Athanasios Karanikolas: “We need to reinvent the idea of humanity, so we can live a life worth living.”

Shortly before the world premiere of ‘At Home’ at the 64th Berlinale, its creator talks to Flix about a crisis much deeper than the financial one.

Enquiring for more information about the film, and what necessitated it, the director tells us “At Home was simply a story I had to tell.”

After two feature-length works of fiction, documentaries and experimental short films that were filmed in Germany, where Athansios Karanikolas lives and works, ‘At Home’ was filmed in Athens during the summer of 2013. It was a matter of urgency for the director, who returned to his homeland to talk about the current state of affairs, using as a back drop a crisis much greater than the financial one; that of moral values.

‘At Home’ tells the story of Nandia, a Georgian who has worked as a housekeeper for a Greek family for 12 years, and their relationships, which will be upset when she finds out she is suffering from an incurable illness. As the official catalogue of the Forum of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival mentions, the film is stylized, yet its gaze is fixed on the real world, and uses elegant cinemascope imagery and depictions of space, to tell the story of its quiet heroine, in the style of a tender melodrama.

Just days before the world premiere of ‘At Home’, Athanasios Karanikolas talked to Flix about what drove him to make his first Greek film, with which he will be participating in the Forum of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival for a second consecutive year, marking himself out as one of the most dynamic voices of contemporary cinema.

 

After a series of short films, documentaries and feature length films in Germany, why did you decide to film ‘At Home’ in Greece?

While filming the documentary ‘Khaima’ a few years ago in Patra, I realized how much I needed to make a film in Greek, with Greek actors, and with a story concerned with the problematic present day situation of Greek society.

What was the original idea behind the story? Does it refer to real life stories you have heard about in Greece or elsewhere?

The story behind ‘At Home’ was born after an argument with a close friend, while filming ‘Khaima’. To have immigrants working at one’s house for little pay, illegally and without insurance etc., to give them the false impression that they belong to ‘the family’, only to rob them of this impression when they prove unviable financially, involves exploiting the deeper human need for emotional security, beyond everything else. This makes me very angry. ‘At Home’ is a story I had to tell.

In what way did the financial crisis affect the scenery and plot of your story, while you were writing it?

Similar stories have taken place in Greece since the 1980’s when the first Albanian immigrants came here to work and were exploited by most Greek families. The financial collapse of Greece today has highlighted what had already been the case for many years. In the end, “it’s not only the money”, as the character played by Alexandros Logothetis (the family’s father) says in the movie. Under the weight of the country’s financial crisis, social values degenerate and create a crisis more severe than the financial one, a crisis of moral values.

How important was it for you to have a heroine that was an immigrant who had lived in a foreign country for years, especially in the context of a Greece and Europe, where the issue of immigration has been a matter of concern and debate for years?

It is a fact that Greeks don’t accept jobs like the one Nandia holds down in the film, because they consider these below them and because they are so underpaid. Immigrants usually clean up the mess Greeks leave behind. Nandia had to be an immigrant in order for the story to have substance. Despite this, what I was interested in was creating a character that went beyond the clichéd depictions of poor and unfortunate immigrants. Nandia is the image of integrity, dedication and unselfishness. She is a true heroine because she proposes a new model of behavior. For me, she stands tall because she finds the strength to forgive those that have mistreated her. To answer your question, yes, I believe that immigration is the most important issue of the 21st century, not only because we need to reinvent society and its norms to deal with it, but especially because we need to reinvent the idea of humanity, in order to live a life worth living.

Do you think that Nandia’s integrity, which allows her to see the world in a more positive light, is her way of coping?

Nandia has a deep understanding of self-sacrifice and love, and she lives by her values with an almost religious devotion. Her friend calls her an idiot, because he doesn’t understand how she can so easily forgive those that treat her so bad, after so many years of service. In this respect, Nandia comes across as a character that could have appeared in one Dostoyevsky’s novels, who refuses to accept the way society works, and remains true to her perspective, even if this means acting against her own best interest.

Almost every scene in the films ends with Nandia in a leitmotif, which makes her loneliness obvious, even though she thinks she belongs to the house where she lives and works.

When I was writing these scenes, it wasn’t my intention to seclude Nandia artificially, in order to accentuate her loneliness. I simply followed her everyday life. Many of her actions, most of them perhaps, take place when the others are absent, but this is because of the nature of her work. She may come across as lonely, but she’s just working.

One of the central ‘characters’ of the film, is the remote concrete house where most of the film’s action takes place. The whole film seems to be have been constructed using a kind of architecture that appears to keep its heroes confined. How important were the spaces selected for the film?

The idea of a house that resembled a castle was important from the very beginning for me and for Aliki Kouvaka, who did a great job with the film’s scenography and costumes, especially when taking into account our minimal funding. The idea of a modern house, both secluded and self-sufficient, evolved along the way and became an integral part of the story, because it accentuates the exclusivity of this privileged way of life. The house is a ‘castle’ for those that can stand a life far from the toxicity of the modern city, and dream of keeping a similar distance from the ugliness of society. It’s a good life in a modern and lavishly furnished space, a hermetically shut house, with views only to the sea. For me, this view represents something larger than life, something unattainable and spiritual. It transcends society in an almost metaphysical way.

Watching the film, one identifies your characteristic style, which balances between fiction and documentary. Once again, after ‘Echolot’, you seem to enter into a house, observing the routines of its inhabitants from a distance, as if this were more important than explaining their behavior or actions. What is the main idea behind this?

With certainty I believe that a film of fiction is a documentary that documents a ‘made-up’ life, which is truthful though, within its own conventions. This certainty defines my work. I like following characters in their everyday lives and depicting scenes that may even seem trite initially, in order to slowly discover important meanings behind them.

If someone wanted to describe ‘At Home, by referring to cinematic genres, one could say it’s a big melodrama in the size of a room’s suite. Are there references to the classic filmic melodrama of Douglas Sirk or to – the closer in style and age – Rainer Werner Fassbinder?

Both Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder are important artists, who I look up to and enjoy the work of. However, the most conscious reference I make with ‘At Home’ is to the work of Yasujirō Ozu. The way Ozu regarded everyday life and his austere aesthetic principles, which he enforced on himself, enchant and inspire me. With ‘At Home’ I feel more ‘at home’ than ever, personally, thematically and stylistically. These stories, taking place behind the closed doors of a house, with a woman fighting social wrongs in her own way, have a great effect on me. This is my first conscious effort to find my own cinematic language within the genre called melodrama, without meaning that I want to make a ‘melodramatic’ film, which implies cheap sentimentality and fake tears. What I wanted from the start was a ‘dry’ melodrama. To call the film ‘a big melodrama in the size of a room’s suite’ is honestly very close to my intentions.

You worked with a cast of renowned Greek actors like Alexandros Logothetis, Maria Kallimani, Marissa Triantafyllidou, Yannis Tsortekis, Ieronimos Kaletsanos, Alexia Kaltsiki, Nikos Georgakis with younger actors Nefeli Kouri, Romana Lompatz and Eleftheria Roussaki, and even a 12 year-old girl, Zoe Asimaki, in her first role. How was this experience for you?

I was lucky enough to have very talented actors on this film that trusted my way of working, which is methodical even though it may initially come across as unorthodox. I use a technique not common in Greece, which I teach in Germany, known as the Sanford Meisner technique, which is based on simple everyday ideas of communication, like observation and repetition. From the beginning, there were no set ideas and hierarchies and everyone played their part, for the common goal. There was trust and understanding, not only among the actors, but also among the film’s crew and producers, which are prerequisites for me to be able to work calmly and focused.

More than anything, ‘At Home’ is a cinematic study and homage to a woman. How did you choose Maria Kallimani to portray Nandia, and how did you direct her?

Maria Kallimani was my first and only choice for the starring role. I had seen her in Yannis Economides’ ‘Knifer’ and fell in love with her gaze and the way she walks, as well her fragile yet dynamic profile. Argiris Papadimitropoulos, who was in charge of production in Greece, confirmed my decision, based on his knowledge of the Greek film industry and his own instinct as a director. I trusted Maria’s exceptional instinct as an actress and what I knew she would bring to the part, once she trusted her own qualities. During rehearsals, which comprised almost entirely of the repetition exercises of the Meisner technique, a relationship of trust was built between us. Maria worked carefully to get under Nandia’s skin and followed my main guideline to settle into the everyday life of her character. We discussed the fact that we were not going to film any close-ups and that we would not be framing scenes in a size other than that of general and medium, something she initially found unusual and was skeptical about, but she decided to follow my ideas. Nandia wouldn’t have been the same without Maria’s internal world, her imagination as an actress, her perspective, dedication and natural elegance. Beyond her abilities as an actress, it was her humane qualities as a person and the love she brought to her character, that brought Nandia to life.

‘At Home’ will premiere at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.