure, my initial inspiration came from the rather unknown in Greece psychological thriller What She Left, by first-time novelist T.R. Richmond. It is a contemporary epistolary novel, a patchwork of Facebook posts, forum comments, tweets, emails, text messages etc. This book further reminded me of another celebrated debut novel, this time by one of my favourite authors: Stephen King’s Carrie, which in turn seems inspired by Stoker’s Dracula – and not just with regard to its structure. Dracula, probably the most compelling novel I have ever read and one of horror fiction’s quintessential works (together with Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), manages to make a convincing case for one of speculative fiction’s most incredible subject matters, thanks in great part to its composite, fragmented structure. King uses a similar structure and technique to convince us of the existence of his telekinetic heroine, I use it to make my pyrokinetic hero’s existence convincing.

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Generally speaking, you do not attempt to mask your influences. Books, films, songs, mottos that are likely to spring to the one’s mind while reading your novel are often referenced by the characters. Do you intentionally use these direct allusions, as does Brian De Palma for example, famous for recreating scenes or plots from Hitchcock or Eisenstein in his films?

This choice is as deliberate as is anything resulting from one’s disposition or temperament. In other words, there are writers who are secretive and others who are very open when it comes to their sources of inspiration, but I guess no one gets to choose which will be his type. This streak in me was sharpened from one point onward, as I incorporated many pulp elements in my work in order to more profoundly express not just myself, but also our time. A time bereft of values, ideals and a slave to money; a time of which we cannot talk by means of the high art of the past, making it almost imperative that we approach it through popular genres, starting from crime and horror fiction all the way to pornography. These choices have put me in the line of fire of literary critics and the literary status quo, so I found it necessary to inform my readers about my influences and my intentions, which the critics either overlooked or were simply unaware of.

One the novel’s central themes is the growing number of homeless people in Greece, as well as their social status. In the hero’s first-person narration you include some very disturbing details about life on the streets. Where did you draw such detailed knowledge about the homeless’ living conditions?

Some of the homeless characters portrayed in the novel are based on news stories from the media, as I mention in my postface at the end of the book. Other details I drew from my own keen observations of the homeless in the centre of Athens, mainly between 2012 and 2014. Nonetheless, I would say that, as always, most of the work was done by my imagination. The same more or less happened with Loula (when readers consistently asked how I knew so much about female orgasm) and Lesbian (with questions this time focusing on my knowledge of homosexuality), just to mention two blatant examples. A novelist observes his surroundings and then imagines the rest, that’s how it always has been and always will. A novel in Greek is very aptly called mythistorima, combining the words “myth” and “history”: it is part invention, a tale, and part history, reality. As for the homeless, they constitute the crux not just of this novel, but also of the financial crisis. In a country where owner occupancy is still the rule (and where as a rule all institutions, save that of the family, are imported and impaired) there is no greater misfortune than to not have “a roof over one’s head”. Finally, I think that, if family wasn’t as important as it is in Greece, then the crisis wouldn’t have just increased the number of the homeless, it would have literally wiped us out.

In your postface you note that a major inspiration for your book was the (Greek) Left’s fixation with social revolt, as well as “the obsession of almost all of today’s Greeks with wanting to see the world burn”. Following the hero’s path into utter deprivation, the reader empathises with his eventual catastrophic outburst; can we assume that you partly justify his destructive urge – and, in particular, his desire for catharsis by fire? Or do you agree more with the fictional commentator's claims that no substantial change can come from destruction?

Surprisingly, I agree with both these views. After all, this is one of the privileges of writing a novel; it gives you the space to elaborate on opposing and contradictory opinions (something strictly forbidden in real life by threat of being labeled schizophrenic, at best). Our lives in this tiny corner of the globe can often become unbearable, unlivable actually, due to certain, apparently systemic, social defects and afflictions that plague us. Especially in these times, Greece can be surrealistically dysfunctional and wretched, whilst the prevalent unfairness, favouritism and apathy can often drive you to the end of your rope. So leveling everything to the ground may seem like the only solution and way to catharsis. On the other hand, I don’t believe there’s anyone in Greece who believes that this would actually change anything and bring deliverance. If you just think about it, my novel falls into the genre of political fiction or alternative history, and yet it chronicles an imaginary, invented uprising, after which everything falls back to normal, as if nothing had happened; this is quite original. In novels of this category the hero travels back in time to, say, kill Hitler’s parents and spare the world of WWII. In my novel, we pant and gasp all over again, like Sisyphus, rolling the same boulder up the hill, no matter what or how much we’ve tried to change our fate. As if we are doomed to perpetually bear our burdens, whether we fight back individually and collectively or not.

raptop collage2Before embarking on his ultimate arson spree, the hero, Apostolakis, gets a shave and haircut and takes a long hot shower, bringing to mind the Spartan custom before battle. Regardless of the final outcome of his rebellious mission, do you think of Apostolakis more as a fighter, like the anarchist organisations view him, or as a madman, as his own daughter describes him? Or, possibly, as a part of you which you are struggling to leave behind, as does Apostolakis’ widow, who wavers between her guilt of betrayal and her desire for a new life?

Once again, I think that he is in fact all of those things. And above all, I believe my hero is still a part of me that I myself have mocked, scoffed and scorned as much as I could. However, if I had to choose just one answer, the version I would point to would be that of a comic yet tragic hero, a noble madman, a naive rebel, a romantic radical. Dimitris Apostolakis is a modern-day, Greek-born, Don Quixote, like any self-respecting hero in a novel since the genre itself was introduced by Cervantes. Just as the other two heroes, his wife, Lena Apostolaki, and their friend, Giorgos Theodoridis, can’t help but exemplify a dual, two-headed, Sancho Panza. Maybe this is inevitable and there is no other possibility for human existence. Not to mention that, in fact, each of us incorporates both sides, Don Quixote and Panza, otherwise we are not humans, but monsters.

Mourning is another pivotal theme in the novel; the hero mourns for his parents as well as for his victims, while his own loss (made known to the reader early in the book) is mourned by his loved ones. In your postface you claim that what triggered the idea for this story was the loss of your father. You also say that pyrokinesis is the ideal metaphor for the process of writing; does this have to do with a book’s ability to spark thoughts like flames, or rather with writing as a soothing energy discharge that relieves one’s pain, reminiscent of the alleviating effect that the fire-starting occurrences have on the hero’s psychology?

It is true that mourning is a pivotal theme in the novel (although this could sound misleading since this isn’t an elegiac novel but rather a black comedy); especially mourning, one could even say, for the absence of a massive uprising, a reaction against the crisis that has crushed us all these years. And, of course, mourning for the human losses caused by the crisis. As for the writing metaphor, I believe that almost all paranormal abilities are ideal for this purpose. Especially telekinesis, since the writer essentially controls the heroes with his mind, and we have the feeling that this psychic power has been invented just to express the creativeness of storytelling. The same is more or less true for pyrokinesis, and other such paranormal powers as well. I refer to the fact that these powers are obviously fictional (as are literary heroes and their actions) as well as the fact that the creator, like a small god with supernatural powers, controls his brainchildren like a puppeteer. What’s good about metaphors is that they are open to countless interpretations which are all legitimate. For instance, I had never thought of “a book’s ability to spark thoughts like flames”, as you said, but it really befits pyrokinesis as a metaphor for writing. And, of course, this is even truer for your other suggestion, i.e., what better way to describe writing and creativeness in general than as a “soothing energy discharge that relieves one’s pain”? What’s even better, however, is that any other interpretation you think of for a metaphor is also true. In other words, welcome to the infinite, perpetually expanding, and thus ever uncharted realm of metaphors and their interpretations that compose and comprise the unchildlike game that is fiction.

In your novel you reference Stephen King, especially in relation to his book Firestarter, however by the end there are strong allusions to Carrie: we empathise with the tormented hero (like the bullied and domestically abused Carrie) using psychic powers to wreak havoc upon the just and the unjust, which eventually leads to his own demise. However, the story ends with the ominous revelation that those same powers have manifested in someone else. Is this a warning: “As long as injustice prevails, there may well be another fierce reaction”?

It is obviously a warning on the eternal perpetuation of events, on the endless rebirth of the notion of rebellion against authority. And, above all, it is another turn of the screw in the black comedy that is my book, as are our lives. It is also a sticking out of the tongue in front of a mirror, against even my own self, a taunting, sarcastic sticking out of the tongue by the subconscious, irrational part of me against the sensible, Apollonian, logical and reasonable part of me. This latter part of me, of each of us maybe, is the part that thinks of the future reappearance of those pyrokinetic powers in the population as something ominous. On the contrary, our fiendish, Dionysian and rebellious part is absolutely delighted at the prospect, since this would actually be its own resurfacing from the dark vaults of the subconscious. So the end of the novel tries to warn rational readers and citizens that they shouldn’t rest assured, evil lurks, sneaks and creeps, ready to rise again from its ashes like a phoenix, at any time.

raptop2Photo: Argyris Giaitzoglou

Having just released an epistolary novel, your next project is a publication of your written correspondence with your mentor and close friend, celebrated writer Menis Koumandareas (1931-2014). How long did this correspondence last? What can the readers learn about both of you through this volume, and what insights would you wish them to gather from it?

My correspondence with Menis Koumandareas began in 1979, before I even published my first book, and continued until 2001, the time of the publication of my eleventh book, the short novel Black wedding. Yet, most of it comes from a period of barely over a year - 1981, when I lived in Sweden. The book’s title will be Confession and tutelage - because this is exactly what we did through those letters; in fact this was a mutual confession (although his reached deeper, due to his age and experience) and a mutual tutelage (because, even though I was the novice, the apprentice, Menis possessed the rare gift of not being patronising, and of constantly trying to learn, even from a beginner like me). In addition to a preface, written by me, the book will also feature an essay by Antigone Vlavianou, an academic who, by good fortune, was also a friend of Menis. Readers will know more about Menis through this book, since at the time he was one of our most prominent prose writers in his prime. As for myself, I think it’s obvious in the correspondence that I was already resolved on following the literary path I eventually took; or, to put it differently, that even when taking his first steps, a prose writer is more or less already shaped. However, what I really hope the readers will get from this publication is a feeling that its first two readers -my wife, Stavroula Papaspyrou, and Antigone Vlavianou- told me they got: they were moved by this 400-page volume, now under publication, because, apart from its literary value, it never ceases to be a deeply emotional book, bringing a male friendship to life.

You have also recently released a reprint of your book A bit of Modern Greek Literature History, featuring 39 interviews and essays on 82 contemporary Greek writers -from established figures such as Andreas Frangias and Thanasis Valtinos, to representatives of the younger generation, such as Vangelis Hatziyannidis, Angela Dimitrakaki and Sophia Nikolaidou- published between 1985-2005. Revisiting those texts now, with the benefit of hindsight, what is your assessment of that period’s literary output? Do you subscribe to the often-repeated belief that Greek fiction is overshadowed by Greek poetry, taking into account the latter’s broader international recognition thanks to our two Nobel Prize winners in Literature?

Fiction in Greece is no longer overshadowed by poetry. Not because contemporary poetry is inferior to that of the past, but because it has been marginalised in our unpoetic times. Especially lyric poetry, which had brought both local and international fame to our literary production in the recent past. I explicitly express these thoughts in an essay on the death of Odysseas Elytis, featured in this volume. The problem with prose produced in our times is that readers and good literature seem to have divorced: On the one hand, readers have developed a consumerist approach, and only look for escapist fiction of no real value, which in Greece means either historical novels or romances, whilst on the other, novelists of a certain calibre often flounder between experimental writing exercises and obsolete viewpoints or choice of subject. The result is that important works of fiction do not reach their natural readership, since readers are faced daily with piles of books that are trivial or just pointless. The last essay of my book bears the ambiguous title “The royal path”. When I began publishing my works some fourty years ago, the writer revered by the literary world of the time was Kostas Tachtsis, who had published only a few books, while the prolific Vassilis Vassilikos, who remains one of our most translated writers, was sneered at. My colleagues praised the first for his aristocratic approach to writing, and dismissed the latter as perfunctory. As things stand, it is obvious that life followed the path of the latter, hence the wordplay (vassilikos means royal in Greek); Tachtsis as a paradigm seems to be definitely a thing of the past.

*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi (Opening photo by Katerina Raptopoulou)

Read also on Reading Greece: Thanasis Valtinos, A Highlander at the Academy of Athens; Vangelis Hatziyannidis: "Writing for an opera was like a puzzle I really enjoyed"; Angela Dimitrakaki on Subjectivity in Global Landscapes; Sophia Nikolaidou on the Representation of Greece’s Political Past in Contemporary Literature

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Gregory Paschalidis is Professor of Cultural Studies and Director of the English-taught Master of Arts in Digital Media, Communication and Journalism at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.  Τhe School of Journalism and Mass Communications of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, established in 1991 offers a full-time, four-year long BA degree program as well as a Master's programme in Journalism and in Mass Communications. In 2015 the Univesristy established the English language Master’s program in the areas of Journalism and Communications, the first of its kind among Greek public Universities. The MA offers three pathways: ‘Digital Media, Culture and Communication’; ‘European Journalism’ and ‘Risk Communication and Crisis Journalism’.

Professor Paschalidis spoke to Greek News Agenda* on the course's structure, aims, professional and research prospects, on why study journalism in Greece and specifically in Thessaloniki, the dynamic created by the course's international students and finally, he offers his take on how social media have shaped nation branding and cultural policy.

What was the idea behind establishing an English-taught MA in Digital Media, Communication and Journalism in Thessaloniki, Greece? Why would a foreign student choose to study media and journalism in Greece?

In the late 1990s, our School organised an undergraduate English-taught course package for the benefit of the incoming Erasmus students. This proved hugely successful, and, before long, we had 25-30 students from all over Europe studying at our School every year. Many of them expressed their wish to continue their studies at our School on a graduate level and this is what originally gave us the idea of organizing an English-taught MA. In 2011, when the law regarding higher education allowed Greek Universities to set up graduate programs in the English language, we decided to go ahead. During the planning stage we investigated thoroughly and idenitified which graduate specializations would give us a edge in the highly competitive and diversified field of graduate studies across Europe. Subsequently, extra care was given to preparing all aspects of the MA programme (structure, course contents, website, student services, etc) taking into account the best international practices. The success of our MA program in attracting high-calibre students from abroad was largely due to those two factors: offering innovative graduate specializations and having an up-to-date model of graduate studies and services that makes sense and can be appreciated by foreign students. According to the regular student evaluations, another crucial factor of the program’s appeal is the high cost/quality ratio, in other words, a highly satisfactory academic experience for a relatively very low cost. Last but not least, Thessaloniki as a vibrant, low-cost, youth-friendly city certainly has its own significant contribution to our success so far!

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What has been your experience after three years since the establishment of the MA programme? Which countries do foreign students come from? Where are your graduates employed?

Perhaps the most intriguing experience I had in these three years was the way the Greek students (there are quite a few) are inflenced by their interaction with the foreign students, by the fact that they participate in an internationally oriented programme. They have a discipline and a work ethic that is quite rare to see amongst Greek graduate students, and they quickly develop a visibly more dialogic and cosmopolitan attitude. They are literally transformed! As regards our student intake, most of the applicants come from non-EU countries, mainly USA, Turkey, Russia, India and China. Most of the EU applicants, on the other hand, come from N. European countries. Most of our graduates are employed in the fields of journalism, digital communications/marketing, non-profit organizations and NGOs. Many, however, are already employed and take a year off to upgrade their skills and competencies.

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The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki is a leading university in South Europe. Has the School of Journalism and Mass Communications established parternships with other universities in the region and / or throughout Europe and internationally?

Our School has placed a priority in developing international partnerships. We have Erasmus contracts with a wide range of Jourmalism and/or Communications Shools abroad, and are active in the European Journalism Teaching Association. The presence of a sizeable cohort of foreign students – both on undergraduate and postgraduate level – the regular presence of Visiting Professors from abroad, as well as the international Summer School in Global Journalism we organize with the cooperation Deutsche Welle, provides us with live, active bridges with the international academic and professional community.

What are the areas of research the School of Journalism and Mass Communications focuses on?

Just as any other Journalism/Communications School in the world, our School is highly multi-disciplinary and that reflects not only on our teaching programmes, but also on the variety of our research interests and projects. Amongst them special mention should be made to data journalism, journalistic cultures, fake news, media/cultural consumption, popular television, narrative journalism, photojournalism, documentary, advertising history, health communication, science journalism, public campaigns, peace journalism etc.

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One of the three pathways offered in the MA is “Digital Media, Culture and Communication” and your research interests include cultural and visual studies and cultural policy. Do you believe that the predominance of social/digital media has made it more difficult to implement concise ‘nation branding’ and cultural policies?

There’s a lot to be said about the impact of social/digital media on nation branding and cultural policy, but I will limit myself to just two recent developments: Most nation branding campaings, nowdays, involve some sort of crowdsourcing and/or web-facilitated public vote! What used to be the marketing specialists’ domain, has largely moved into the public sphere. At the same time, there is no form or level of cultural policy that has not been fundamentally upset by the radical changes in the areas of cultural creativity, distribution, communication and participation instigated by the rise of social/digital media. In an era when rearticulation of the relationhsip between society/culture/communication, cultural policy-making needs to reivent itself.

See also:

  • "New Trends in Media and Journalism: Disinformation, Verification of News and Constructive Journalism in a Changing World" is the theme of the second edition of the International Media Summer Academy, organised by the School of Journalism and Mass Communications of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki (13-20 July 2018)

*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi

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Social Hackers Academy is a non-profit organization based in Athens, whose mission is to provide refugees and other socially vulnerable groups with comprehensive software engineering skills and to assist them with finding work. Sister publication GrèceHebdo met with the Social Hackers Academy founders to learn more about this different kind of school that has just completed its first “academic year”.

Tell us a bit about Social Hackers Academy. What was the idea behind its foundation? How easy was its implementation?

Million of refugees arrive everyday in Greece and unfortunately our country's infrastructure cannot fully support their integration inτο our reality. Thus, several NGOs are focusing their operations on covering their basic needs, but other needs such as education, or guiding them through job research process are not adequately coverd.

And this is the gap that Social Hackers Academy wants to fill: to educate, help integrate and find employment for people from vulnerable groups, including refugees, long-term unemployed citizens and people with disabilities. Our co-founders, Damianos Vavanos and Chris Owen are passionate about social impact and software programming, so they decided to combine those two and create the first coding school for refugees in Greece.

The implementation of our idea was not that difficult, since there is a growing need for good programmers in the job market worldwide. Our expertise and solid knowledge in the software development field helped us build partnerships with tech companies in order to achieve our mission and expand our operations.

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Why a school for refugees & other social vulnerable groups?

Our main target audience is refugees, as Greece currently hosts approximately 50,000 refugees, 70% of whom will remain here. We were feeling so frustrated with the deadlock they are facing, so we thought of creating a school that would help them in a more sustainable way, by educating and helping them unlock their true potential, so that they can rebuild their lives.

We also do not like the fact that there are 100,000 Greek STEM graduates who can not find a job, and we believe that this is due to our educational system’s insufficiency in adequately preparing students for the job market. We want to fill this gap by offering training forskills that companies today need.  Through technology and programming, we can create a hub in Greece where big companies can open branches that will operate for as long as developers need it. This trend is recorded in many surveys and it is estimated that by 2020 the world market will need 20 million developers.


How easy is it for vulnerable groups and refugees to learn about education programs in Social Hackers Academy?

Well it is not that easy. It’s hard to take a person who is still suffering from trauma and “convince” them that a different life is possible. They also hear that the economic situation here is not the best and so everybody just wants to leave the country.

One of our initial mistakes was that we were pitching our beneficiaries by saying that we’ll train you in software engineering for 6.5 months and then we’ll get you a job. That was a disaster as we got people who were in need of work at that very moment and didn’t have the time to wait for 6.5 months. To support our students we provide a integrated program by offering Life Coaching, LinkedIn Coaching and Soft Skills courses and trying to cater to each person’s unique needs.

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How does Social Hackers Academy operate on a daily basis? Which are the impressions and outcomes of the first round of web-development sessions?

Following the successful example of similar educational projects abroad (Hack Your Future - The Netherlands, Gaza Sky Geeks - Palestine), we deliver a comprehensive education programme in software engineering, including courses as Full Stack Web Development, Wordpress (front end web development) and Computer Literacy (basic skills). Our key differentiating point is our employment-focused approach and comprehensive support for each student’s unique needs. Our holistic services include: LinkedIn, business, and job interview coaching; soft skills seminars; study groups/tutoring; access to ethical micro-loans from Pythea’s Path.

Courses are provided free of charge at BIOS Romantso Incubator in Athens and range in length from 2 weeks to 6.5 months. We provide students with laptops for the duration of the course so that they them to study and complete assignments. The lessons are taught by volunteer professional developers, not teachers, so that they can better acclimate the students to the “real world”. Courses start every 2-3 months and we expect to start 5 cycles next year. The duration of the courses is five and a half months and another one month for the final project.

The first course has begun in September 2017, with students from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was our pilot and we expected to make many mistakes and face major challenges. This effort was greatly helped by our partners in the Netherlands, Hack Your Future, as well as a network of similar schools in Great Britain and Denmark.

Do other initiatives, similar to yours, take place abroad?

Similar initiatives to SHA are also running abroad due to worldwide lack in tech education and efforts in the integration of social vulnerable groups. Thus, we are part of a six-countries network of schools who share knowledge, curriculums and teaching methodology, with one goal: to educate, develop and enable people to find placement in the job market and provide value for themselves and their host nations.

Read more via Greek News Agenda: Teaching refugees in Greece how to codeJune 2018 Newsletter on the refugee-migrant situation in GreeceRethinking Greece: Lina Venturas on Greek migration, population movements and integration policies for refugeesHealth care and children’s education are Greece's priorities for refugeesOnline language classes for asylum seekers on Lesvos

*Interview by: Maria Oksouzoglou

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MihaylovacollageZdravka Mihaylova is an accomplished and prolific translator of Greek literature into Bulgarian. She was born in Sofia and is a graduate of the Sofia University School of Journalism and Mass Media. She has worked as a journalist for the Bulgarian State Radio and the Bulgarian News Agency (BTA). Since 1994 she has been working at the Greece & Cyprus desk of the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while continuing to write articles on Greek literature and cultural heritage. She has, to date, had three postings at the Embassy of Bulgaria in Athens (1995–1998, 2002–2005, 2009–2013).

As is a literary translator from Greek and Bulgarian, she has translated 45 books of contemporary Greek writers as well as some books from Bulgarian. In 2010, she received Greece’s State Translation Award for the translation of a work of modern Greek literature into a foreign language, for her anthology of poems by Yannis Ritsos «Η Γραφή του Παντόπτη» (Stigmati Publishers, Sofia: 2009). Zdravka Mihaylova spoke* to Greek News Agenda on literary translation as a platform of communication between cultures and peoples.

How known is Greek literature in Bulgaria?

Looking back at the reception of Greek literature in Bulgaria, one could say that in the 18th and 19th centuries highly educated Bulgarians used the Greek language as a conduit for communicating with European culture. This is the reason that not only ancient Greek classical writers and philosophers have been published in Bulgarian in repeated editions, but there is a significant and sustained tradition of translating modern Greek literature.

Works of Greek prose were translated abundantly, particularly in the period 1960–1990, but also in the new market conditions after 1989. Along with the quartet of Greek poets known by every well-educated Bulgarian reader – Cavafy, Seferis, Ritsos and Elytis – Nikos Kazantzakis is the most well-known, translated, widely read and best-selling Greek author, with more than a million copies printed.

Kazantzakis’ oeuvre in Bulgarian language is inextricably linked with Georgi Koufov (1923–2003), a devoted translator and a connoisseur of the author’s work. Koufov’s output includes also translations of works by Kostas Varnalis, Emmanouil Roïdis, Dido Sotiriou, Dimitris Hatzis, Stratis Doukas, Maria Iordanidou, Menelaos Loudemis, and many others.

BulgarianCollageBulgarian readers are also familiar with classical works of Greek literature, such as Stratis Myrivilis’ Life in the Tomb, Grigorios Xenopoulos’ Rich and Poor, Ioannis Kondylakis’ Patouchas, Andreas Karkavitsas’ Words from the Prow, in several translations. In 1963, on the hundredth anniversary of Cavafy’s birth, a collection of translated poems by the great poet was published in Bulgarian by the largest – at the time – national publishing house Narodna Kultura, which had a great impact on the Bulgarian public.

How would you assess the interest for translations of modern Greek literature today?

During the last years there has been a steady interest in all Balkan literature, including Greek. After 1989, and following a brief switch of readers’ attention to banned-until-then works by Western writers, interest in modern Greek literature has been reinvigorated. Since 2000, many Greek writers and poets have appeared in Bulgarian translations: Ioanna Karystiani, Dimitris Kalokyris, Margarita Karapanou, Rea Galanaki, Thanassis Valtinos, Takis Theodoropoulos, Zyranna Zateli, Ismini Kapandai, Elena Houzouri, Dimosthenis Kourtovik, Kostas Kalfopoulos, Thomas Skassis, Yannis Varveris, Michalis Ganas, Takis Sinopoulos, Nikos Karouzos, Haris Vlavianos. There also playwrights, whose work has been translated and featured either as separate publications, or in literary journals or who have appeared as guest lecturers in Modern Greek Studies departments. These include Pavlos Matesis, Dimitris Kechaidis, Vassilis Ziogas, Marios Pontikas, Loula Anagnostaki.

How do you think literary translations affect communication between peoples?

We must acknowledge the great value of literary translation in facilitating acquaintance and communication between different cultures and peoples, especially in the Balkans. Communication between the Balkan peoples is still difficult, mainly because of the language barrier, which prevents us from realizing the existence of a common, fundamental Balkan civilization among all the peoples of the peninsula. Indeed, the peoples of the region have little knowledge of the peculiarities of their neighbors or their literary landscape. The channels of cultural communication between them had, until fairly recently, usually passed through the major European centers of art and creativity, such as Paris, London, Moscow or Berlin. For a work to be translated into one of the Balkan languages, it had to have already received the imprimatur of critics or to have attracted the public’s interest in one of the major European languages. Direct translation from Greek to Bulgarian, and vice versa, has sought to symbolically remove this communication barrier and constitutes a first-rank cultural event. In view of the prevailing domination of the major languages, literary communication between the so-called "weak languages of limited dissemination" is a palpable manifestation of the significance, autonomy and cultural specificity of the "small" or less spoken languages ​​of Europe that deserve to be supported.

Finally, since we are talking about the importance of literature and literary translation in fostering communication and acquaintance between different cultures and peoples, how well-known, or maybe not, is Bulgarian literature in Greece?

The relation between Bulgarian titles translated into Greek and Greek literature, whether ancient or modern, available in Bulgarian, is somewhat unbalanced. Many more Greek authors have been translated into Bulgarian than the other way around.  Classic Bulgarian novels like The Peach Thief, Anti-Christ, The Legend of Prince by the renowned-abroad writer Emiliyan Stanev have not been available in Greek since the 1980s. One of the iconic works of Bulgarian literature, written by its patriarch Ivan Vazov - Under the Yoke - would grab the interest of anyone interested in historical novels, with its exceptional writing and suspenseful plot. It is out of print too, as is the novel Tobacco by Dimitar Dimov, which refers to a complicated period in the history of Bulgarian-Greek relations: the Bulgarian occupation of Eastern Macedonia and the Greek part of Thrace (1941–1944).

More recently, I recommend a more contemporary Bulgarian author – Vera Mutafchieva – more readily available in Greek editions. Her books directly relate to Greece and its history: to ancient Greece, to the glory of Byzantium and to Ottoman intrigues. Bay Ganio, a venerable text satirizing an uncouth, nouveau-riche Bulgarian character during the era shortly after the Bulgarian liberation from Ottoman rule, who tours Europe trying to sell his rose oil, or embarks on political intrigues while in Bulgaria, will soon be translated by Vaïtsa Hani-Moÿsidou.

Greek collage 2Poems by the Bulgarian poet Kiril Kadiiski are available in a discrete edition. I have presented many others, both poets and prose writers, at literary festivals – for example, Todor Todorov, a short story writer, and  poet Nadezhda Radulova at the ‘Logotehniki Skini’ Festival in Kalamaria (2013); the poets Sylvia Choleva, Patricia Nikolova, and Yordan Eftimov at the Transbalkan Poetry Festival under the aegis of the Thessaloniki International Book Fair; Ivan Theofilov, Sylvia Choleva, and Palmi Ranchev at the Rhodes International Writers’ and Translators’ Center; and five Bulgarian poets at the Prespeia Festival (2000). Very recently, Georgi Gospodinov (born 1968), one of the most talented and translated modern Bulgarian writers, was introduced to the Greek readership with his last novel, which had already appeared in English as The Physics of Sorrow (2015).

Well aware of the importance of organizing events that bridge our two cultures, the Museum of Byzantine Culture and the General Consulate of Bulgaria in Thessaloniki co-hosted, in December 2017, a double book presentation of a Greek and a Bulgarian title respectively: the classic collection Balkan Legends and Myths by Yordan Yovkov (2016) and The Death of the Knight Celano and other stories by Thessaloniki-born Theofano Kaloyanni, published in Bulgarian in 2013. The two books, though very different, have Balkan myths and legends as a “common denominator”.

Finally, it would be an omission not to mention, with well-earned respect, the contribution of such profoundly knowledgeable translators of modern Bulgarian literature into Greek as Panos Stathoyannis, Dimitris Allos, Hristos Hartomatsidis, Vaïtsa Hani-Moÿsidou and others.

* Interview by Evgenia Kampaki, Press Officer at the Embassy of Greece in Bulgaria, on behalf of Greek News Agenda

N.M.

YiannoudesSozos Yiannoudes (Cyprus, 1946) is a graduate of the School of Fine Arts. From 1972-2004 he taught fresco painting and portable icons technique in the Athens School of fine Art. In 2004 the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew honored him with the title of Grand Master for the 10 years of missionary service in Korea. He has worked in Greece, Cyprus, Korea and England. In his interview with Greek News Agenda* he talks about his experience as an iconography teacher in Korea. The initiative of these workshops was taken by His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan Ambrose (Zographos) of Korea who,in addition to his service, is also full professor at the newly established Department of Greek Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea.

How did you decide to come to teach iconography in Korea?

It was in 1994 when former Metropolitan of Korea, and current Metropolitan of Pisidia (Turkey), Mr. Sotirios Trambas, invited me to paint the Metropolis of St. Nicholas in Seoul. I always wanted to go on a mission trip and so I accepted his invitation. Since then I have painted around ten churches in all of South Korea.For the implementation of this difficult project, I worked with a team of students from the Athens and Thessaloniki Schools of Fine Arts, various other collaborators and my children. We all worked on a volunteer basis.His Eminence the Metropolitan, strangled to find sponsors both in Greece and abroad to cover our travel and subsistence expenses. In exchange, we decorated the churches that the Metropolitan had so painstakingly built during the previous years. When the economic crisis hit Greece, sponsorships came to an abrupt halt. As a result, iconography in Korean churches stopped for a long period. Two years ago, I received a request from both the former and the new Metropolitan of Korea, Mr. Ambrose Zographos, to organize a one-month byzantine iconography workshop in Korea. We are now on our third year and the interest is great.

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Alternate Minister for Foreign Affairs George Katrougalos together with His Eminence the Metropolitan Ambrose on the steps of St. Nicholas church in Seoul

What is your impression of the Korean Orthodox community?

My experience from the Orthodox Community in South Korea has profoundly marked my life. The community has currently 6500 to 7000 adherents, many of whom used to be atheist, areligious, Buddhist, Protestants or belonged to other religions. Their love for our Orthodox Church has impressed me very much. There are worshipers who travel up to four hours just to come to the Sunday mass. They sing with devotion, they know the service, the psalms and the order of the canons. The majority has received formal music education and they contribute to the service in an effortless manner. Sometimes I feel awkwardly when I realise that they know so much more than I do. They love their community that revolves around the church, which they consider their refuge. The decisions are always taken collectively. They discuss things and together they reach a decision. When I first went to work there, they told me what kind of religious paintings they wanted me to paint. I had to follow the byzantine style of course, but, at the same time, take into account their tradition, their customs and their experiences. For instance, they feel fear when the eyes of the Saints look at them straight in the eye or when the scences are too densely painted. They also do not like colours when they are too bright. I respected all that. I also give my own intepretations. One would be that in the entrance of the Buddhist temples, there are the so called "protectors of the temple", four figures on the right and left of the entrance with fierce looking faces and protruded eyes. Also, the Buddhist temples are very densely painted with very bright colours. It is possible that the Orthodox Community does not want its churches to look like Buddhist temples.

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The Byzantine iconography workshop in St. Nicholas church in Seoul

What is the profile of your Korean students? What do they seem to appreciate the most in byzantine art?

The people who take part in the workshop belong to different religions and are eager to learn more about the interpretation and the symbolism of each icon. Many are Fine Arts graduates so they already know how to draw and how to use color and composition. Thus, they are able to quickly determine the subject-matter. Nevertheless, through the workshops they try to approach the symbolism, the style and the expression of the Byzantine icon and to appreciate its transcedental and rich content. My students are mostly Koreans. They are diligent, organised, meticulous, kind and they appoach what they do with great respect and love. Their love for the environment and nature is also remarkable. At this point, I would like to take the opportunity and talk about something that impressed me a lot. After the war, both South and North Korea were completely burned by Napalm bombs. Once a year, everything used to be closed by law so that the citizens could go and plant trees. This law was abolished almost twenty years ago but by now the country has been fully replanted from one end to the other. I wish our beautiful country would follow the example of Korea. I try to do so by planting trees inside and outside my house even though I have received not only positive but also negative comments about it.

What deeply impacts my students as they immerse themselves in the expressive richness of the icon, is the diversity and the explanation behind each brushstroke that is charged with symbolism. Once they understand the icon, my students get to love it so much that I feel they take something away from my own immense love for it. In order to appreciate the byzantine icon, they need to understand its philosophic interpretation: the illustration of any natural or perishable element is to be avoided; the illustration of a sainctified, transcedental face is very different from a common portrait or photograph; the rule of the two dimensional illustration with the abolition of dephth and perspective; the beauty of the illustrated face which is understood once we analyse the proportions and the inclination of the face (always in three-quarter view). Finally, the rich colour palette that is used for the dresses as well as the way a woolen dress is differenciated from a silk one are some of the various elements that highlight the unique artistic expression of the byzantine icon and raise many questions with my students.

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The byzantine iconography workshop. On the left, Ms Tatiana So talented iconographer who created the mosaic which decorates the entrance of St. Nicholas church

Have the workshops inspired your students to learn more about Greece and the Greek culture? 

Koreans know a lot about Greek civilisation and culture and want to come to Greece to see for themselves all the things they have read about or learned during the workshop. For instance, they are familiar with Manuel Panselinos, Theophanes the Cretan and Theophanes the Greek, the teacher of Andrei Rublev. They also express great love for the ancient civilization and a great interest for its continuation, the Byzantium. Many ask me to be their guide when they visit Greece. They are good-souled people, eager to enrich their knowledge of the Greek civilisation and tranfer it to their own country.

I would like to digress a moment to note that in the basement of the Metropolitical Church of Seoul there are a lot of plaster casts of ancient works of art (donated by Melina Mercouri when she was Culture Minister). They include works of Cycladic, Minoan, Archaic, Classic, Hellenistic, Roman and, of course, Byzantine art that is taught up to date. A result of that teaching is the decoration of the Metropolitan Church of St. Nicholas that was completed in three phases of 20 days each.

Are there similarities between byzantine iconography and Korean traditional painting?

There are indeed some similarities between the Byzantine and the very old Korean and Chineese art. An exemple would be the halo that we find in both Buddha and Jesus. Of course the halo is something that exists since the Hellenistic times, and it is to be found around the heads of Dionysus and Apollo (see the mosaic of the birth of Dionysus, in Paphos, Cyprus) and other Greek Gods. Other similarities would be the fine, clear line, the pastel coulours, the flat surfaces in the dresses and faces. Also, the casual placement of the figures on the surface, like a child who places all figures in the foreground. On the other hand, there are huge differences that have to do with the symbolism and the dogmatic interpretation of the two arts.

buddhis tand byzantine
A Korean Buddhist and a Byzantantine mural

*Interviewed by Lina Syriopoulou

 

KDFtitleKalamata International Dance Festival, the most important contemporary dance event in Greece, returns for its 24th edition in the city of Kalamata, in the picturesque region of Messinia. For ten days, on July 13-22, 2018, acclaimed Greek and international dancers will present their work to art lovers from around the world. The programme includes indoor and outdoor performances as well as workshops.

This year’s edition features performances by Greek and foreign internationally recognised dancers and choreographers, in performances that range from contemporary circus to street dance. For the first time, outdoor performances free of charge will also be taking place daily in the city’s central square. The programme also features workshops by dance masters (including one for children and one for people with disabilities), a photography exhibition and a Latin/jazz evening.

The Festival is an initiative of the International Dance Centre of Kalamata, established in 1995 as part of the Municipal Society for the Cultural Development of Kalamata. Its aim is to support and promote the art of dance and the organisation of the Festival has become one of its central purposes, helping it place the city on Europe's cultural map. The Festival’s artistic direction was assumed in 2017 by Linda Kapetanea, who was the one to introduce the outdoor dance performances.

KDFcollageLinda Kapetanea (photo: Mike Rafail)

Linda Kapetanea is a dancer and choreographer, with studies in Athens and New York. She performed with several dance companies in Greece and abroad, including the Flemish company Ultima Vez for three years. In 2006 she and Jozef Frucek formed the dance company RootlessRoot as a vehicle for their own productions, research and teaching. Together they have developed Fighting Monkey, a practice with applications in various fields such as dance/movement therapy, sports and art. We interviewed* Linda Kapetanea on her aspirations for this year’s edition of the Festival.

What did you have in mind when you put yourself forward as a candidate for the position of artistic director? Do you feel that the programme of the Festival’s 24th edition fulfills your vision?

I wanted to show the audience and young dancers my perception of contemporary dance. I have witnessed its power, and I wanted to share with others what I have seen and been touched by.

KDFCarluccio(Photo: Didier Carluccio)

I have the feeling that this year's Festival will leave a strong imprint on the city and on Greek cultural life. My vision stems from the ways young people learn how to move, dance and perceive life through the art of dance, as well as the ways in which the audience reflects on dance. I would like for the Festival -and not just this year’s edition- to function as a school for everyone, for both audience and dancers.

The Kalamata Dance Festival is an internationally acclaimed institution. How did you manage to successfully organise an event of this calibre, while also a practicing dancer and choreographer with the Rootless Root dance company?

The overall success of the event will be evaluated in the end. Thus far, we can talk of specific accomplishments. As far as my other endeavours are concerned, I think one can see that I engage in activities that stimulate and invigorate. This is the way I live. For now, I have sufficient stamina and, of course, excellent colleagues, wonderful friends and immense support from my family.

KDFEngelsman1(Photo: Saris & den Engelsman)

Is this experience as fulfilling as your more physical ventures as a dancer / choreographer? Did it open up new artistic perspectives?

There are many instances of stress and anxiety, a lot of work to be done and a great deal of communication with people who understand things very differently to the way that I do. All this has been a great source of knowledge.

A new initiative of yours has been the public outdoor performances: every afternoon, in the central square of Kalamata, a dancer or a group of dancers taking part in the Festival will be offering a free performance. How did you come up with this idea? Do you think that we lack initiatives of this type, bringing the general public in contact with contemporary dance?

I wanted to do something for those who consider dance boring and would not be willing to buy a ticket, as well as for those who would love to watch dance performances every day but could not afford to so. The central square of Kalamata is ideal for opening the city to the art of dance. I had experienced this practice as a dancer many times in various European cities and I really loved it.

KDFMartinez(Photo: Mario Arturo Martinez)

Do you already have some thoughts regarding the Festival’s future editions? Will it still be priority for you to attract young people?

I am drawing a plan as regards the style and character I would like next year’s edition to have. Yes, young people and children are among my priorities because I am concerned about the way in which the next generation of dancers and spectators will develop.

*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi

Read also via Greek News Agenda: Music Village Pelion: Mountain, sea and… music!; Kalamata International Dance Festival 2017; The art of dance at Michael Cacoyannis Foundation

 

tsilifonis

Remember MacGyver, the 80’s action series about an inventive guy who could make explosives with chewing gum? What would MacGyver do in the YouTube era? Film maker Dimitris Tsilifonis offers an answer to this critical issue in his film titled “Do it yourself”. “DIY” is an escape film about a small-time crook, Alkis, who agrees to star in a video that will be used to restore the public image of a corrupt businessman. When Alkis realizes that his accomplices are going to kill him, he only has a few hours to organize his DIY escape from the porn studio in which he is imprisoned, using his wit, digital skills and a toothbrush.

Dimitris Tsilifonis probably doesn’t know MacGyver. He was born in Athens, Greece in 1991. He is an American Film Institute fellow, holds a BA in Communication, and has worked extensively in the film industry. “Do it yourself” is his directorial debut feature. It received the Special Youth Jury Award at the 58th Thessaloniki IFF.

Tsilifonis talked to Greek News Agenda* about “Do it yourself” underlying his intention to mock the unrealistic expectations that pop-culture films build up expectation in the viewer. As “DIY” is an intertextual film full of references to other films and viral videos, Tsilifonis stresses that he makes no effort to hide his cinematic influences as a film director. The same goes for the characters in his film, who feel very wary of the situations they are in, comparing them to their favourite crime dramas. Tsilifonis concludes that through its mocking of cinematic conventions, “DIY” is exploring what is real in the “fake news “ era and tries in its own way to urge the audience to “Search for yourself”.

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Konstantinos Aspiotis, "Do it yourself" (2017)

What made you decide to do a Greek action film?

Well, I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as an action film, although there are action scenes in it –but I get your point. I wanted “DIY” to be a mainstream, yet entertaining cinematic experience. The whole film in a way mocks the unrealistic expectations that pop-culture films build up in viewers. I thought the tragic consequences of pretending to be “James-Bondish”-awesome, would be interesting grounds to explore. I mean, our biggest inspiration with our fight choreographer, Chris Radanov, were Jackie Chan and the Bridget Jones fight scenes. At every opportunity, we tried to infuse comedy into them. “The dudes, who don’t know how to fight, but are trying their best”, that was our motto. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iapVomK4eFA)

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Christos Loulis, Mirto Alikaki, "Do it yourself" (2017)

What are your cinematic influences and how did you incorporate them in your film, which as you have said, is a very personal project?

I was born in the ‘90s, so it’s obvious that pretty much all big innovations of the early 21st century had a very big impact on me. People are very skeptical of technology, and usually very negative towards the future. I wanted to make a movie that would highlight the potential that the Internet and its anonymity offer us, but also illustrate its flaws and dangers, if we are not careful about filtering content. As for my cinematic influences, I really tried not to hide them. “Breaking Bad” is by far the most obvious one, as well as Scorcese’s and Jason Reitman’s directing styles. I could literally write a book about all the scenes I stole from different movies I love. Some of my “incorporations” were very abstract and more thematic, whereas some others were taken verbatim from other films. A case in point is this masterful scene from The Sopranos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtR_1Ve-jKg panou

Themis Panou, Konstantinos Aspiotis, "Do it yourself" (2017)

How did you overcome budget limitations?

By planning. A LOT. Me and my Director of Photography, Angelos Papadopoulos, knew very well that time and money weren’t on our side, so creating detailed shot-lists as well as visual photoboards was the only way to achieve the shots and performances we hoped for.

Our preproduction lasted a bit more than 3 months, and it focused on specifying exactly what we would do each quarter of our 20 shooting days. I think at the end, 70% of our shot-list ended up making into the film, exactly as it was photographed. Finally, the script was written intentionally in a way that afforded us to save money on the majority of the movie, but allowed us to “splurge” on the bigger heavy-action set pieces.

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Makis Papadimitriou, Argiris Xafis, "Do it yourself" (2017)

The vast majority of the personae in “Do it yourself” love videogames, technology and refer to films or viral videos. Are these mostly characteristics of the millennials? What do you think is the influence of digital technologies in everyday life?

I feel it depends on how a person chooses to lead their life. For me, a big immersion breaker is when characters inside movies pretend they’ve never watched a movie before. Zombie/ Alien invasion films are usually the biggest perpetrators of this. So, I wanted my characters at least, to feel very wary of the situations they were in. They had sort of seen these circumstances play before in their favorite crime dramas. As for the influence of digital technologies in everyday life, I am not sure. I only have anecdotal evidence, but I feel there is a healthy majority of millennials, who aren’t necessarily involved with videogames and/or films. More and more people become tech savvy, millennials and older generations alike. I have to admit that it was a very pleasant surprise, when a lot of people in their 40s or even 50s approached me and told me how they spotted some of the most obscure references I had placed inside the film. So, yeah, I don’t think I have a good answer here.

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According to Collins dictionary, “fake news” was the word of the year 2017. “Do it yourself” is at heart a film about fake news. Would you like to comment?

Yeah! It’s funny cause I wrote the first draft in 2014, and even then, I felt it was a prevalent topic. We’ve yet to find a good way to combat fake news, and it doesn’t look like we’re near a solution. Critical thinking is the foremost important element we all need in our lives. In its own way that is what “DIY” is trying to urge the audience to do. Search. “Search for Yourself”. “Investigate for Yourself”. “Do It Yourself”.

What are your future plans?

Right now, I am developing a near-future science fiction VR film and working on my next screenplay. It’s hard to say, what’s going to come first, but I promise it will be worth the wait!

 

* Interview with Florentia Kiortsi

Read also: “Filming Greece”: our series of interviews on Greek Cinema.