Theo Angelopoulos: "I am standing by you"

Jane Gabriel
25 January 2012

The two interviews that follow were originally published in January 2009 and 1993 respectively.

Interview published 7th January, 2009: The film director Theo Angelopoulos talks to openDemocracy's Jane Gabriel about the turmoil in Greece and about his new film ‘The Dust of Time'.

Interview 1993

Theo Angelopoulos: We have reached a dead end point in the social and political life of Greece; and if we add to this the economic crisis, we find superimposed on each other three parallel crises, social, political and economic. It is a very severe situation. Who suffers from this? Obviously the more vulnerable social and economic classes, but some other groups as well. Who? The young people. Ahead of them there is a closed horizon, there is no reference point, no future prospect: they live in a world where whatever we hear about public life is scandal, corruption, crises, weaknesses and compromises. Young people become tangled up in this story; they feel the full burden and the weight of this story. The result is that without having full consciousness of what is going on, they have a profound need to break out of this shell, and they take to the streets.

Takis Michas, "Greece: vacuum at the heart" (December 15 2008)

openDemocracy, "What is happening in Greece?" (December 12 2008)

The story in Athens now might not have assumed these wide dimensions had there not been an assassination, which I would say - a little ahead of time - brought about an explosion, which otherwise might have taken more time to mature and led to genuine rebellion. My sense is that we have reached what you would call a fin de saison and that there will be a return of these uprisings, which will become ever more frequent. I also believe that this is not an exclusively Greek phenomenon, I have a feeling that this will turn out to be a European wide phenomenon in the future. In contrast to earlier youth uprisings, like May 1968 or the equivalent uprisings in Greece prior to the installation of the junta, which were focussed around specific political demands, at this particular moment there are no specific demands. There is an opposition, it's as if people are waiting in a waiting room and can hear from outside the door all kinds of alarming sounds and noises, and they reach the point when they want to open the door and see what is going on outside.

Jane Gabriel: Those who want to open the door are those who are protesting now?

TA: Exactly. Napoleon Lapathiotis, the old poet, says somewhere that without faith, without convictions, we become the plaything of the wind. And I believe that this is the point that we have now reached. I was thinking and discussing with some old friends that at the time of the dictatorship in Greece, when a lot of my friends were in prison and some were in hiding or had left the country illegally, I showed a copy of my film ‘Anaparastassi' (Reconstruction) in Italy which I had illegally taken out of the country. The show was at midnight and Greek exiles started to gather to see the film. They didn't come simply to see a film, they came to see Greece, and they were in tears. After the show, we all left together and we went to piazza Navona where many of us started discussing and talking. Of course, we were talking about Greece, of course we were all united and, of course, we all had a very strong sense that once the story of the dictatorship was over, in the near future, a new historical perspective would open up for us and our country.

JG: And did it?

TA: No. A character of my most recent film The Dust of Time, played by Bruno Ganz, a great actor, says in the course of the film "We dreamed of a different world". We thought for a short moment that we were holding the sky under siege - that our objectives were as high as they sky - and later we discovered that history had thrown us to the margins, to the margins of the story.

JG: Ten years ago in the course of an interview I asked you why, as a film director, you had insisted on staying and working in Greece when others had left to film abroad, and you told me that you had been in the streets in the 1960s and that you had been hit by a policeman and that your glasses had been broken and that you had said to yourself "I will stay because I want to know Why?"

TA: It's true. This is why I stayed in Greece. I came back to Greece; I had been in Paris, I was going to be working as the assistant to Alain Renais in his next film, the horizon was open for me. And yet, I could not stay. I had to understand why that event made me think of an earlier moment, a moment when I had felt that for the first time history with a capital H, had entered my personal life directly. This happened in December 1944, the so called red December in Athens, during the battle between the right and left in which my father was arrested. He was then led outside Athens somewhere near Peristeri where he was going to be executed. As a nine year old boy, I remember wandering around the outskirts the city, in the fields, with my mother among the many dead bodies lying around, looking for my father. So I felt that I had to come back to Greece. The incident with the policeman brought back to me that earlier period of my life; because the only way to understand the present is by returning to the past

JG: You said earlier that the young people who are protesting now do not have a clear idea of what they want; that there's is an ‘opposition' to something. Do you think they have a sense or understanding that they too must know the Greek past in order to understand what their opposition is to?

TA: Absolutely, I think that this is one of the major responsibilities of the older generation, especially those who teach in schools and universities and who very often teach a curriculum that has essentially displaced history.

JG: The education system in Greece is one of the issues the protesters have raised, saying that there is too much rote learning and no room for creative inquiry, and Mr Karamanlis has said the first debate in parliament will now be about education. But we also know that modern Greek history is taught very selectively - that the civil war of 1946-49 in particular is often skimmed over or left out ....

TA: It's not only that the civil war is not presented as part of history, but I have the impression that the same is true for many of the vital moments in the history of this country; there is a systematic attempt to exclude them from the official history that is being taught in the schools. There are taboo subjects. So unless there is a proper dialogue over Greek history, to bring together the present and the past, we will never be able to ‘read' the present and to understand what the future can entail.

JG: What will it take for the protests now to move beyond opposition?

TA: First of all the opposition must understand where the problem lies. To ‘read' the problem. The other thing is that you cannot always say ‘No'. The time comes when you must start to make proposals. At this moment in time, the opposition has no proposals at all and this is a serious difficulty. I'm not so interested in the conservative side but the more progressive parties, which claim to fight for a different political landscape; they ought to be able to develop proposals which correspond to today's reality, to today's needs, and to do so in a way that takes into account the relations between the new generation and the generation that currently has power.

JG: So what is the reality in Greece today?

TA: Today we are choking, it's impossible to breathe, it's impossible to move, an ossified, a frozen situation, and, as we know from history, this is almost as if death has taken over.

JG: Do you have any sense of what will happen now or in the near future, or rather of what you would like to see happen?

TA: To work out the details of what I would like to see would require much reflection and dialogue; but in the last resort what I would like to see the door of the waiting room open and the light to come into this space. But I am afraid. I have a feeling that as the Greek poet Kostis Palamas says in one of his poems, we have to get down to the bottom of the stairwell before we can start to rise again, I feel that we still have a long way to go before we get to the bottom. It is only then, that as the poet says, our earlier wings, our great wings can grow again so that we can fly. Symbolically, we must first experience the absolute evil before we can rise towards the good and the open horizon.

I belong to an older generation, a generation that believed that change was possible, that it was possible to change the world, that it was possible to open up a new path. My generation believed that it was possible not only to dream of a new world, but also to turn dreams into realities. It didn't happen. I think we are all carrying the shadow of disappointment and failure. Yet, in spite this, and contrary to what pessimists and nay-sayers believe, I believe that history moves about in a meandering way, sometimes going up and sometimes going down. Right now we are in a downturn, but there will be an upturn eventually.

JG: You've recently finished a new film called ‘The Dust of Time' which will be released in the next couple of months. Does the film reflect or imply your understanding of history?

TA: Yes, in a restrained way, but yes, undoubtedly. Towards the end of the film, the protagonist, Eleni, a woman who has moved throughout the second half of the 20th century in love with two different men who have profoundly affected her life, dies. But there is also young Eleni, the grand daughter of one of the two men. One of the men commits suicide: he represents the bleak side of history; but the other man continues to struggle and at one point he offers his hand to the dead body of Eleni and at that point there is something like a resurrection. The hand that he finds is that of the young Eleni, the grand daughter of the dead man, and she takes the hand of the old man and the two of them, hand in hand, start walking towards an open horizon.

JG: When you started to make this film you didn't know that you would now be grandfather and that your first grandchild would share your name, Theodoris - if he was to take your hand, what would you tell him?

TA: That what is happening in the film and what is happening in my own life at this moment is the continuation of the world. It is, therefore, a story that looks at the future and begins to believe again in the possibility of a better world.

JG: And if your grandson was 15 years old and had just returned from being in the square in Athens protesting, what would you say to him?

TA: I would be afraid for his safety, but I would say to him "I am standing by you".

Interview translated by Yiannis Gabriel

Interview conducted in 1993: Theo Angelopoulos interviewed for the documentary Balkan Landscapes: The Gaze of Theo Angelopoulos ( Channel Four Television 1993. Director, Jane Gabriel)

TA: In November 1964 I was walking in the streets of Athens and there was a demonstration and a clash with the police. I was walking home unaware of what was going on or why and I was hit in the face. One of the policemen hit me. When I arrived home I tried to understand why I had been hit, why all this was going on. At that moment I wasn't aware that it was a moment of decision. That because of that blow I received from the police, I would spend my entire life here in Greece.

On making the film The suspended step of the stork:

TA:  We are talking about a united Europe, and yet today we are creating ever more borders. Borders which are so small they will soon be outside my home. The borders will be right outside my house. In a while I shall be a state. Me.

For me the concept of borders has always been a concept which has generated strange associations, which has circulated and stimulated my thought. A dark, unexplored region. A concept of borders which was not just the geographical boundaries, but the limits of existence. The limits between life and death, the limits in love, the limits in language, in communication.

Narrowing down the borders narrows down the communication, it stretches the differences, it magnifies the oppositions, it magnifies the causes of war, it magnifies the refugees, it magnifies internal exile.

On making the trilogy of films Days of '36,The Travelling Players, and The Hunters,

TA: There is no question of my films having a message. What message can one send? One describes a tragedy. In essence it is a trilogy on the tragedy of a people who wander around history with moments, short incidents of freedom, moments when they can breathe freely and look ahead

Re-reading the myth. The Travelling Players is nothing but a re-reading of the myth, but in an account which is very significant for a contemporary reading. From pre-history to history. From myth, in the sense of inaccessible, magic, something with magnitude that you cannot reach,  to something that is human. Something scaled down to human sizes. In this way myth becomes history. History becomes everyday reality. Personal experience is recast and turned again into history and myth.

Jules Dassin interviewed for the C4 documentary in 2009
The films of Angelopoulos which speak of Greece, have for me and many, an international sensitivity and understanding and acceptance. One of the strange illusions some European film makers have is that we must make an international film. Of course the dream is to reach the American box office, but the fact is that the successful international film was made by the man who made the film about his own country, we are talking about Rossellini, Da Sica, Fellini, they made their Italian films which became international, and most successfully so because they did so in their own proper place, people they knew, history they knew,  that became  international.  

Angelopoulos is the complete director. he has an idea, a vision, he writes it, he directs it, he produces it, he finds the money for it, and it's his film. It's a total accomplishment of a single man."

Yiannis Gabriel reflects on the film The Dust of Time -
What a master Angelopoulos is. When I despair about Greece, I turn to his work and find my despair validated. But I also find hope. He tears your heart to pieces and then he invites you to reflect.  Angelopoulos has much to teach us in advance of the great darkness ahead.  Read more



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