Im Gespräch mit Sofia Exarchou
“The female body as a spectacle, as a show, as a tool.”
ANIMAL spielt im Griechenland des Pauschalreisetourismus, wo die griechische Filmemacherin Sofia Exarchou die Kehrseite des konfektionierten Ferienvergnügens näher beleuchtet. In einem System, das Reisen und Urlaub mit Spaß rund um die Uhr verknüpft, stehen ihre Protagonist*innen als Animateur*innen weit über ihre Grenzen im Dienst der guten Laune. Nach ihrem vielbeachteten Erstling Park wird Sofia Exarchou ihren zweiten Spielfilm als österreichisch-griechische Koproduktion realisieren.
Your second feature film ANIMAL is an Austrian-Greek co-production, a rather rare copro-constellation so far. You’re co-producing your film with the Austrian director and producer Lukas Valenta Rinner from Nabis Film. How did this collaboration come about?
SOFIA EXARCHOU: When I was traveling to film festivals around the world with my first feature film Park, Lukas Valenta Rinner was also promoting his second feature film. We met for the first time at the Toronto IFF, where our respective films premiered and then again at a couple of festivals in the course of the following year. It became clear that Lukas and I shared the same idea about cinema and the same approach in developing a project in Europe. He liked my feature debut Park. When I started to develop my second feature film, I sent him one of the first versions of the script. We started to talk about a possible collaboration between Greece and Austria, a thing that has never happened before, as far as I know. I felt very confident about the idea of collaborating with somebody who I can trust and who believes in my vision of cinema.
How would you describe this common vision of cinema you both share?
SOFIA EXARCHOU: Lukas liked my first feature film Park: the subject – teenagers inside an isolated environment –, the narrative structure, the directing approach. Every time we met, we talked a lot about both our own films and films that we both liked. I felt that he believed in my new project and that he was ready to fight for it as a co-producer.
Precarious working conditions in the capitalistic system is the core issue of your new project ANIMAL. Why did you set your story in the framework of tourism and focus on the particular job profile of resort hosts – so called “animateurs”- in “all inclusive” hotels?
SOFIA EXARCHOU: I grew up in Greece in the 80s and 90s when mass tourism exploded. My childhood memories are full of images of newly built hotel complexes. The landscape of most of the coastal areas radically changed, as did the lives of its inhabitants for whom the tourism industry became a new source of revenue. This huge “machine” was my initial inspiration. Against the backdrop of all-inclusive hotels and with the animateurs as protagonists, I tried to compose an allegory about labor in modern Western European societies, about the harsh working systems inside these closed economic structures. Tourism is a huge economic factor in Greece. It represents the biggest source of income in our country. And when I started doing in-depth research, I discovered how well structured this machine is: with all-inclusive hotels where the hotel guests are wearing bracelets for their consumptions, where you can get entertainment from morning till evening: Entertainment for the adults, different entertainment for the kids; entertainment at the pool, at the bar, on the beach. I got interested in the job of the animateurs as instruments of the entertainment machinery that has been established in these capitalistic structures.
The title of your new film is ANIMAL; on the cover of the script the final L is written in a different color so that it creates the double meaning of Anima and Animal – indicating a double meaning. What were your thoughts behind this title?
SOPHIA EXARCHOU: Anima comes from Latin, meaning the soul and is the linguistic root for the term “animateur”, a person whose work is meant to cheer up the clients or guests she or he is working for. Adding an “L” leads to “animal.” I like the idea that only one single letter creates such a difference, since the whole story is about the violence, the intensity and the struggle my protagonists are exposed to. I consider the double meaning a nice twist.
You have three interesting female main characters: Kalia, a charismatic, long time animateur in her mid-thirties who is about to slip into a crisis, Ewa, an almost 18-year-old starting out as Kalia’s colleague and little Mary, the daughter of one of the male animateurs. Three women, who also could be the same character at different moments of their life. How did you conceive this sort of triangle?
SOFIA EXARCHOU: Three female characters at different ages represent one of my essential ideas for the structure of the script. I thought it would be an interesting narrative element. Each of them represents something different and at the same time the stories of the two younger ones could also be seen as flashbacks of my main character Kalia. For the writing process that turned out to be a very tricky idea. Even though they may represent Kalia’s past, I had to elaborate on each one’s journey. This was one of the biggest challenges that I had to face during the writing process. While watching Eva or Mary, we have the feeling of seeing something of Kalia’s past. They are reflecting each other and, at the same time, they have their own story. The important thing was to create a constellation that invites the viewers to figure out how the destinies of these three women will develop.
The job of the animateurs – male or female – consists of encouraging the tourists to let go and have fun, by creating a cheerful, often eroticized atmosphere. It’s a very exhausting and often humiliating exploitation of their bodies and souls, for women even more so. Is this an aspect you also wanted to point out?
SOFIA EXARCHOU: I wanted to explore the role and the characteristics of entertainment nowadays. By putting at the centre of the narrative the stories of Kalia and Eva, as well as the special relationship that develops between them—one of tenderness and solidarity—my main intention is to capture the position and role of women in such an environment and, at the same time, to explore female psychology and the manifestation of gender. Through their stories, we see the roles they must take on, both on stage and behind the scenes. We see the stereotypes being repeated every night. We explore the exploitation of the female body: the female body as a spectacle, as a show; the female body as a tool, as “pleasure”; the female body as degeneration, as trauma. Next to the two women is little Mary, who is still a spectator of this world. Gradually we feel as if the three female characters are narrating the story of one female character at different moments in time, exploring in this way the different layers of womanhood.
Your first feature Park also conveys a strong physical undertone. Is physicality a dominant feature of your storytelling? How are you going to express it in ANIMAL, especially in regards to your camerawork?
SOFIA EXARCHOU: I agree. There is a very intense physicality in Park and it will also be the case in ANIMAL. I want to show the pain this job inflicts on the body and its exhaustion. We will try to express this through the camera work for example with close-ups on the bodies. I want to make visible the body traumas and scars that reveal something of the backstory of the characters. And in our rehearsals we focused a lot on the physical aspect of the acting. We combine the dialogues with a lot of action, which requires a very intense warm-up in order to prepare this high level of physical performance. In both of my feature films I brought together professional and non-professional actors, in the case of ANIMAL a lot of dancers and performers who contribute a lot to this strong physicality and inspire the professional actors to use their body. It’s a very interesting process for me to convey all those existential issues through language and the story, but also to enlarge my range of expression through the bodies and make understand on this level what my characters have been going through.
How long is your rehearsal period?
SOFIA EXARCHOU: I started auditioning already last year, especially to find my group of animateurs and the little girl. The more intense rehearsals started last March, but we’ve been working already before. In the beginning we did group rehearsals so that the actors got to know each other and started to form a group. This was an amazing process to observe. If you see them now, one gets the impression they’ve been knowing each other for ages. That’s one very essential point. And then we put a focus on the shows so that they really experience what it means to be an animateur – performing, singing, dancing, smiling all the time, making people laugh, touching people and being touched. All this had to become part of them long before the shoot. They had to internalize what their job was about and how this job was affecting their soul and everyday life. After the group scenes, we started to rehearse the more intimate scenes between two or three people. We will keep on rehearsing until the shooting that will start in mid-September.
Your actors will arrive on set totally prepared. How do you proceed once you’ve started shooting?
SOFIA EXARCHOU: When my actors arrive on set, they know exactly what to do, but this comes out after a long journey during which we’ve been working together. In the beginning we improvise a lot, so that the actors understand the characters, their reality, their action, their dialogues. Slowly we move to a very precise structure of the scene. Although my films have a documentary-like style, the actors know exactly what to do. I only do a few takes, but I do a lot of angles in order to capture the feeling inside the group and make it look realistic. My actors change their positions a lot, which also means different angles for the camera. That takes a lot of time during the shoot and is also why I want us to be thoroughly prepared. Of course, we also have to stay within our schedules that are always very tight. We will start shooting in mid-September until early November, the hotel and the places where the animateurs are living in Crete, then the interior scenes in Athens.
Interview: Karin Schiefer