Superb Performances & Other Splendid Surprises from SIFF 2020 – Syros International Film Festival, Greece

Right. SIFF instead of TIFF. or TIFF… In keeping with the “winds of change” that shook the world this year, I also decided to change what would normally be a pre-determined film festival circuit this summer (Cannes, TIFF, Karlovy Vary, Locarno, Venice) in search for smaller film festivals, preferably in a setting of splendid nature, that we city dwellers found ourselves craving more than ever during the recent quarantine.

This is how I came across the Syros International Film Festival (SIFF), now in the 8th year since its inception on a remote island in Greece that is nothing like its famous touristy neighbours everyone has visited or heard of (Mykonos, Santorini, etc), and more of a “best kept secret” in the South Aegean sea.

Taking into account the special conditions related to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Syros International Film Festival had to adapt and change its format by expanding its activities throughout the year into an “Off-Season” edition.
The festival began in Athens in early July (the month when it usually takes place) and will culminate at the end of the year.

SIFF 2020 Day #1 Photos by Alexandros Petrakis

In August, SIFF traveled to its home location, Syros, for the first event of a series of actions which will unfold on the island. On August 1st, a screening was held including a selection of films filmed with Edison’s kinetoscope. This is not some random curatorial whim: according to historical sources (ELIA, the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive Society), Hermoupolis, the capital of Syros, the Cyclades, and the South Aegean, hosted the second film screening ever within the territory of the Greek state in 1900 – two years after the first screening in Athens. With the tools of digital technology and with the aim of celebrating a landmark moment in Greek cinematic heritage, SIFF has prepared a mapping and creative reproduction of a portion of this screening program of Edison’s kinetoscope, thus marking the 120-year anniversary of that historic screening.

Unfortunately I missed all that as I could only make it to Syros at the beginning of September when the festival organised four consecutive evenings of film screenings and musical performances on various locations on the islands: the historic shipyard of Tarsanas, a drive-in cineman that was purposefully created for the festival and an opening night at the Pallas open-air cinema in Hermoupolis.

The entrance to Pallas open-air cinema in Hermoupolis

This year, the festival’s program was anchored in one central action per day – a very attractive proposition since most film festivals have you running around like a headless chicken trying to catch as many film as you can cram in.

No, SIFF seems to say: it’s time to watch less, and think more, about cinema.

SIFF 2020 Day #1 Photos by Alexandros Petrakis

All screenings and events took place outdoors and drew on, as every year, the cultural heritage and history of Syros in unexpected ways.

To my surprise, the opening night film was Fedora, Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, with William Holden, shot in a melancholy Corfu, far from the drama of Hollywood. The evening continued with a program of short films presenting three different versions of island life: one from 1961 by Leon Loisios, an anthropological document that captures fishing practices in the seas of Lesvos and the fruit of the collaboration among some of the most prominent intellectual figures of post-war Greece (playwright Dimitris Kehaidis, film writer Yannis Bakogiannopoulos and directors Stavros Tornes and Roviros Manthoulis); another by Loukia Alavanou titled Merciful, Wonderful (2013); and Gyres 1-3 by Ellie Ga (2020).

Tarsanas shipyard – the location for Day 2 of SIFF 2020

The second evening of screenings and performances took place right by the seaside, at the Tarsanas shipyard, an in-use ship-building and maintenance site that keeps the traditional techniques of shipbuilding alive. The event brought together contemporary Greek artists working with eight-millimeter film, the cinematic format most associated with capturing the holiday experience, the film material used in the first “home movies”.

SIFF 2020 DAY #2
Photos by Alexandros Petrakis

To accompany these experimental films, there was a film performance entitled Houses Off, Deserts, Etc. by Constantinos Hadzinikolaou, a Greek filmmaker and writer; a live score by Christina Vantzou who premiered an  original musical composition that accompanied the screening of the film Hotel Monterey (1973), a silent documentary by the pioneering Belgian director Chantal Akerman.

What stood out the most for me was the musical performance of Home Tapes by Natasha Giannaraki and Lara Eidi, based on Natasha’s archival footage from Super 8 films and mini DV tapes documenting a previous decade of life, a quilt made of different travels: Athens, London, remote Greek islands, San Francisco, New York, Mexico, Thailand, Australia.

Home Tapes had its world premiere on September the 4th at SIFF where the two artists performed an original score on stage.

Lara Eidi at SIFF 2020

Interestingly, I met Natasha and Lara on the ferry back to Athens, thanks to the festival bags we were all carrying. No PR necessary on Syros island!

I asked them how they met, how the collaboration started and here’s what I found out:

Natasha: “I met Lara at a local festival 8 years ago in Athens. She was different to anything I ever heard. I heard this voice coming from afar, and her music was beyond anything I heard- she stood out because she was artful, her musicianship virtuosic yet spoke to people’s straight to the heart. We had a beer, and she had expressed her wish to collaborate on a project. I kept track of her career when she moved that year to London to study Jazz at  the Guildhall School of Drama, and saw her expand her voice and musicianship to become a sought after and passionate multi-disciplinary artist. Her music is really genre-defying, as is her sense of artistry, something I can relate to . 

Things happen for a reason, and we found ourselves reconnecting in Athens (she returned temporarily) at our local cafes. I invited her based on our mere conversations about art, music and storytelling, a craft which I respected her for and vice versa, and I invited her to compose the music for my debut feature film. “No pressure”, I added, it’s only if you feel it speaks to you.

What happened next was nothing short of magical. On a blistering heatwave, we found ourselves sitting on my veranda, my partner eager to hear Lara’s feedback for my film after I showed her my film. Her response: she picked up my guitar, and right there, on the spot composed what became the title track for my film,” Everything’s fine”. It was as if she delved instinctively into the heart of the story, and like a fairy godmother swooped down to translate what I needed: catharsis. I took a deep breath, as it became clear that her music and voice was healing to me, and surely, will be healing to those who watch the film”. 

And if you’d like to know more about this very talented duo, here’s their short bios:

Natasha Giannaraki is an artist whose work encompasses moving image, performance and sound. She studied Fine Art and Communication Design at Central St Martins where she first got acquainted with super-8 film. She used it for her graduation project and continued capturing moments from her life with it. She took a break from filmmaking and co-founded the band Berlin Brides, where she was the singer and lyricist. She recently collaborated with Eva Stefani in 2017 for her film Manuscript, commissioned by the Documenta Basel exhibition, as a sound designer. The following year, she went back to her super-8 archives and edited a short film for her song LA bed from footage she had shot in LA with actress Ariane Labed. “ Home Tapes” was created through the process of capturing and closely examining her archives (super-8 and mini DV) from the time period of her student years in the early ‘00s. More at https://vimeo.com/natachef

Lara Eidi is a singer-songwriter, jazz vocalist and composer (BBC Artist of the Year). She was born in Athens to Lebanese-Canadian parents. Having received her Masters in Jazz Voice from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Lara has created a name for herself as an extremely versatile vocal artist and composer. She has worked with established names in both the folk and jazz scene in London, Athens and abroad (Ian Shaw, Union Chapel, Beirut International Festival) and is an avid believer in music education for the community. As a recording artist with two EP’s , now preparing for her album with her trio (Dave Mannington and Naadia Sheriff) she’s been portrayed as “ Joni Mitchell in person yet with a voice like Streisand- a truly unique and soulful presence “ ( Sandy Brown Jazz UK). She was commissioned by Natasha to compose the original score for her film, providing what Natasha described as a cathartic, healing soundscape. In short, all the loose ends of her project were tied, ringing true for the title track, aptly titled “Everything’s Fine”. More at www.laraeidimusic.com 

Day 3 of SIFF2020 took the audience to yet another surprising location: Dellagrazia Drive-in cinema, Posidonia, on the Southern part of the island.

SIFF2020 DAY #3
Photos by Alexandros Petrakis

What caught my attention the most from that evening’s programme was a film that was introduced as “quasi-prophetic” for the current coronavirus situation: Postcards From the End of the World – a 23min film by Konstantinos Antonopoulos, an exciting new voice of contemporary Greek cinema.

Luckily on my last day on the island I had the possibility to sit down with Konstantinos Antonopoulos for a proper interview during which I showered him with so many questions, not only about himself as a filmmaker and his previous participation in SIFF but also about the story of the festival itself, its unique curatorial voice and unconventional approach to how we see and experience cinema.

To find out more about Konstantinos’s film and all the SIFF stories he shared with me, read my interview with him here.

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