Redefining the narrative of the moving image: Kostis Charamountanis talks about his playfully experimental cinema

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Moving image

Kostis Charamountanis is a sui generis case of a young and promising Greek director. The fact that he is self-taught and has worked as an actor, music composer, sound designer, editor, second assistant director and production assistant in theatre, television and film only partly account for his originality. His films (six shorts and three video clips) are refreshingly experimental and unpretentiously fresh, while clearly attempting to playfully re-engage with cinematic narrative. With a few awards already under his belt — at the Athens International Film Festival and Drama International Short Film Festival — the SNF ARTWORKS Fellow (2020) has already completed his first feature film entitled Kyuka — Journeying to the Moon Through the Endless Sea, which was produced by Heretic. Just before the launch of the film’s long-awaited festival run, Charamountanis talked to us about his artistic vision and all the elements that compose it.

How did you get into cinema? What is your first cinematic memory and when did it first occur to you to become a director?


It’s something I’ve been wanting to do since I was little. I used to say I wanted to be an actor, a chef or a director. I’ve always been drawn to cinema. Certain films I developed an obsession for — Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. I loved watching the making of, how these worlds and these characters were created. In primary school, after watching Mrs. Doubtfire with Robin Williams on a summer afternoon, I started making movies with my friends. I’m not sure why I was so inspired by that film in particular. It was all improvisation, we were just playing around with my sister’s camera, which I used to take without telling her. At first, we would just watch the clips on the camera, using the arrows to move through the scenes. Later, I taught myself how to edit everything on the computer. I didn’t know how to download music back then, so I would record tunes from my favourite films, like the Pirates, and use them as cover music for ours. In high school, one day I wrote out the entire script of Pirates of the Caribbean in Greek. I had learned practically the whole thing by heart. I must have seen it about 60 times, I remember counting 56, but I’m sure it was more. I did that because we wanted to make our own version with the means we had in hand as children. We didn’t get round to it, though. At some point, the interest waned. Still, we had decided who was going to do what: I would be the director, someone else would do the set, someone would play Jack Sparrow. My first cinematic memory is from Titanic. I was pretty young, maybe about four. I remember trying very hard to figure out what the film was about. I had the impression that what I was seeing on the screen was real, probably because someone had told me that the sinking of the Titanic was a true story. I remember asking my parents if a boat has to sink every night, so that people can watch it. My professional involvement with cinema came about in a very organic way. In 2015, after graduating from the Drama School of the National Conservatory of Athens, I had already decided I wasn’t interested in acting, so I spent some time experimenting mostly with music and a bit with writing. A short monologue came out of this, which later evolved into my first short film, The Eye and the Brow. At first, I was scared to direct it myself. I felt I was completely clueless, which was actually true. The script was definitely written in the wrong format, it was more a poem than anything else. I tried to get somebody else to do it, so I went to ask my former teacher Angelos Frantzis, who recommended several people and was very helpful both during that first approach and later on. I was full of questions about cinema, festivals, the filming process, the script, how it all works other than the acting part which I had been trained for at School. I didn’t find anyone who wanted to direct my script. Therefore, I figured out very soon that anything I wanted to do I would have to do myself, without relying on anyone else. So that was the starting point. I did my own research, asked around, read, used my own money and made my first film.


Kostis Charamountanis, The Eye and the Brow, 2016
In your CV and in your interviews, you often mention you are an autodidact. How much freedom does this give you compared to someone who has studied film?


None of the directors I have studied and now admire have studied cinema. Still, they became legendary because they managed to create and leave behind a distinctive, unique and precious cinematic universe. This put my mind at ease. Their stories inspired me and helped me stop feeling inferior to people with cinema degrees. I understood that making good films is based on much more that that. In my experience, and obviously without wanting to discredit anyone’s studies, I find that being an autodidact has helped me develop my own filmmaking voice with more clarity and delve deeper into the elements I want to explore, in my own way and taking as long as I need. This is a more direct and perhaps more creative way of discovering cinema. Mistakes are invaluable, and I am happy to say I’ve made plenty. In my experience, you learn a lot through this process. I believe that if you haven’t studied, failure leaves you more exposed and more vulnerable. People around you become harsher. It is much more difficult to start out like this, coming practically out of nowhere, without the protective bubble of an academic environment. It worked for me at least. It meant there was more at stake and made me determined to succeed. There are risks involved in this. This path is definitely not for everyone. Personally, I feel that I didn’t have a choice. Being in a classroom makes me really nervous. I hate it. I feel really stupid. I just can’t function. Just before making my first film, I had put some money on the side. I thought, either I’ll go to a film school for three years or, with the same money, I’ll make films and learn the trade through practicing it. I soon decided that the second option was more fun, and better suited for me. I felt I couldn’t be bothered to go to school. I had just come out of one, I didn’t feel like starting all over. And, to be honest, most of the film students I asked weren’t very enthusiastic either. They said I was right to choose this path. Learning things by myself is part of who I am. It’s how I’ve always done things, even with music composition. I’ve had no musical training, but I’ve taught myself how to play and write music in other ways. It just comes to me, it’s organic. For me, learning by myself equals absolute freedom and represents the best and most creative ways of exploring my interests. Others value much higher the experience, guidance and structure the film school has to offer. I used to be more extreme in this view. I used to say that cinema schools are a waste of time and money. Now I think it’s simply a question of preference. But whenever someone interested in getting into cinema asks me what I think, I have never suggested that they go to film school.

How was your first experience behind the camera? What was your inspiration for The Eye and the Brow?

On the first day of filming for The Eye and the Brow, when we shot the first scene — the beach scene at the end of the film — I didn’t even know that I, as the director, was supposed to say “cut” at the end to stop the sound and the camera. I had no idea of the process, even though as an actor I had been to sets. I was hopelessly ignorant. There was an awkward silence, during which the scene was continuing in a loop. It was the moment when the girls had to inflate the air mattress, and they were really out of breath. Then a moment of silence, a blank look and Yannis, the cameraman, asking: “Are you going to say cut?” I was just hopelessly clueless. The following day, I was directing half-naked, wearing a drag suit and fake eyelashes. At the end of the scene, I would be playing the Big-Boobed Queen so, to save time, I was already in costume when we started filming. My father, who had come to the set to bring me some things, asked me: “Are you making porn movies?”. Filming lasted for three days if I remember correctly, and then Smaro and I spent one month editing. Everything happened very quickly. I did the trailer. It was the first time I edited anything after acting school. I was so excited, we had even shaped the poster of the film as a CD so that the DVDs (back then you had to submit a DVD for the festival in Drama) can fit the film’s logo. When it came out, I was very insecure about the outcome, but it was reassuring to see that people were laughing and that they had understood it was a comedy. This happens to me with every film. The Eye and the Brow was, in essence, just a long thought sequence. I remember walking around with a notepad in my hands, jotting down my thoughts as freely as possible, trying not to censor myself. The core of the film is that someone has died and what we are basically watching are his thoughts. I had read in an article that when we die the brain remains active for about seven minutes, during which you can have dreams, maybe even see snapshots of your life. Another major influence was my years in drama school. All the actors in the film used to be my classmates. The film has a very strong theatrical element. It’s staged a bit like an improvised performance, just like the ones we did at the school. We didn’t have anyone to do make-up or our hair. We did everything ourselves. All the stuff and the props we used I had bought myself. Wes Anderson was another key influence. In terms of cinematography, style, music and, more generally, directorial approach. Wes Anderson was the first director I studied when I came out of school. The script for my first short came out of a drawing I did, with an eye and a brow. The eye is kind of clinging onto the brow. I liked the image, drew inspiration from it, it’s what prompted the monologue at the end of the film, I wanted to make a fairytale out of it, then an animation film — a bit like “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” from Harry Potter 7 — and then it became a script. I wrote it quickly, it took about two months, which to me felt like an eternity. Most people I gave it to didn’t like it, from what I could gather. Except for Angelos Frantzis, who really encouraged me to do it.

What inspires you to do your films? What would you say triggers you, in general? Is it an image or an idea? Do you perhaps combine disparate elements into a whole or do you take the original idea and develop it using your creativity and imagination?


All three at once, I would say. It happens in various ways. Usually, at the core of my films there is an idea that is interesting and inspiring to me, to which I then add other interesting ideas, phrases, characters, images, music, memories or sensations, which sometimes fit and sometimes don’t. Little by little, all these different elements start to create a world and later, as they get clearer, a plot. I love music, especially classical music. It is a big source of inspiration for me and plays a big part when I am writing the script. I also use a lot of music in my films. I try out things without restraining myself, I explore. The things that work I keep, and I discard everything that doesn’t suit me as an artist or doesn’t fit the direction I want to take. This is a very, very long process. I have a folder on my computer with all the films I’m working on. When I have something for one project, I open that file and work on it for as long as it takes. I write, revise, and then pick up the script again to read it with fresh eyes sometime later. And then all over again from the beginning. Every project changes form several times, until I decide which elements I like best. For Kyuka Before Summer Ends, my first feature which I finished filming last September, I must have produced at least 20 drafts of the script. I lost count, at some point. I grow and evolve with my films. I call them “my school”. I try to maintain a balance between poetry, storyline, characters and plot, and keep only the best and strongest ideas, i.e., the ones I find most interesting and which I believe will add more layers to the story. It’s something I started doing consciously and methodically from Kyuka onwards. It’s a process that gets my full attention. I really enjoy it. I obsess over my work and follow a strict working schedule. The shorts I’ve made so far have been more anarchic in nature. They are more instinctive and experimental and not so much about creating anything with structure. There’s no actual script for Kioku Before Summer Comes, Dog of Chamomile, Anthology of a Butterfly or Clouds Over My Backyard. The texts we used for them — when we did — I had written on my phone or as computer notes, and they are now gone.


Kostis Charamountanis, Kyuka Before Summer Ends, 2019
Your work can be described as experimental, avant-garde, poetic. Do you accept these terms? What role does narrative play in your work?


Yes, definitely. The only thing I don’t like about experimental films is that they have a reputation for being bad and of a lower quality. It doesn’t happen often that an experimental film gets to win the top prize at a festival. They carry a stigma. People don’t take them seriously. My films certainly involve a lot of experimentation. I’m not ashamed of it. I like experimentation. I think it’s a powerful tool that unleashes artistic creativity. For me, it might even be necessary. I get bored very easily. Even of my own films. I work on them every day and after a while I grow tired and bored. When I start to get bored, I work on the details. I rework my ideas, delving deeper and deeper into them and that’s what usually gives rise to experimentation. It’s the expression of the need to come up for air. Like with poetry. It makes all the difference. But not everywhere. I always aim to be experimental only where it’s really needed. The exact points are revealed to me organically. I try to make sure that all the elements that make up a film, especially at the editing stage, play an integral part in the overall story. I try to create a sound narrative, different every time but consistent with my artistic universe.

It has been written and proclaimed many times that cinema is dead or slowly dying, and that experimentation is the only way to resist to the dominant narrative mode. Do you share this view?


In my opinion, cinema is by no means dead. Especially for as long as there are people to support it. Cinema is neither dead nor slowly dying. It is perennial. It’s a major art form. One of the greatest, perhaps. Cinema gives us the opportunity to capture time and tell a story in many different ways that will conjure up thought and emotions. This is fascinating. Cinema envelops so many other art forms and people. Sometimes there is fertile ground for it to grow and blossom. Others not so much. It goes through phases. And this is perfectly normal. People need films, they need to watch them and they need to make them. The lockdowns made that crystal clear. I don’t know if in the future we will be watching movies using platforms or in theaters. For a number of reasons, these are difficult times for cinema and the cinema industry as a whole. This is a fact. It may change in the future. But watching a movie on the sofa or on a tablet is not the same as going to the cinema, whether it’s indoors or open-air. There are producers, directors and filmmakers who care more about festivals, trends and awards than about the audience that will go to see their films. Others prefer to make safer projects, using recipes that have been tried and tested. This leads to tedious repetition, and, in my opinion, to movies which are lacking nerve and are predictable. I don’t know if experimentation is the answer to that. I feel that, to a large extent, the Greek public doesn’t trust us anymore. The other absurd thing that happens is that bad, offensive, commercial films make tens of thousands of tickets. It’s a complex issue to which I don’t have a specific answer. Nor have I actually studied it enough to say anything more. But to answer your question, the only thing I know for certain is that I will try to make good films in my own way. I will continue to make films for as long as I enjoy and feel that I am getting something out of it.

Which are your key influences and your favourite movies?


Werner Herzog, Agnes Varda, Harmony Korine and Peter Tscherkassky. As I spend all day working on my films, I very rarely watch movies anymore. Among my favourite films, which I have watched several times over, are: The 400 Blows (1959) by Francois Truffaut, Uncle Yanco (1967) by Agnes Varda, Even Dwarves Started Small (1970), Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) and Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972) by Werner Herzog, Burden of Dreams (1982) by Les Blank, Julien Donkey Boy (1999) by Harmony Korine, To Be and to Have (2002) by Nicolas Philibert and, still now, Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) by Gore Vebrinski. Werner Herzog is my favourite director. I admire his work very much. I’ve watched all his films. I recommend them to anyone who is interested in cinema. They have nothing to do with cinema. When he came to Greece, I went up to him and shook his hand, bowing to him like a fool without even realising.

How easy is it to be a young director in Greece?


Judging from my psychology at the moment, I would say it is very, very difficult. Nothing is easy, absolutely nothing. In my experience, at least, it is all stress and anxiety. You need to work very long hours. Emotionally, it is a grueling process. You need to make sacrifices and compromises all the time. You have to take enormous risks. You’re essentially on your own. I’ve often been at the verge of giving up. More so a few years ago, before I did the feature. I haven’t felt that way in some time now. But that’s the nature of the business. I’ve accepted it. For others, things come easier or sometimes even harder. It is what it is. It takes a strong stomach.


Kostis Charamountanis, Dog of Chamomiles, 2019
You have directed three video clips. How did you end up collaborating with the musicians? Is your artistic approach different when you work on a video clip? Are you interested in doing more of this kind of work?


Video clips kind of came my way. Kristof was a friend. He liked my work, I liked his music, so we started talking about maybe doing something together kind of casually. In Giorgios’ case (Colour for a Rebel), I think he was the one who approached me. I really liked the track. I’ve never received payment for a video clip. The creative process is much more chaotic. Different rules apply. Video clips are not at the top of my list right now. They’re hardly on my mind at all. Nor have I had any more offers. I think it’s not very likely that I will be making more video clips. In a more professional and organized context, maybe.

Your first feature film is now complete and expected to begin its festival run soon. Tell us a bit about it. How did you choose the subject matter? Is it very different from your short films?


The film is entitled Kyuka Before Summer Ends. It was produced by Heretic and Danae Spathara — with List Productions, the Hellenic Film Center and ERT acting as co-producers. Konstantinos Koukoulios is the Director of Photography while Simeon Tsakiris, Konstantinos Georgopoulos, Elsa Lekakou and Elena Topalidou are cast in the leading roles. Kyuka is part of a trilogy beginning with the 2018 short film Kioku Before Summer Comes, which won me my first big award at the Athens International Film Festival in the Best Director Category. In Japanese, Kioku means memories, since the film sets up a collage of two children’s memories as they look forward to the beginning of summer. Kyuka means holidays. The third film will be called Kieru, which roughly translates as “the process of disappearing”. So we have: Kioku, Kyuka, Kieru. The titles didn’t have to be in Japanese. I liked the words, and, by sheer accident, they sounded similar. In Kyuka Before Summer Ends, we follow the story of a family of three. A single father, Babis, who goes on a sailing trip with his twin adult children, Konstantinos and Elsa. The trip, as we soon discover, is a pretext, as Babis’ true intention is to bring his children in contact with their biological mother who had abandoned them when they were young. The film is inspired by a patchwork of real events. Kyuka is very different from my previous work. It is, so to speak, a “normal film”, with a real plot and a linear, for the most part, narrative. The experimental element comes in only in the second half of the film, organically so since at this point there is space for it in the story. Kyuka combines elements from every film I’ve made so far. It is bathing in summer. It is deeply poetic and funny. It is moving and affecting. As a coming-of-age film, it examines the love between parents and children and the love between siblings, and how sometimes this love can become toxic. I’m very proud of the result and I feel that it fully represents the directorial approach I want to take at the moment. It’s a film I’ve been working on since the summer of 2017. It’s a part of my life and of myself. And I am so excited that this creative circle is slowly coming to a close. I can’t wait for you to see it.

What do you think about awards and festival distinctions? Is this something you actively pursue or do you see them as a necessary consequence of arthouse cinema?


I don’t care at all about awards. I don’t think they are part of my work. I think they are more useful for producers. When I first started out making films, I used to care a lot about awards and would get frustrated if I didn’t win. It seemed to me that the committees would select the people rather than the works. I don’t know much about festivals. Just some basic things about the ones held in Greece. I don’t know the first thing about what’s happening abroad. I find it very disorienting to keep thinking about awards, distinctions, trends and themes of festivals. For that reason, I have chosen to stay out of the circuit. I devote all my thoughts to writing and directing and I’m lucky enough to do more or less what I want. But it is definitely very rewarding when someone acknowledges your work and selects it among other. In 2018, when I won the Best Director Award at the Athens International Film Festival for Kioku Before Summer Comes, Lambis Haralambidis was on the jury. Five years later, life brought it so that we met again for the editing of Kyuka. Not much changed after I won the award. The degree of difficulty remained the same. There are directors who have collected a bunch of awards yet face the exact same problems as I do. So, like I said, I don’t care very much about them.

Are you interested in commercial success? Do you think about this at all?


Very much so. But in my own terms. I am interested in a type of commercial success that will come as a result of the quality of the film and will allow me to maintain my own mark as a director. I would never make a film I don’t believe in artistically. I’m interested in what the audience thinks. I care to know whether they liked the film or not, if they had a good time or not and if they were affected by the film. I like to create a hype. I don’t like to speak only to my audience. At the screening of The Beast Asleep during the 2017 Athens International Film Festival, a very nice old lady sitting in front of me just wouldn’t stop laughing. Ironically, the inspiration for the Beast was another old lady, though not a very nice one in her case, who used to call me a monster. The viewer is my first concern. But I try to combine this concern with doing what I really want. If it works for me, I take the risk and hope for the best.


Kostis Charamountanis, The Beast Asleep, 2017
All your films can be accessed for free on vimeo. Tell me about this choice of yours.


I want anyone to be able to access these films. They are my first ones. They are a series of experiments. They were created using the bare minimum. With my own money. I have never made any money from them, and that was a conscious choice. I believe this is consistent with the type of films they are. My hope is that someone who wants to make films but is told that it can’t be done, that it takes a lot of money (!) and you’d need to go to school (!) and whatnot, well, I hope these films will inspire that person to go on and make films without giving a damn what other people say. Kioku Before Summer Comes cost about 250 euros, even though filming dragged on for months. The actors were paid in ice cream, pizzas and cake. For Dog of Chamomile, I bought them the ticket for the bus to Marathon. Anthology cost 150 euros, plus souvlaki and a token fee I paid to Chryssi just as a thank you. These films were my learning curve. I don’t think it’s right to receive compensation for them. But their quality doesn’t compare to what I can do now. In my next films, I will do things differently. After all, I need to start making a living out of cinema, otherwise I won’t be able to sustain it for much longer.


Kostis Charamountanis, Anthology of a Butterfly, 2020
Do you think this is a good moment for Greek cinema?


In Greece, especially in Athens, summertime is prime cinema time. That’s very nice. Kyuka is perfect for an open-air cinema. Globally, though, it doesn’t look like this is a very good moment for Greek cinema. But I try not to think about it, as doing so would hamper my creativity and my desire to work. I’m 29 years old. This is the only reality I’ve known. I haven’t lived in an era when Greek cinema was doing well. These are the circumstances I grew up in, and I am used to them.

How do you see your work developing from now on? Do you think you will devote yourself to making feature films or will you continue the same mix?


I see it following a course that is very similar to the one I’ve been following: ever-expanding and ever-creative. With the feature coming out, this is a transitional period for me. Right now, I want my work to be clearer, sounder, more professional and more precise. The last few years I’ve been working hard to achieve this. I have dedicated and invested literally thousands of hours of work on the next scripts I am preparing. That’s why I stopped doing one film per year, which used to be my goal. I feel that I’ve made the most out of my first films. I will continue to make both feature films and short films because I enjoy it. At the moment, in parallel with finishing up Kyuka, I have already started working on the script for my next feature, entitled The Ecstatic Insanity of the Sad Shepherd[NS1] . The film has received development funding for the writing stage from the Greek Film Centre. In addition, I have two more shorts lined up, Kieru and Bloom . As mentioned earlier, Kieru is the third part of the trilogy Kioku, Kyuka, Kieru, whereas Bloom in a sense revisits the universe of Anthology of a Butterfly. I would like to secure funding before setting off to do these films, so inevitably it will take longer.

After watching Anthology of a Butterfly. I was expecting a feature film where all characters would have flowers instead of heads. If you didn’t have any budget restrictions what would the film of your dreams look like?


You don’t need a big budget to make a good film. Magnetic Fields is the most recent proof of that. Budget limitations have never kept me back, nor have I ever limited myself when choosing my material because I didn’t have enough budget. I think it’s really the most minor factor in a film. Since all my films were handmade, I have learned to think and create within set limits and in a scale that I can manage. As for the expectation you mentioned in your question, let’s just move on and pretend you never asked that because it’s there in Bloom! If my budget was unlimited, I would be making more money. I believe that even with a million euros, I would still make the exact same movies. In exactly the same way. Time, however, is a very important factor. The only thing that would change is that I would have more time to devote to each film. I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to finish. I wouldn’t be as anxious to stick to the day’s filming schedule, so we don’t fall behind.


Kostis Charamountanis is a film director born in 1994 in Athens, Greece. He has directed five films in total, the most acclaimed being Kioku Before Summer Comes (2018) and the most recent Anthology of a Butterfly (2020). Ηe is presently working on the script of his debut feature film, Kyuka Journeying to the Moon through the Endless Sea, which earned him a place at the MIDPOINT Feature Launch 2020 at the beginning of the year. He has been awarded the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Artist Fellowship by ARTWORKS (2020).

Tassos Chatzieffraimidis is a lawyer and a freelance writer based in Athens. He currently works as a film curator at Cinobo, a digital platform dedicated to independent and arthouse cinema.