A Quest for eternity. A documentary about the historical and political aspects of Theo Angelopoulos’s work.
Author: Iakovos Panagopoulos
Published: February 2022
A Quest for Eternity (2020) is a fifty-five-minute documentary which explores some very specific elements of Theo Angelopoulos’s form and style. The documentary is divided in four chapters and each chapter focuses on a different part of Angelopoulos’s style.
The first chapter focuses on the connection of Theo Angelopoulos’s films with contentious historical events and the use of his poetic form as a tool for the creation of his cinematic space as a way to present alternative historical narratives. For this reason, we divided Angelopoulos’s films into two periods where we can focus a radical change in his form and style. The first period up until Alexander the Great (1980) and the second period from Voyage to Cythera (1984) up until his last completed film Dust of Time (2008).
The second chapter emphasizes the connection between Theo Angelopoulos’s work and the estrangement techniques of Bertolt Brecht. This chapter reshapes our knowledge regarding this connection and elaborates on the debate between the traditional Brechtian approach of Angelopoulos’s work and the post-Brechtian approach (Katsourakis, 2012). Also, it directly connects with chapter one since his change in form and style during his second period underlines a step back from his Brechtian approach and his goal to present an alternative historical narrative (Panagopoulos, 2019).
The third chapter stresses the importance of the Greek coffeeshop (kafeneion) as an ideal location in Theo Angelopoulos’s films and underlines the important role of this location for creating his cinematic universe in a way that he was able to present his interpretation of the historical events.
The last chapter talks about contemporary Greek cinema during 2009-2018 with the birth of the Greek Weird Wave, as well as whether this new gaze could be influenced by Theo Angelopoulos’s work or whether we can talk about a completely different post-modern and nihilistic approach in filmmaking (Panagopoulos, 2019).
This documentary was created for research purposes during my PhD research at the University of Central Lancashire and was enriched during my post-doctoral research at Panteion University. The research statement was created specifically for my postdoctoral research as a way to focus on the ways that as filmmakers we can use our cinematic space to present alternative historical narratives on contentious historical events. This documentary uses Theo Angelopoulos’s example to explore the above issues. The documentary is based on semi-structured interviews from researchers who had focused their research on studying Angelopoulos’s work from the beginning of their career (such as Andrew Horton, Dan Georgakas, Irini Stathi among others). This is the first time that some of the key people that have worked or studied the work of Theo Angelopoulos are discussing the above topics to this extent. In addition, it includes interviews with Seraphim Seferiades whose research interest is on Greek contentious politics and Spiros Gangas who is a sociologist. They both approach Theo Angelopoulos’s work from their points of view thereby creating a cross-disciplinary approach to this topic, demonstrating the ways that film practice can be used to present alternative historical narrative of periods that even historians may have trouble to (re)present.
The creation of this documentary is the main methodological tool of this research to collect the data from the semi-structured interviews in order to provide new insights regarding the ways to present alternative historical narratives with the use of cinematic space in Theo Angelopoulos’s work to create a strong example in the ways that we can use the above cinematic tools as contemporary filmmakers to present alternative historical narratives ourselves through our own creative practice.
History is written by the winners, but films have the capacity to transfer historical events and historical memory through very troubled periods. A very typical example is Angelopoulos’s first Trilogy [Days of ’36 (1972), The Travelling Players (1975), The Hunters (1977)] (Angelopoulos, 1972; 1975; 1977). Through his films, he managed to transfer a very strong political message against the 1967-1974 military dictatorship, famously managing to bypass the strong censorship of the regime (Horton, 1997; Seferiades, 2016). During the first period of his filmmaking, his films present an alternative approach of the historical events of the Metaxas dictatorship (1936-1941), the German occupation of Greece (1941-1944), the battle of Athens (1944), the Greek civil war (1946-1949), the post-civil war state and the colonels’ dictatorship (1967-1974) (Panagopoulos et al, 2021; Rafailidis, 2010). This period is contentious, with extremely different approaches of the historical events and with the official state still not having a clear view on them (Panagopoulos, 2017; Seferiades, 2019).
The elements that play a crucial role and help Angelopoulos present this alternative narrative are his use of space and his poetic style. His use of space is really important. Some locations are so enriched by their past that they can remain as a lighthouse of historical memory. In her paper “Visiting Architectural and cultural landscapes in Theo Angelopoulos’ films”, Stathi explains how Angelopoulos uses his cinematic location by creating an “ideal space”. She aptly states:
Angelopoulos’s architectural space is organized on the basis of this advanced conception for the representation’ function, a representation which leads to the understanding of the world as a result of a sensible reflection, which proves to be particularly useful in social terms (Stathi, 2009).
This statement makes it clear that Angelopoulos wants to represent some events in a possible reality (that may or may not have happened), where the architectural space plays a very crucial role for these events and the future interpretation of the world. She also pinpoints that:
The architectural elements in Angelopoulos’s films transform themselves into crucial scene-design elements or into privileged representation areas … each of which pinpoints equal relationship conditions of the main characters with the world they experience (Stathi, 2009).
The notion of these “privileged representation areas” is really important and plays a significant role for the fashioning and transmission of this alternative historical narrative. Spaces are established by the repetition of social behaviors and rituals. Stavrides also states that:
This is how we create the notion that spaces remain permanent, the same, being there to receive repeated and identical actions (Stavrides, 2006).
But what happens when the identity of the space changes and various social behaviors are established? Claudio Minca states that:
We can imagine space as the endless game between repetition (similarity) and the reframing of the meaning (difference): a repetition that comes from a kind of memory of the endless reframing of meanings between conflicting descriptions of the space that created this space and its history (Minca, 2001).
This notion is extremely important because these locations are becoming historical preservation spaces. These spaces leave traits of their previous use and social behaviors even when these are in conflict with the present identity of the space. Such locations give an amazing opportunity to filmmakers to underline and comment on specific historical and political elements. Filmmakers have the ideal location to represent events that may or may not have happened but have been inscribed in the collective memory. The creation of such ideal spaces can become a powerful cinematic tool since it brings back memory without forcing the audience to understand a topic through dialogue and exposition.
In this way, the kafeneion is a very important location that becomes privileged through Theo Angelopoulos’s unique representation. Since the first appearance of kafeneion, they have been of great significance in the history of Greece as a place of political socialisation (Panagopoulos, 2019). As Stathi comments on congregational places in Angelopoulos’s work:
Greek coffee shops (kafenia), ouzo restaurants, open-air markets, and squares are the main congregation places in Angelopoulos’s films. This is where social interaction is manifested along with politics, where the foreigners merge with the locals, where the similarities and differences of a constantly evolving population are defined…In the congregation places, Angelopoulos is less interested about the personal identities of the goers, but focuses on the functions of the place, on the evolution of human relations. (Stathi, 2009, p. 8)
The second element that plays a crucial role in the way that Angelopoulos manages to present this alternative narrative through his films is his style and more specifically his connection with Brechtian tools and techniques. The “de-familiarisation” techniques that were used mostly during his first Trilogy and Alexander the Great (1980) in combination with his use of space were extremely important for this alternative narrative representation in combination with his use of cinematic space. His use of single shot camera movement in these “privileged locations” like the kafeneion with Brechtian estrangement techniques such as: time fluidity, his non-linear and non-cathartic ending, the lack of protagonists etc. are some techniques that are discussed during the documentary in depth. It is really important to underline that these de-familiarization techniques helped the audience to take a distance from the historical events that are represented by Angelopoulos and critically observe the collapse by these “privileged groups” in these “privileged locations” with non-linear time through some unique shot sequences (Panagopoulos, 2019). As Lino Miccichè states:
The shot-sequence is the subjective recording of an “experience” of the camera that does not try to depict it as real, but as clear mise-en-scene of a narration, as the ideological moment of the representation. (Miccichè, 2000)
Outcomes and Impact
The above issues were discussed extensively through the semi-structured interviews in the documentary. As a filmmaker, the discussion and research of the above topics helped me develop my personal style and my own gaze. During the creation of this documentary, I managed to find my own perspective and fully understand the way that I want to create my own films. After this documentary I created the short fiction films Flickering Souls Set Alight (2019) and Allimonò (2020) in which I explore the above issues, trying through my own personal gaze to create an alternative historical narrative of some contentious events through my cinematic space (see discussion of this in Panagopoulos, 2020). The short film Allimonò (2020) is shot almost exclusively in a kafeneion and through the use of a single shot camera movement I am exploring the past through the fluidity of time. So, the filming of this documentary had a personal impact on my own artistic expression.
Regardless of my personal impact I strongly believe that this documentary can be a really useful tool not only to understand and reshape our knowledge about Angelopoulos’s form and style but for contemporary filmmakers to use the above discussion points as cinematic tools in order to explore their own practice.
The documentary was screened through the Audio-Visual Arts Festival 2022 of the Department of Audio & Visual Arts of Ionian University.
Horton, A. (1997) The Last Modernist, The Films of Theo Angelopoulos. Translated from English by. England: Flicks Books.
Katsourakis, A. (2012) History as transition: Brecht’s Historisierung in Straub/ Huillet’s Not Reconciled (1965), and Angelopoulos’ The Hunters (1977). Studies in European Cinema, 169–179.
Miccichè, L. (2000) Aesthetic materialism of Angelopoulos, in Stathi, I. (ed), Theo Angelopoulos, First edition. Thessaloniki: Kastanioti.
Minca, C. (2001) Postmodern Temptations in Minca, C. (ed), Postmodern Geography. Theory and Praxis. London Blackwell.
Panagopoulos, I. (2017) Theo Angelopoulos: ” A voyage in history, time and space ” History, Story, Narrative. ECAH/Euromedia 2017. Brighton, U.K.
Panagopoulos, I. (2019) 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. (2020b) Flickering Souls Set Alight Screenworks, 11.1.
Panagopoulos, I., Seferiades, S. & Papadopoulou, A. (2021) Suspended spaces of memory: Heterotopic historical narratives and contentious politics in Theo Angelopoulos’ work and its use on contemporary cinematic practice, Digital Culture & AudioVisual Challenges Interdisciplinary Creativity in Arts and Technology. Corfu, Greece.
Rafailidis, V. (2010) History (Tragicomic) of the Modern Greek State. Athens: 21st Century.
Seferiades, S. (2016) Apo tin Apotheosi sthn Stiliteysi: I “Metapoliteysi” os Theoritiko kai Ereynitiko Afigima, in Sourlas, P. (ed), I Diktatorria ton Syntagmatarxon kai i Apokatastasi tis Dimokratias. Athens: Idrima Voulis ton Ellinon gia ton Koinovouleytismo kai tin Dimokratia.
Seferiades, S. (2019) Astikos Politikos Eksyxronismos stin Ellada, 1840-1936: mia fenaki Marxistiki Skepsi 158-179.
Stathi, I. (2009) Visiting Architectural and cultural landscapes in Theo Angelopoulos’s films, in Itkomen, M., Majkut, Paul, Backhaus, Gary (ed), The Illuminating Traveller. Expressions of the Ineffability of the Sublime. Finland: University of Jyvaskyla Printing House-University of Akureyri Press, 303-328.
Stavrides, S. (2006) H Schesi Xorou kai Xronou stin Silogiki Mnimi (The connection of space and time in collective memory), in Stavrides, S. (ed), Mnimi kai Empiria tou Xorou (Memory and experience of space). Athens: Alexandria.
Alexander the Great (dir. Theo Angelopoulos, 1980). Greece.
Allimonò (dir. Iakovos Panagopoulos, 2020). Greece. Apulia Film Commission.
Days of 36 (dir. Theo Angelopoulos, 1972). Greece.
Dust of Time (dir. Theo Angelopoulos, 2008). Greece.
Flickering Souls Set Alight (dir. Iakovos Panagopoulos, 2019).
The Hunters (dir. Theo Angelopoulos, 1977). Greece.
The Travelling Players (dir. Theo Angelopoulos, 1975). Greece.
Voyage to Cythera (dir. Theo Angelopoulos, 1984). Greece.
The research project was supported by the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (H.F.R.I.) under the “1st Call for H.F.R.I. Research Projects to support Faculty Members & Researchers and the Procurement of High-and the procurement of high-cost research equipment grant” (Project Number: 1320).
Iakovos Panagopoulos is a postdoctoral researcher at Panteion University Department of Political Science and History / Academic Scholar at the Department of Audio & Visual Arts, Ionian University.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement.
What are the main claims and purposes of the work?
The research presents how Theo Angelopoulos presents an alternative historical narrative through the use of space and more specifically through his kafeneion (Greek coffeeshop) scenes in his films, and how his connection with Bertolt Brecht estrangement techniques play an important role on the representation of alternative historical narratives. The author states the aim is to further expand this research into how heterotopias can be used as privileged location memory preservation in cinematic practice.
Does it seem to make a genuine new contribution to knowledge or understanding of practice-research?
The research offers a genuine perspective to Angelopoulos films and how architectural spaces and landscape as location underpins the political and historical relevance through cinematic techniques. The research highlights the significance of location in cinematic representation that can aid collective memory of historical events without using dialogue. The research draws attention to the role that the visual methodology can contribute to an understanding of complex historical events and narratives. The interviews provide cross-disciplinary perspectives that enrichen the understanding of how space within cinematic methodologies can be used to offer layered interpretations of historical and political events. The strength in this research is the use of selected scenes from films with additional in-depth interviews with an original focus on particular architectural spaces and landscape locations. The focus on the kafeneion as a significant cinematic and historical space offers a succinct investigation.
How strong is the research and theoretical context of the accompanying written statement?
The research builds on a variety of scholars on Angelopoulos and Greek political history. The research documentary is well presented and offers new perspectives on Angelopoulos’ films, with particular focus on space and location. The documentary has a conventional structure with archival material and interviews, and this format may be particularly suitable for television broadcast and academic contexts. The interviews by several scholars offer a robust insight into how space and location underpin complexities within Greek history, and how Angelopoulos uses cinematography as a methodology in order to offer a poetic and visual representation of past events. Research and context into Brechtian approaches as cinematic tools in the films is discussed and gives good examples of de-familiarisation techniques. However, this part of the research has potential to be developed further.
Are there particular changes that you would deem either necessary or helpful for the work to be published?
It would be good to see a little further elaboration on the author’s other film works as they are referenced, however the context to these films is unclear. It may help the accompanying statement to briefly present context the author’s other films regarding subject, cinematic methodologies or their relevance to research presented in the submitted research documentary.
How well organised and written is the accompanying statement?
The accompanying statement is clearly presented that outlines the main areas of research. It gives good context to the research documentary and relevant scholars in the field. The accompanying statement outlines the four areas of research that places the research in context to cinematic practice within Angelopoulos films. If offers a succinct outline of the main areas of investigation with the aim to broaden our understanding of complex historical narratives and how cinematography can be used as a methodology.
Review 2: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
The submission is a 55-minute documentary-film and a written statement, presenting research on the political use of space in film director Theo Angelopoulos oeuvre. The research (text + film) presents the interesting view that Angelopoulos´ crafting of cinematic space was a forceful challenge to the historical narrative of the military dictatorship in Greece 1967-1974. The argument is that the crafting of what is called “an ideal space:” spaces created by the interplay between physical environments, collective memory and the repetition of social behaviors and rituals, play a central role in presenting alternative views on certain historical events. In these “ideal spaces” imagined variants of such events are being presented, reframing their very meaning. Exploring an underexplored topic, the presented research provides a useful contribution for studies of Greek cinema, and of cinema space in more general. For practice-led research it is also a good example of how artists in a subtle way may counter ideology through complex and non-verbal strategies of space
The documentary submitted consists of a collection of film clips exemplifying Angelopoulos use of space as described in the research statement. The clips are edited together with interviews with central scholars in the field. Judging recording quality, the film seems to be made for research purposes, and not for professional distribution. It has a clear and articulate English voice-over and is well structured. The written text presents research questions, findings and research context. To my view this submission conveys interesting perspective but needs to undergo major revisions of the text in order to be published in Screenworks. Although watching the film does provide more in-depth understanding of the research articulated in the text, there is a need for improved clarity on role of the documentary in the presented research. Is filmmaking part of the method or methodology? To what extent is research carried out through screen practice, and if so, in which way? The title uses the word “research-documentary.” What is that? Is it a documentation or/and a dissemination of research? It is particularly important to explain such things in a multidisciplinary journal like Screenworks, in which the interplay between text and audiovisual material is key. Terms may not be known to all. In any case, the text would largely benefit from elaborations on the method or methodology of this research. The text mentions for instance that semi-structured interviews of experts in the field have been important. Are the film practice and the method of qualitative research-interviews entwined in any way? Are there other relevant methods, such as film-analysis?
I would also strongly recommend a reframing of the text after a set of criteria or a question – by which the reader /viewer of this particular submission should judge its content. Such criteria are often different from the research questions of the entire research-project. A criterion may be found by asking oneself: what, in the context of Screenworks, is the question that should guide the reader through her experience/judgement of text and film? The reader/viewer will not, in such a short text, be able to judge the quality of the content by reading research questions for a much larger project. However, she may judge a small portion of it – such as the interplay between film and text, or another aspect of choice. Of the same reasons it’s crucial that statements or findings are backed by short examples, argument and evidence.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.