By Stelana Kliris.
Filmmaking in a developing country is a little like dancing the tango…one step forward, two steps back. Cyprus is a small island in the Mediterranean with a population of less than a million people. Yet it has a fascinating history, and present for that matter: it is a country still divided by war, a literal crossroad between East and West, and a melting pot of the many cultures that have visited, invaded or occupied it. The stories are endless and local filmmakers are dying to tell them. In recent years, thanks to the advent of the Cinema Advisory Committee within the government sector, the local industry had gained momentum. But with the financial crisis finally reaching the shores of Cyprus, we have been forced to take a step back.
A brief look back
Film production in a small country like Cyprus had an inevitable late start and slow development. It began at the end of the 1940s, when the British colonial government started to train Cypriot filmmakers at the Colonial Film Unit. With the introduction of Cypriot television in 1957, the first short-length films, mainly documentaries, began to be produced.
Slowly through the 1950s narrative shorts started to appear by cinema pioneers George Lanitis, Ninos Fenek Mikellides, Renos Watson and Polys Georgakis , and by the 1960s we saw our first feature-length films, such as Love Affairs and Heartbreaks (Agapes kai Kaimoi) by George Filis and the comedy Money the Clown (O Paras o Maskaras) by George Katsouris and Costas Farmakas.
Local production developed slowly through the 1970s with directors such as Diogenis Herodotou and Costas Demetriou, and by the 1980s we started to receive critical acclaim. The Rape of Aphrodite (O Viasmos tis Afroditis) by Andreas Pantzis, won first prize at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in Greece in 1985 and in the same year, Christos Shopahas was awarded first prize at the Moscow Film Festival for his film The Descent of the Nine (I Kathodos ton Enia).
The 1990s saw a few more accolades for films such as The Slaughter of the Cock (I Sfagi tou Kokora) by Andreas Pantzis, a Cypriot-Greek-Bulgarian co-production which won best directing at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in 1996 and was nominated by Greece as foreign language film representative for the 1997 Academy Awards (Oscars).
In 1994 the Cinema Advisory Committee was established within the Ministry of Education and Culture, and became responsible for administering funds to films.
A little support goes a long way
From 2003, local cinema started to gain momentum. The Ministry of Education and Culture made a concerted effort to develop Cypriot cinema by funding international co-productions, features, shorts, documentaries, animation and experimental films. All this was done with an annual budget of €1,500,000. While this is considered a small sum even for just one feature film, it has fuelled over 130 films to date.
While most filmmakers still depended on day jobs or the commercials industry to make ends meet, they were able to take their first cinematic steps without any real financial pressure. This kind of freedom allowed for an interesting evolution of style and content. The older generation of filmmakers, who had proceeded to features, dealt mainly with stories centred around the 1974 invasion of Cyprus. This historic event, which to this day leaves the island divided, has been the defining characteristic of the country. This is understandable seeing as it happened less than 40 years ago.
The younger generation however, tackling its first shorts, went in a completely different direction, almost deliberately avoiding the topic in favour of alternative themes, be they personal or abstract. We saw promising young voices in Ioakim Mylonas (Pharmakon), Simon Farmakas (Stahia), Stylianos Constantinou (11:50), Tonia Mishiali (Dead End) and many others, whose films made the official selection in festivals such as Venice, Raindance, Rome and Locarno.
Filmmakers came from abroad to shoot their stories and experience the local boom. A good example is Australian-Greek director Anthony Maras who shot The Palace in Nicosia and went on to win multiple awards including best short film at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in 2012.
The new generation along with the veterans were gearing up for truly local and original features.
Art-house vs. Commercial
The last two Ministry-funded features to be produced in Cyprus show the diverse styles that have emerged. Both deal with distinctly local themes and are character-driven, but very different in their approach. The first is Block 12 by Kyriacos Tofarides, a contemporary satirical comedy about a family dealing with the economic crisis. It is colourful and commercial and drew stars from Greece and even Bollywood to round up its recognisable cast. It is currently playing in local cinemas. It should be pointed out that it has been the first time in years that a local production has received distribution in Cyprus. This film will be followed in cinemas by Andreas Pantzis’ Joy and Sorrow of the Body, also a Ministry-funded film, but shot mostly in Bulgaria. So it has been a good year in terms of local cinema reaching local audiences. Responses remain to be seen, but the important thing is that these audiences are now aware of their own home-grown cinema.
The second film to be produced in Cyprus recently is Christos Shopahas’ Five Shillings Nylon. Set in the 1950s, this is a black-and-white portrait of life at that time. Made with subtler strokes and actors mostly from a theatrical background, the tone is entirely different and perhaps aimed more at festival rather than commercial audiences. The film is currently in post production.
It seems though that a balance is starting to emerge between art-house and commercial films, and here is why this is important.
Every business depends on supply and demand. While it is a great art form, filmmaking is also a business, and an expensive one at that. In order for a film industry to thrive or to at least be self-sustained, it requires demand; it requires an audience. A local cinema culture needs to be established. Filmmakers need to be in tune with what people want or need to see; their stories and execution thereof need to inspire confidence and pride in audiences. The purpose of film, and any form of art, is to be shared.
The double-edged sword
Having had easy access to government funds was a double-edged sword for filmmakers. On the one hand, they could focus solely on their art and a slew of personal, art-house pictures were produced. But not having to battle for or repay those funds meant that filmmakers never had to deal with the business side of cinema. It was not a priority to market their films or fill theatres. Critical acclaim and festival screenings were enough. While this is beneficial for art-house cinema, it does nothing to attract audiences; and the problem goes beyond lack of audience. Without an audience or a local cinema culture, local companies and potential investors have no reason to support cinema. This leaves the industry entirely dependent on government funding.
When the crisis hit Cyprus in June 2012, the cinema budget was drastically cut. All funding applications were stopped until the slate of already-approved projects could be completed in the next couple of years. This left filmmakers in completely unchartered territory.
However, within every problem lies an opportunity. The interesting outcome of such crises is that it leaves determined auteurs undeterred. We saw this in our neighbouring country Greece as the crisis there produced astounding pieces like Dogtooth, Alps, Strella and most recently Miss Violence; and now it’s our turn.
Because we have yet to feel the full impact of financial struggle and probably won’t feel it as strongly as Greece has, it has yet to affect our content. What it has affected is the actual filmmaking process. Filmmakers have had to become creatively resourceful and return to minimal, guerrilla-style filmmaking in order to get their projects made.
Several shorts have emerged using mixed media or documentary-style shooting, but getting their story across nonetheless, and most recently, a feature. In response to the lack of funds, I designed a film that could be made on a shoe-string budget, that required minimal cast, crew, equipment and therefore funds. Together with my producer Mario Piperides of AMP Filmworks, we were able to obtain financing through crowd-funding and a private investor and shot the film in 17 days. The film is called Committed and is currently in post production. The fact that a local film like this was able to secure funding and be completed within such a low budget, has prompted other local filmmakers to follow suite. While it is difficult for cast and crew to work with minimal resources, it will hopefully create a business-conscious cinema that encourages local audience support. It will make filmmakers dependent on audiences, rather than government and, as long as a balance is maintained between artistic integrity and audience satisfaction, this could be a good thing.
So the local filmmaking tango continues and the next step forward is entirely up to the filmmakers.
Stelana Kliris is a South African Cypriot writer / director with a background in editing and production on international film and commercial productions in Greece and Cyprus.