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Berlinale 2019: Interview with Syllas Tzoumerkas (The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea)

Written by Simon Ramshaw.

Photo from the article After watching Syllas Tzoumerkas’ off-key thriller, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (reviewed here) Simon Ramshaw recorded an interview with the Greek director, in which he attempted to decipher the film’s strange mysteries.

Simon Ramshaw: Where did the idea for the film come from, particularly in regards to the setting of Messolonghi?

Syllas Tzoumerkas: Messolonghi is a city with a very deep history. In Greece, it’s famous because there was a siege that lasted many years. People were dying from hunger, and then they did a suicidal exodus; they died after a very long period of famine. So it’s kind of a legend, and it was very prominent with the Romantics; Lord Byron was also there.

SR: And he gets mentioned in the film, doesn’t he?

ST: Yes, he gets mentioned twice in the film. But we went to Messolonghi mainly for the eels, because that was the first inspiration to do the film, when we first discovered the story of the eel and how it travels and transforms its body and has this inexplicable call to travel for miles and miles to the Sargasso Sea. When they reach the Atlantic, they breed and die. That was, for us, our call to make the film.

SR: One other thing that struck me about the film was that there’s a very peculiar connection between Elizabeth (Angeliki Papoulia) and Rita (Youla Boudali), and they never really interact until a certain point in the story, and it’s far later than you’d expect. So how did you balance that relationship in the script and in the edit?

ST: Well, you could make this story very clichéd, where these two women meet, and they discover something about each other and blah blah blah. But this is a film that we’ve seen a hundred times before. We were not interested in that. We wanted to connect them through subconscious elements, so the film creates a kind of a dreamspace, that in the elements where things wave in and wave out and are shared by these two women; this dreamspace is there, getting constructed with various elements that come from faith, from sexuality, from nature. But they are connected through the way they were beaten down by different patriarchal figures; Elizabeth by the chief in the beginning, and Rita by her brother. The trauma that they have endured, and their persistence not to accept it, is something that connects them, and I think the audience feels that as the film moves on. So I think that is a less manufactured and more real way to connect these two women than with genre plotting.

SR: This is another balance question, and it’s mainly to do with the tone of the film, which is very…very peculiar.

ST: Yes, it is very peculiar. [laughs]

SR: How did that come about? Were you surprised by what was funny with what you found in the edit?

ST: Not at all. The tone is totally controlled. I was not surprised at all actually, it’s actually the film I intended it to be.

SR: Great, that’s what I wanted to hear. [laughs]

ST: This is a film that mixes genres and twists genres. So there is the frame of the small-town police drama, there is the spine that comes from the thriller, but all that is there simply to hold the overall tone, which is subconscious, dreamy and often surreal. Sometimes, it’s a very funny, trashy world that’s constructed in the film. I think that was our goal; we wanted elements to wave in and wave out from the genres in a way that made the film enriching and made something new.

SR: That’s good to hear. One of the things I thought going into the movie after doing a little bit of reading about it beforehand was “Oh! This might be part of the Greek ‘Weird Wave’!”, maybe in the same vein as Yorgos Lanthimous or Athina Rachel Tsangari. But to me, it felt like much more of an evolution of that sort of tone. Would you place in that sort of sub-genre?

ST: Well, the Greek New Wave is a very rich movement. Not all directors do the same films. You can go from the weirdest angle to the most realistic, naturalistic angle, and these are the films that have been created in Greece in the last ten or fifteen years. I don’t personally like umbrellas like that, so I don’t know if it’s an ‘evolution’, and I don’t care. [laughs]

SR: [laughs] That’s fair enough.

ST: In my three films, there is something that grasps from the Greek experience of the last fifteen years that was very intense and tries to transform it into something that makes sense. So if we go from Homeland (2010) to A Blast (2014) to Sargasso Sea, you will see a sort of narration on what’s happened to the country in the last fifteen years.

SR: I haven’t seen your other movies yet, but I will definitely get onto them. One final question, and it’s an easy one: what’s next?

ST: Basically, what I’m working on now is going to be a shift, because I’ve worked with female leads so far, but now I’m going to do a film about men. [laughs] Yep, I’m going to deal with my gender.

SR: Good luck with that one! [laughs]

ST: Thanks, I will need it…

This article was published on February 15, 2019.

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