Flickering Souls Set Alight
The questions addressed by this research are:
1. How can we use new wave and modernist techniques to comment on contemporary Greek social issues?
2. In what ways can Brechtian alienation techniques be used as a tool in contemporary political cinema?
The short film Flickering Souls Set Alight (2019) is the final outcome of my practice-based PhD research in the University of Central Lancashire entitled: “Reshaping Contemporary Greek Cinema Through a Re-evaluation of the Historical and Political Perspective of Theo Angelopoulos’s Work” supervised by Prof. Erik Knudsen and Dr. Gary Bratchford (Panagopoulos, 2019b; Panagopoulos, 2019a).
The film follows the lives of a three-member Greek family during the toughest years of the financial crisis. The father (Aris), suffers from ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), is on a life support machine. The electricity company is about to cut the power supply in three days because of the huge debt and the wife (Persephone) is trying to find money since her husband is on ventilator support. In these new circumstances, Persephone and her daughter, Georgia, are in constant search of their past, reshaping their relationship with their father/husband and taking their life in their hands for the first time.
The narration of the film underlines two very important issues. The first one is the Greek financial crisis and the fact that many households, even in the poorest neighborhoods, that cannot afford paying electricity bills are in danger of getting the electricity power cut off. The second issue is about the group of people that suffer from ALS and don’t get any kind of support from the official state, while in the same time they cannot work and need constant health support. These two topics are also underlined by the sexist and patriarchal tradition of the Greek family, where Persephone is in charge of the family and takes her life in her own hands for the first time.
The main idea was to approach this topic not from a realistic point of view, even though the storyline is realistic, but from a modernist poetic approach with direct roots to theatrical and Brechtian techniques. The study and research on Theo Angelopoulos’ form and style and his connection with Brechtian techniques, especially during his first Trilogy History [Days of ’36 (1972), The Travelling Players (1975), The Hunters (1977)], changed my perspective about form and style and gave me the tools to approach this topic. Brecht’s idea of alternation of the dominant Weltanschauung (world view), which was the bourgeois theatre of the traditional narrative, with an ultimate goal to change the dominant Weltanschauung of society as a whole, helped me to give a purpose to my work (Squiers, 2014). He wanted to create theatre that the audience could no longer lose itself in catharsis and empathy. His goal was the de-familiarisation of the audience with the narration of the play (Brecht, 1978). De-familiarisation aims at making the bourgeois Weltanschauung seem unnatural and allow the material, dialectical Weltanschauung to seem natural. Brecht tried to achieve “de-familiarisation” through his much discussed “estrangement effects” (Verfremdungseffekt) (Squiers, 2014, p. 49). These techniques provide the necessary distance of the characters and the plot in order to critically analyse the story and connect it with contemporary society issues. Combining these “estrangement effects” (time jumps, estrangement monologues, non-cathartic ending etc.), with a modernist approach to filming (such us long tracking shots, attention to detail, lack of dialogue etc.), provided me with the political form to dialectically approach this topic.
In order to approach this topic and collect the data that I needed, I had to spend almost a year visiting constantly the houses of patients that suffer from ALS in my hometown, Corfu, Greece. During that period, I was able to observe their everyday life and collect all the details that would be useful for me in order to finish the script and make it as close to reality as possible. Some parts of the script (the scene with the radio, scene with the teddy bear) were based in similar events that I observed in the houses of the patients. In addition, the “wall of memories” in Aris’ room is also inspired from the details that I noticed in the houses of the patients, as the wall is the only place the patients could look and is full of photos and memories. I also spent many days trying to communicate with the patients using a letter board in order to understand their perspective of everyday life. I also had the opportunity to interview other members of the family and nurses and I was able to get useful data for the everyday life of the patients in order to write a script that is very close to reality as well as the challenges that this group of people is facing. My intention was to write my own script because that would be the only way for me to connect completely with my story and its characters. The notion of the “total filmmaker” that my PhD supervisor Prof. Erik Knudsen argues in his papers inspired me to control the creative process totally to get a full control of my creative process (Knudsen, 2016). As Knudsen states:
“For the Total Filmmaker working in an environment where traditional structures and processes are being reshaped, and where creative and entrepreneurial independence drives new sectors within a pluralising industry, the screenplay written by a person removed from the rest of the production process may gradually become a thing of the past. After all, the screenwriter, the director, and the editor are all engaged in the same thing: telling a story cinematically.” (Knudsen, 2016)
The second part of my methodology was to approach the form and style and to use modernist and theatrical techniques to support the narration. In order to achieve that I spent one and a half year studying bibliography about Brecht, Angelopoulos, Tarkovsky, Iranian filmmakers (Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi) in order to understand their modernist approach to filmmaking and to be able to shape my own perspective. In addition, I had the opportunity to study Theo Angelopoulos archive in Athens for three months and I was able to get more information and details regarding his approach. The reason why I believe that the modernist point of view is the most appropriate way to approach contemporary Greek cinema today is because that was the last period that we could talk about an organised political cinema movement across the globe. The topics were political, the poetic approach to form and style gave the audience the opportunity to think and revisit history and the dream for a more democratised and alternative future for art and society in general had not been lost yet. My plan was to work with shot sequences and internal edit to every scene. I didn’t want to capitalise on dialogue, but to focus on attention to detail on my mise-en-scene. This idea of the long tracking shots with attention to detail gave me the opportunity to use theatrical and “estrangement effects” and to get the desirable outcomes that I wanted. I wanted to approach a real story from a non-realist but a poetic form. As Tarkovsky states:
“Through poetic connections feeling is heightened and the spectator is made more active. He becomes a participant in the process of discovering life, unsupported by ready-made deductions from the plot or ineluctable pointers by the author. He has at his disposal only what helps to penetrate to the deeper meaning of the complex phenomena represented in front of him.” (Tarkovsky, 1987)
The second part of the creation of my form was the Brechtian approach in my film. I believe that this stage completely changed my approach to filmmaking. First of all, Brecht’s idea of the alternation of the Weltanschauung completely gave me a goal for my approach to art. His Verfremdungseffekt opened me new horizons to approach my narration. In the film, I used three time jumps where we return back in the past during a flashback that is completely theatrical. Everything is happening in a single shot and the actors don’t change their age characteristics or their costumes. This technique helps the audience to observe in more detail what’s happening and to approach it from a critical point of view. During the first film screenings, the audience was confused from the first flashback and they were trying to observing more carefully in order to understand what was happening. It was also the topic discussed more in the Q&A’s that followed the screenings. Also, the alienation monologue of Persephone really helped me to have a climax point in the story. I decided that the actress Ioanna Tsirigouli would not approach the monologue from a distance acting point of view. I wanted her to be emotional and to connect with the audience. I wanted her to confess her troubles looking directly to it. The final outcome gave the product that I wanted.
The notion of Verfremdungseffekt also helped me to create the aspect ratio of the film. During my research in the houses of the patients I noticed this wall of memories which is mentioned above. When I had the first meeting with the DOP of the film, Petros Antoniadis, we started to discuss about a square frame that could provide us with a claustrophobic effect that I wanted and also transfer the idea of the memory wall in our frame. As Petros aptly observes:
“As each scene is a single take, we needed to capture nothing less than what the story required so cropping (left and right) thus loosing information was far from the ideal, especially on a tight location. We had to get to 1:1 without losing any horizontal pixel of the sensor. And that’s where the idea of using the anamorphic format crossed my mind.” (Antoniadis, 2019)
Using anamorphic lenses vertically gave us this final product without losing any information and in the same time providing the “estrangement effect” that I wanted. Also, I argue that the whole idea of the “wall of memories” in our frame provided us with the notion that Aris (the patient) was always there. He was just the observer of his everyday life. Not able to change or interact with anyone. But he was still there observing the everyday life of his loved ones.
The most important outcome of this research is that it enabled me to create and force my own personal gaze in cinema. I had shot over ten short films before Flickering Souls Set Alight (2019), but it was during the shooting of that film when I looked at my monitor and realised for the very first time that I was happy with every element of my work. The modernist approach with Brechtian alienation techniques really forced me with the weapons that I needed in order to create my own political films. I believe that this is the key outcome for any research practitioner when they try to approach their film practice.
Another important outcome was the practical use of the Verfremdungseffekt in cinema today. I strongly believe that the way that I approached Brecht’s effects was unique and is a way to give our practice approach of Brechtian alienation techniques to the filmmaking society. Especially our use of the aspect ratio covered some new ground and alternative use of these techniques in the cinematic universe.
Last but not least, I am really happy to cover these political and social topics through the film. Especially the discussion of the current situation of ALS patients and the right to life and death is an issue that really troubles me. ALS community is not very large, they live among us, but no one supports them, especially during the financial crisis in Greece. I got really attached with this topic since when I was young, I was in induced coma for a month. When I woke up, I wasn’t able to communicate or move any part of my body, while in the same time I could feel and hear everything. This is the reason I wanted to deal with this group of people who experience the same conditions, but permanently.
The present research really transformed my perspective in cinema and helped me to develop my own gaze. Before the completion of my PhD in September 2019, I submitted Flickering Souls Set Alight (2019) in various film festivals around the world. The film has already gained thirteen awards including the Audience Award in Los Angeles Greek Film Festival 2019 and the Set Design Award in Drama Greek Film Festival 2019 and is screened in various events all over Greece during 2019.
A very important impact of the research is the creation of a second film, titled Allimonò (2020), in which the same principles as Flickering Souls Set Alight (2019) are followed. In May 2019, my colleagues and me won the Memory Call from the Interreg Greece-Italy (2019). We were one of the ten winners that were given the opportunity to produce a short film by the end of the summer 2019. Allimonò (2020) was produced by Apulia Film Commission and is a second example of this kind of contemporary Greek political cinema that demonstrates the impact of this research through time (Panagopoulos, 2020).
As far as future plans are concerned, the production of a third short film, which will be the third part of the trilogy, is anticipated. The name of the film is ‘Cloudy Water’ and is already submitted for funding. We are also planning along with other Greek political filmmakers the production of a new research lab/independent production company that will produce political films and research around media practice political filmmaking etc.
Antoniadis, P. (2019). Flickering Souls Set Alight. Retrieved from https://shotoncooke.com/video/flickering-souls-set-alight/
Brecht, B. (1978). Brecht on theatre : the development of an aesthetic. New York : London: New York : Hill and Wang ; London : Eyre Methuen.
Knudsen, E. (2016). The Total Filmmaker: thinking of screenwriting, directing and editing as one role. New Writing The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. doi:10.1080/14790726.2016.1142571
Panagopoulos, I. (Writer). (2019a). Flickering Souls Set Alight. In D. Production (Producer). Greece.
Panagopoulos, I. (2019b). Reshaping Contemporary Greek Cinema Through a Re-evaluation of the Historical and Political Perspective of Theo Angelopoulos’s Work. (PhD). University of Central Lancashire
Panagopoulos, I. (Writer). (2020). Allimonò. In A. F. Commission (Producer). Greece: Apulia Film Commission.
Squiers, A. (2014). An Introduction to the Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht: Revolution and Aesthetics. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi.
Tarkovsky, A. (1987). Sculpting in time: reflections on the cinema.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
Flickering Souls Set Alight is a remarkable short film that explores a range of important lines of research enquiry. It is a valuable example of how narrative fiction film can provide a compelling channel of practice research for a journal such as Screenworks. However, the research statement is unfocused and must be significantly revised and resubmitted before publication.
A fascinating quality of Flickering Souls Set Alight is the film’s aesthetic sensibility, with superb production design and attention to detail, in a narrative that perfectly matches the requirements of traditional social realist drama that in other film cultures, such as those of Belgium or the UK, would be presented in the visual conventions of ‘gritty’ realism. The dilemma faced by the protagonist, Persephone, is rooted in the political and economic crisis facing Greece: her husband Aris suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and lies in bed at home with his breathing supported by an electric ventilator. The family finances are so poor that the electricity supplier will soon disconnect the current. The script for Iakovos Panagopoulos’s film thus presents a tragedy that builds fascinating links between Greek drama and social realism – the dilemma confronting Persephone could easily be one imagined by the screenwriter Paul Laverty.
The use of an unconventional aspect ratio is a striking feature of the film’s visual style. Although presenting a 1:1 frame rather than 1.375:1, it nevertheless relates the film it to the traditions of Academy ratio in the 1930s and 1940s. However, the creative choice operates differently from films by other recent adopters of the non-widescreen frame: whereas Kelly Reichardt makes an assertive statement of excluding landscape in favour or women’s faces in Meek’s Cutoff (2010), for Panagopoulos the use of his aspect ratio seems to deliberately render the Athens apartment a place of imprisonment.
My central concern is that the research statement is rooted in the process of the author’s PhD thesis, rather than being centred on the practice research qualities of the film: the discussion of Knudsen is interesting but irrelevant to this submission; the description of the various stages of Panagopoulos’s thesis research is a similar diversion from the requirements of this submission to Screenworks.
The research questions are not clearly-enough linked to the practice research represented in Flickering Souls Set Alight. For instance, the second question begins by asking, In what ways does Theo Angelopoulos use the kafeneion (Greek coffee shop) as an ideal location in his films – a question that the film cannot adequately interrogate – before posing a more achievable objective, how can we use it today as Greek political filmmakers? which may be answered through the example given in the short film.
I think that there is a great deal more to the research significance of Flickering Souls Set Alight than the author realizes. The research statement and the questions of enquiry feel delimited by their reference to Theo Angelopoulos, which was necessary within the structure of the PhD thesis title that this practice research serves. However, the film introduces ideas about cinema and society that may be broader than this: I suggest that the research statement be rewritten to loosen this film from these specific statements about a single cinema practitioner.
The ambition of the research statement is laudable, with intentions such as the ‘re-shaping contemporary Greek cinematic practice’, and locating this short film within a ‘new wave of contemporary political cinema in Greece’. Even while acknowledging the qualities of Flickering Souls Set Alight, such statements deserve to be supported with further evidence and context.
Review 2: Accept submission subject to minor revisions.
Flickering Souls Set Alight is a moving, contemplative short film that is deeply human and small p political, with important undercurrents of big P Political. As per its Brechtian intention the film constantly calls attention to its form. The viewer is never left in doubt that they are watching a constructed piece of work, the formal elements constantly drawing attention to the reality of the lives of the characters, even if realism is the last thing on the film’s mind. There’s lens flare, the 1:1 frame, omnipotent camera angling and a constantly roving camera that acts simultaneously as narrator, viewer and participant. There’s a delightful camera sweep across time that feels synchronous with the creative and political influences the work is in dialogue with.
The creator states that “existing research [regarding the connections between Angelopoulos and Brecht] does make an in-depth political analysis of this connection but is just a superficial analysis of the Brechtian techniques used by Angelopoulos” but never makes explicitly clear what those techniques are and where they are located. As a result, it’s never clear where Flickering Souls Set Alight draws on Angelopoulos to locate the work in a contemporary Greek political context, where the work draws on the politicising techniques of Brecht directly, and where it draws on Angelopoulos by way of Brecht, in order to effectively draw out where the film is answering research question 3, and to a certain extent question 1.
Despite being a name that cinephiles and scholars may be familiar with, a detailed understanding of the cinema of Angelopoulos, and indeed pre-Lanthimos et al Greek cinema more generally, is likely beyond the immediate reach of viewers. This short film is an important piece of work in understanding the legacy of Angelopoulos in technical and political, and potentially national cinema, terms and it would be good to have the contextual material state more clearly the techniques at play and where the creator’s short is in dialogue with them but also importantly, where it is forging ahead and “re-shaping contemporary Greek cinematic practice”.
The contextual material that accompanies the film uses some grand statements about perfection and impossibility that feel at odds with the modest (not in the negative sense) composition of the filmed work. This is a film that doesn’t shout and is all the better for it. It wears its emotional content delicately and starkly, its pacing slowly building a picture of family, illness and contemporary Greek life that reaches a difficult, resigned climax where the resonance of how the social, the personal and the political combine to often devastating effect lingers, vibrating like an echo. The intention is felt clearly, simply, powerfully. The contextual material that accompanies this beautiful work needs to do the same so that the legacy of Angelopoulos, the power of Brecht and the potential of contemporary Greek cinema in the wake of these figures is not misunderstood, misrepresented or undervalued.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.