It Was the Difficulty of Being There

An interview with two co-authors of the Best World Documentary Film award winner at the 20th Jihlava IDFF called Spectres Are Haunting Europe.

Spectres Are Haunting Europe (Maria Kourkouta, Niki Giannari, 2016)

It took only 6 months (March to September 2016) for Greek filmmaker Maria Kourkouta (MK) and Greek writer Niki Giannari (NG) to finish their film, Spectres Are Haunting Europe. They captured the situation and atmosphere in the Idomeni refugee camp located on the border with Macedonia. As they say, their primary motivation was not to shoot a movie focusing on migration. They just started shooting the surroundings during their location scouting for a different movie inspired by the Greek civil war in 1940s. Read more about the natural development of the Best World Documentary Film from the 20th IDFF Jihlava in the interview below.

Where did the idea to shoot this documentary film come from?
MK: The original idea came during the first shoot, since there had been no prior plan to make a film. Speaking more broadly, the idea to make a film came from the need to find images and rhythms going deep into the history which has left traces on the present state of things - if one is ready to look for them. The documentary form can be one of the ways to do this…

Where did you draw inspiration for the way you approached your documentary film?
MK: When the film’s co-director, Niki Giannari, and other friends from the Social Clinic of Solidarity of Thessaloniki brought me to Idomeni for the first time, I felt as if I were on the set of The Suspended Step of the Stork by Theo Angelopoulos, which was shot in 1991. In a certain way, this prophetic and poetic film, which treats the subject of boundaries and was shot at the border, served as a source of inspiration for us, especially during the colour-correction stage, inasmuch as his film makes dramatic and rhythmic use of colour, or, rather, of greyness. During the shoot, I also thought a lot about the compositions by a filmmaker friend, Philippe Cote, and his film Va regarde II. As for the editing, another friend, editor and filmmaker Qutaiba Barhamji, greatly helped and inspired me with his point of view on the Syrian people and, generally speaking, on cinema.

Collaboration between a filmmaker and a writer is not very common in documentary filmmaking. Where did you meet and how did you start to collaborate on the film with Niki Giannari?
MK: We have shared a deep friendship for more than fifteen years. So it was rather obvious for us to work together on this film, especially since it was Niki who had insisted so much that I go to Idomeni to film. I know that collaboration with a writer is unusual in the realm of documentary film. But, at the same time, there is no script underlying the editing choices, and there is definitely no linear narrative. The film unravels more like a poem, if I may say, than a narrative in the traditional sense of the word, which is also unusual for a documentary. This “poem” is, without a doubt, the result of a profound exchange between the two of us on the ways we have experienced and felt the things that we saw there together.

NG: As for the text that I have written for the film and that we hear at the end, it emerged from the images themselves when I saw them shortly after the shoot at the first screening of the rushes.

Spectres Are Haunting Europe (Maria Kourkouta, Niki Giannari, 2016)

Why did you choose this “hot topic” of the migration crisis for your first feature-length documentary? What was the reason?
MK: Our goal was not to make a film on a “hot” topic, but to create images that would automatically enter into a dialogue with “burning” images — of the past as well as of the future. Making a topical film can be dangerous for two reasons: on one hand, the film may unknowingly subordinate itself to the dominant reading of current events, while also serving as a moral alibi in one’s relation to what’s happening. On the other hand, to make such a film means to make something very commonplace, since many people are working on this subject — fortunately.

NG: Another reason was our shared feeling that we, in the sense of the Greek and European society, look at these people, these migrants, without really seeing them. We have become so used to considering them as foreigners, as weaklings — and this is in the best-case scenario, from a humanitarian point of view. Our need was more political than humanitarian: to preserve a fraction of the things which are absent from journalistic images; to bear witness to a certain state of affairs within contemporary European history; to capture for eternity, before it disappears, an image of these people, of their feet or their little gestures in this long wait.

What was the biggest problem you had to deal with during the shooting?
MK: It was the difficulty of being there, of feeling, of exchanging thoughts, of touching, always by way of the camera.

NG: There was also a particularly difficult moment to experience and to shoot, which was the sudden departure of the migrants, their decision to cross the border illegally, in the afternoon of March 14, 2016. We see it in the first and last scenes of the film.

Spectres Are Haunting Europe (Maria Kourkouta, Niki Giannari, 2016)

How did you find your producer? Did you make an international co-production or self-production? Why?
MK. We met the film’s co-producer, Carine Chichkowsky, thanks to other filmmaker friends who work with her. Carine and I have worked together for more than three years on another film project. Carine graciously accepted to help with this film, even though it wasn’t planned. Still, we have taken upon ourselves a big part of the production expenses. But it wasn’t an “expensive” film. Sometimes it’s enough to work other jobs to earn a living, as long as one has recording equipment and good friends like André Fèvre, who always records sound for us, then just to go out and shoot.

Can you describe the development process a little bit? How did you write the treatment? Did Niki as a writer play an important role in this stage of making the movie?
MK: We didn’t have the idea or the time to write a treatment. We were in Greece to do location scouting for a project on the Greek civil war of the 1940s, and we found ourselves filming people who were escaping a different civil war, today.  This was in March 2016. The film was finalised in September 2016, after several months of very intense, continuous work. We had found, articulated and put in place the film’s aesthetic during the shoot, and then defined the treatment during editing. At every step, we were in constant dialogue, so Niki played just as big of a role in the final product as I did.

Did you use a script or anything we can call script?
NG: There was no script in the traditional sense of the word. In a way, we began to write the “script” from the moment when we decided where to go and what to look at. If I may say so, the script was written with and by the form of the film.

What does the term “script” mean for you with respect to a documentary movie?
NG: The height of the camera’s position, the light, the composition, the use of digital or film, these are the elements which define the narrative style, since they obey to the vision of the filmmaker(s). This vision can intervene in or even distort, in a decisive way, what we call “real” in a documentary, and so it constitutes a kind of a script. The shooting and the editing are crucial stages in the construction of the story being told, and they don’t necessarily need a predefined script. But reality did impose itself on our point of view: the people who were waiting to cross the border of a closed Europe captured our gaze and guided it toward a certain aesthetic, and therefore also political, position. The more time passed, the more we thought and felt differently. The cinematic result embodies this process in its form, since the film changes course. This is what it means for us, the script in a documentary film: one’s aesthetic and political position in the face of recorded reality, at the very moment of recording, then during editing and other post-production stages.

Spectres Are Haunting Europe (Maria Kourkouta, Niki Giannari, 2016)

Why did you decide to leave the experimental form? When did you decide to use the very long and static shots? During development, or shooting or editing?
MK: In general, I believe that one has to choose an artistic form in the name of freedom, and not due to an attachment to a certain cinematic genre. Personally, I don’t have the impression of having abandoned the experimental form. I can express myself using one cinematographic form or another, when I feel that what I have to say or do needs a particular form of expression. This is a big question of how images are born within us, how we create others, and why we choose this or that form. What’s certain is that the form is, above all, linked to the cinematographic rhythm of a film, and the form also produces a rhythmic result. In this sense, for me, the rhythm is more important than the form. For this film, we chose to do single-shot sequences because we couldn’t think of another way to hold onto what we saw in front of us, and to stay within it. These long scenes were created during the shoot and then re-affirmed during the edit. When the film changes to black-and-white 16mm, the rhythm changes completely, which justifies what I said earlier about formal choices.

Did you show your film to your protagonists or people related to them? How did they react? Did they have any remarks?
NG: Unfortunately, we haven’t yet had the opportunity to show it to the people we filmed who, after Idomeni, have dispersed to different parts of Greece. For several months now, we have been searching, and we have found a few among them. We hope that soon there will be the right conditions to show them the film and to hear their remarks. In any case, we hope our film will be like a space of hospitality for these people to express themselves, even if, inevitably, the film gets our point of view across more than theirs. For this reason, we strongly feel that it’s just as urgent to give them the possibility to create their own films, and, above all, to live the life they want; this depends only on the strength of the hospitality that we can all provide, on our desires and on the battles that we wage so that a different politic will be applied in Europe, today.

more articles from a section:  Interview

1.21Going to the Polish Turf with Our Own TeamInterview with documentary filmmakers Filip Remunda and Vít Klusák about their latest joint film project Once Upon a Time in Poland that shows how religion and faith are misused in contemporary Poland for mass manipulation and political purposes. The film‘s Czech premiere was held as part of the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival 2020.Kamila Boháčková
1.21The times of lifelong careers are overAn interview with documentarian Jindřich Andrš, whose film A New Shift won the Czech competition section Czech Joy at Ji.hlava IDFF2020.Vojtěch Kočárník
1.20None of the big streaming platforms are buying documentaries now because people are so scared in their personal lives Challenges for the film industry and festivals in the age of the coronavirusRadim Procházka
1.20We have to start with ourselves, or nothing will changeAn interview with Macedonian documentarians Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevská, creators of the film Honeyland.Vojtěch Kočárník
2.20Karel Vachek: Films Just Have to Make You Laugh!A doyen of Czech documentary filmmaking Karel Vachek unfortunately passed away on the 21th of December 2020. We publish here the interview he made in 2019 just after releasing his last film, the ninth film novel called Communism and the Net or the End of Representative Democracy. Fifty years after Prague Spring and thirty years after the Velvet Revolution, Karel Vachek “with his inner laughter” looks back on the evolution of our society and predicts a transformation to direct democracy based on the possibilities of the internet that will allow for the engagement of the whole mankind without the need of representatives. Kamila Boháčková
1+2.19To Surprise MyselfWhile the main competition at the International Karlovy Vary Film Festival does not feature any Czech title, the festival’s documentary section has one Czech film to offer: A documentary road movie by Martin Mareček entitled Over the Hills exploring the relationship between a father and a son, as well as the distance that separates us from others. Unlike his previous socially engaged films, the latest title provides a personal and intimate insight. But as Martin Mareček put it in his interview for dok.revue – what is intimate is universal. Marek Hovorka, Petr Kubica, Kamila Boháčková
1+2.19Greta Stoklassa: I Read Rather than Preach the RealityAn interview with the director Greta StoklassaKamila Boháčková
F2.18Special little momentsInterview with Antonio Di Biase, the director of De Sancto Ambrosio movie, which has the world premiere in Opus Bonum competition at 22nd Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival.Matěj Pořízek
F2.18Are we experiencing dystopia today?Interview with Frédérick Cousseau, the director of the poetic documentary called NU, which has the premiere in Opus Bonum competition at 22nd Ji.hlava IDFF.Tomáš Poštulka
F2.18Freedom of ChoiceInterview with Jacky Goldberg, the director of Flesh Memory, which will have its international premiere in Opus Bonum competition

starší články

06. 02. 2017

from current issue:

New releaseShooting About KunderaDocumentarian Miloslav Šmídmajer describes the process of making a documentary about Milan Kundera with the working title “Milan Kundera: From the Joke to Insignificance.” Miloslav ŠmídmajerThemeNest in the bedroomPeter Hames, well-known British film historian and author of the book The Czechoslovak New Wave sent his remembrance to Karel Vachek to our magazine.Peter HamesThemeNever stop laughingPaolo Benzi, the Italian film producer and founder of the independent film production company Okta Film, describes for dok.revue how he met famous Czech documentary filmmaker Karel Vachek, who passed away last year. Paolo Benzi is also the main tutor of the Emerging producers in Ji.hlava IDFF.Paolo BenziThemeBehold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightenedIn this English issue of dok.revue we have collected some remembrances to Karel Vachek, the respected Czech documentarist who died in December 2020 at the age of 80. One of the contributors is Olaf Möller, a well-known film theorist and critic collaborating with many renowned film magazines (Film Comment or Sight & Sound), film museums and festivals (e.g. Il Cinema Ritrovato or International Film Festival Rotterdam).Olaf MöllerThemeEvery human being should get to wear comfy shoesThe Czech documentarist Karel Vachek was a chairperson of the jury at Yamagata international documentary film festival (YIDFF) in 2009. The board member of YIDFF and the former director of this festival, Asako Fujioka, has a remembrance of him smoking his pipe and going to the mountains with Japanese poet and filmmaker Yoshimasu Gozo to recite poetry to the skies.Asako FujiokaThemeLike the dog on the beach...American film historian Alice Lovejoy writes her remembrance of Karel Vachek, the remarkable Czech documentarist to whom we dedicate this English issue of dok.revue.Alice LovejoyInterviewThe times of lifelong careers are overAn interview with documentarian Jindřich Andrš, whose film A New Shift won the Czech competition section Czech Joy at Ji.hlava IDFF2020.Vojtěch KočárníkInterviewGoing to the Polish Turf with Our Own TeamInterview with documentary filmmakers Filip Remunda and Vít Klusák about their latest joint film project Once Upon a Time in Poland that shows how religion and faith are misused in contemporary Poland for mass manipulation and political purposes. The film‘s Czech premiere was held as part of the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival 2020.Kamila BoháčkováIntroductionDok.revue 1.21This issue is dedicated to the doyen of Czech documentary filmmaking Karel VachekKamila Boháčková