“When tomatoes met Wagner” is a humorous and uplifting story of two ingenious Greek cousins and five village women who decide to make a new start. With a little help from Wagner’s music -that they blast in the fields- they cultivate an ancient tomato seed and hand-package it as tomato paste and meals. Soon, the little jars find their place on the shelves of organic stores across the world. The latest film by Marianna Economouwon the Iris award for best Documentary 2020 bytheHellenic Film Academy on April 14, 2020. Marianna Economou is a documentary film maker based in Athens, Greece. She studied anthropology, photojournalism and film production in London. She directs documentary series for Greek TV and creative documentaries of Greek production and co-production with European broadcasters such as the BBC, ARTE and YLE.
Her films have participated in many international festivals and have beenscreened by broadcasters globally. She has received awards for: “The School” (2001), “My Place in the Dance” (2006), “Please Listen to Me” (2008), “Bells, Threads And Miracles” (2009), “Twelve Neighbours” (2009), “Food for Love” (2013), “Fragments” (2018) and “The Longest Run” (2015), which was nominated for the European Film Academy Awards 2016. “When tomatoes met Wagner” (2019), premiered at the Berlinale 2019. It was the Greek selection for the Oscars 2020and has beenawarded atInternational and Greek Film Festivals (including the Fipresci Critics Award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, the Prix Bartok and Prix Monde en Regards at the Jean Rouch International Festival, the Audience Award at the Heartland Int Film Festival, the Arab Critics Awards for European films at the Cairo Film Festival, the People’s Choice Award, Houston Greek Film Festival). In her interview with Greek News Agenda* Economou elaborates on struggling agricultural communities and on the importance of reinventing oneself in difficult times.
“When Tomatoes met Wagner” (2019)
What drove you to making “When Tomatoes met Wagner”?
I wanted to make a documentary about farming communities andsmall villages that are struggling to survive in a world where industrialized agricultural food production is becoming the norm. This is a global problem, which has to do with the crisis in agriculture and the role of big corporations and international markets. I am afraid that local products will soon seize to exist and small communities will vanish from the map and I find this very worrying.
That was the springboard, I would say, for the making of this film.
However, when I met the people of Ilias village, more aspects of their existence opened up and it was made very clear to me that this film would not only be about the efforts of a small village to survive by cultivating a special tomato, but it would also be about their particular outlook onlife and the world. I got interested in their special personalities, the power of their relationship and their unique and unexpected way of doing things. From the very beginning, it became apparent that a paradox existed in Ilias village, in the plain of Thessaly; how in an introverted village of 33 inhabitants which is dying out, two men and five elderly women decide to open up to the world and meet the international food markets with their home made products. With no support from anywhere, the extraordinary thing is that they actually manage to sell their little jars all over the world, from America to Japan and all over Europe, with a little help from Columbus, Wagner and the local nymphs, of course! There was something real and surreal taking place in this small unimportant village which made me go back again and again for 6 years. There was also something deeply poetic and hopeful.
“When Tomatoes met Wagner” (2019)
Humor has a central place in the film. Was it a conscious choice or did it come naturally?
Whenever I come across humor, I go for it. Humor for me is one of the most attractive characteristics in people. So, yes, it was a conscious choice to include it, but I didn’t force it. It was part of their personalities. They laugh, they laugh a lot, which is again a paradox, because their everyday life is very harsh, very difficult. Whatever they do, they always find a funny side to it and they also tease each other a lot. In all my films, whenever I come across humor, I include it. I feel that it is a very liberating and decompressing element. It brings people together, it is therapeutic.
“When Tomatoes met Wagner” (2019)
Although women are usually the unsung heroes, you focus on them, giving hints of their life stories and listening to their thoughts and worries. Is that a way of exploring gender or your imprint as a female filmmaker?
I wouldn’t say my intention was to make a film on gender issues, it just happened the majority of the group to be women. I admire these women greatly. They are very grounded on the earth and inthe agricultural cycle. Their lives are predetermined from the day they are born and their role in the family and society is very specific. Their whole existence is based on work, work, work. And yet they have developed an incredible wisdom about life.
Alexandros is not a typical farmer. He was born and broughtup in that village, he went to study Maths and then came back. He has a very original personality, I always think of him as the Pied Piper, the Rat-Catcher of Hamelin. He cares for his village and these women, who most of them are his aunties. He knows that he couldn’t do anything without their expertise and their knowledge. He trusts them and always asks their advice. And it is extraordinary that these women who have always had a very narrow outlook of life, once they weregiven the chance to think differently, they weremore than willing to transcend their inner limits and look beyond the plain’s borders. They didn’t hesitate to open up to the world and dare something completely new. They were open to meet different people and try out different things. Once this idea of the tomato production was put on the table, they jumped on it and worked really hard. It was a joint venture with Alexandros. They are very strong, amazing women.
“When Tomatoes met Wagner” (2019)
What is the significance of food to you? Do you consider “When Tomatoes met Wagner” as a life lesson, food for thought or soul food?
I don’t think it was ever a conscious choice to focus on food as such. What I find interesting about food, is that it is a means to talk about other things. Through food, you can talk about human relationships, you can talk about emotions, society and culture. Food is like a global language. It bridges emotions, geographical gaps (as is the case with “Food for Love”) and emotional gaps as well. It brings people together.
So, in this context, “Tomatoes” is food for thought. I would like my film to make people think about the future of these small farming communities and about the critical situation of agricultural goods. I am afraid that soon there are not going to be any farmers left, there will be big corporations, that will impose very specific and uniform agricultural products onus and we won’t have many choices. Biodiversity as well as quality foods will be lost, if small local productions and old seeds seize to exist.
Moreover, the need to reinvent oneself in difficult times is also something I would like people to think about. Often a small change in our attitude can bring important changes to our lives and unexpected solutions to problems. I believe in this very much, and I saw it happening in that small village. A change in the way they saw themselves and their lives, made them move on and helped them achieve incredible things.
“When Tomatoes met Wagner” (2019)
Besides being a success story, your film is about the death of rural Greece, a recurring theme touched early in the seventies by Angelopoulos and others. What is it that interests you in this prolonged death of rural Greece?
I remember as a child traveling with my parents around Greece, and going to all these small villages that were inhabited by three or four, sometimes even one, elderly person. That was something that would always sadden me, this abandonment and isolation of the villages and the lonely elderly people. As you’ve said, that’s not a new phenomenon in Greece, it’s something that’s been happening since 1950s, due to poverty in the countryside and urbanization.
But now there is an added factor that has led to the abandonment of villages and this is the crisis that agriculture is going through, which is also a global phenomenon. The plain of Thessaly was the most fertile agricultural land in Greece. It was always the main source of food since prehistoric times, but in recent years the over cultivation and the lack of effective agricultural policies has led to economic depression and the inability of the farmers to make ends meet. The earth is soaked in chemicals and the farmers tend to cultivate hybrid seeds that produce industrialized crops. Thisis very sad and I don’t know where it is leading. Small villages, small farming communities thatdependon the primary sector can hardly sustain themselves anymore. I’m wondering, if everyone moves tothe city, what will happen to the countryside? Who will provide food and where willthis know-how go?
“When Tomatoes met Wagner” (2019) shooting on location
How did you work with the protagonists of your documentary in constructing their story?
For this kind of documentarythat focuses on people’s lives and their personal stories, the big secret is time. Spending time is the most important factor in order to build a relationship of trust. I was going there on and off, for almost six years, sharing their everyday routine, talking and laughing with them, helping them out. It’s impossible to appear with a camera and shoot without having built that relationship of trust.
I never make films which are based oninterviews. I’m not interested in interviews. I’m interested in people’s special experiences and emotions. That’s why I’m making documentaries. Once I establish a relationship of trust, the camera ceases to be a problem. As you see in many instances in the film, the ‘protagonists’ address me with my name, they talk to me, not to the camera, we are in a dialogue relationship. I record our conversations and their confessions to me. That’s how I see it and I think that’s how they felt the process.
Once we had established this relationship of trust, I felt free to shoot anything I wanted. I never directed them, I never told them what to say, I never asked them to do something again. I documented their everyday life, their chores, the relationship between them, their thoughts and ideas, their laughs, their worries and insecurities. Then the biggest challenge was how to structure all these pieces of their life into a narrative that would convey in the best possible manner the themes of the story.
“When Tomatoes met Wagner” (2019) Marianna Economou shooting on location
Where do you stand in the continuum between detached observation and emotional engagement in documentary making?
I use both, I’m not dogmatic about any particular method. I would say my method stands more towards the observational, but I’m also participating, I’m also part of a process. I never pretend not to be there. I don’t believe in “fly on the wall” filming, it doesn’t exist, really. The presence of a filmmaker definitely affects the situation and the people you film. I always try to create relationships with the people I film and I would say that my films are a reflection of these relationships. My approach is to raise bigger issues through personal stories. I strongly believe that viewers need to feel some kind of empathy, an emotional engagement withthe characters in order to open up to new worlds, new information and ideas. Emotions aresomething that all wepeople share. So you start from something that is common ground and you move on to things that are not so familiar.
“When Tomatoes met Wagner” (2019) shooting in Brussels
You have been making documentaries for twenty years. How do you feel about the Greek documentary?
I would definitely say that Greek documentary has been on the rise in the past years. There is a lot of talent and many young people go to film schools and focus on documentary making in the last years. When I started making documentaries, twenty years ago, the only school for us in Greece was the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. When it was established, a new world opened up for us. I remember myself devouring documentaries from around the world. The Festival was actually a school for both film makers and the Greek audience. The documentary language and approach has developed a lot in the past years and audience’s perception of documentaries is also changing due to wider exposure through tv channels, festivals, internet. I would say that people’s perception that documentaries are a rather dull educational and informative film genre, is changing.
There are plenty of interesting and important subjects that documentary film makers can focus on, but what makes the difference is the way a film maker tells a story. The distinctiveness of documentary film, is that it is based on reality, and reality is often unpredictable. For me, this is a great challenge and where the magic of documentary making lies, to find the way to “dance” together with reality.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
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