Broken relationship; abandoned home; people, who immigrate to different countries for a better life or chose to stay in their hometown and keep struggling. These and many other important problems are raised in the film A Place Called Home written and directed by Greek filmmaker Maria Douza. The film received the Best film award at this year’s EUFF (the 24th European Union Film Festival in Toronto).
During the festival, I had a great pleasure to meet and talk to Maria Douza about the meaning of her film, as well as such sensitive subjects as immigration, crisis and the importance of showing kindness in human hearts whenever there is an opportunity.
MMM – The North American title of the film is ‘A Place Called Home’, while it is also known as ‘The Tree and a Swing’. What is the reason behind these title choices?
Maria Douza – There is sometimes confusion in this regard. ‘The Tree and a Swing’ is the translation of the Greek title of the film, while ‘A Place Called Home’ is the international title. I think the latter is a very appropriate title which was given by the sales agent who bought the film. It was after the film was finished and had been to some festivals already. But when the sales agent bought it, the first thing he suggested was changing the title, because this title is more commercial and closer to the film and more appropriate for the story. ‘The Tree and a Swing’ comes from an image from the film. There is a scene when the tree is cut and you see a swing. I did not think about creating a symbolic title intentionally – I just thought I would borrow the title from this image in the film.
MMM – What inspired you to write that kind of story?
Maria Douza – I think the time. I started writing it in early 2003 – many years ago. At that time, the subject of immigration was (and still is) very topical in our life and in Greek society. The Greek society, for the first time, was confronting the advent of immigrants from Eastern Europe, from Albania: they started coming already in the 90s. That was some kind of a second reality that we experienced in Greece and the people were growing very xenophobic, very negative and so on. And everybody wanted to deal with this issue somehow. You could not ignore it. But I didn’t want to approach it in its narrow contemporary context. I didn’t want to make a story about a war immigrant, who arrives in Greece and goes through all these problems and the racism. I wanted to view the subject in the wider context of a phenomenon that is associated with humanity and its history – with human history, in fact. Because I strongly believe that people have always been moving and will be moving. They have been moving by desire, they have been moving my necessity, they have been moving by force. And we – Greeks, are a Diaspora nation. We have moved in our history like nobody else, or probably as much as the Jews. So, as nation, as culture and as people we should be more able to understand those who now move to us and of course now, because of the crisis, we begin to move again and we start migrating again. Although I didn’t want to make a topical movie, it is very contemporary in a way, because this is still a very strong problem. On the other hand, it is also timeless in the story.
It is a very small family story, which takes place over five days. We have different members of the family, who were scattered all over for different reasons in different times. They come together for a holiday in Greece. Each one of them represents one type of migration. The main character is a woman (Eleni), who has chosen to live in London. She is a cardiologist, has a career and is married to a British guy. Her father was a refugee child after the civil war in Greece after the Second World War. He was dislocated to Yugoslavia (then Yugoslavia). There is also a third character – a woman from Serbia – Nina, who has come as an economic immigrant. The story starts when Eleni’s husband loses his job because the bank shuts down and is posted to China – another uprooting, another movement. Our main character faces a dilemma – whether to go with him and drop the job she just acquired or to live away from him for a while until they figure out what they are going to do. And then she makes this journey back to Greece in order to see her father and make amends with him, because they have been estranged. While in Greece, she encounters Nina, who works and lives in the house. From the things that she experiences in her journey, she comes to a decision about what she is going to do in her life.
So, all the subjects, all the sub-plots in the story have to do with people having to decide what to do – where their home is going to be.
MMM – It seems that you like to study human relationships and how certain difficulties can have impact on their lives.
Maria Douza – Yes. I think it’s a difficult thing to achieve when you write a script – to really get into the depth of the relationships. I think other people do it better. It’s difficult, it’s complex, but I am interested in it. I am attempting to do it. This film is multi-layered: it has the subject of migration, the relationships of people, and the relationships of generations – the parent – children relationship. So, it gives a kaleidoscopic view of how migration reflects relationships in a family and family structure. It does not deal in depth with each character’s psychology, because it creates a bigger picture of these different versions of migrations and choices from different perspectives.
MMM – Speaking about the crisis – in the film you show Greece as one of the European countries that majorly hit by the crises, but not the only one. Eleni is a successful doctor and lives in more successful country – England. Meanwhile, talking with her father Eleni mentions that it is not only him having problems; she is trying not to lose her job and her husband is lucky that he is sent out to China and not fired like many other people in the bank.
Maria Douza – I am trying to base the story in present reality. I didn’t very consciously think that I want to state the crisis in general; I use what reality offers me now to talk about what I want to talk. I don’t want to talk about the crisis, but by the way, it’s there. The story is a contemporary story, so the crisis and my understanding of it will be there. I think of it as an element of reality that serves my drama. That’s my approach. I don’t care to make a film just about the crisis.
MMM – What would you say about Nina’s character?
Maria Douza – I built Nina’s character and her presence in the house so that people would think that she is here to lour him and to exploit him and become his girlfriend or something like that in order to play with the ordinary, trivial prejudices people have when they see a woman helping an old rich man. The immediate reaction is – ‘oh, she is after his money’. I mean, she is trying to play lover, only to then tell that she is something much more than you suspected – much more complex. And then in the end of the film, as I told you in the beginning, I don’t want to show her as an immigrant who has come here, who is totally destitute and weak. She has come here with an agenda and is a real person, not just a romantic image. I wanted to make Nina a real character with her own problems. And her problems are again related to the house, to home.
This is what the actress Mirjana Karanovic, who played Nina, liked in the role. She is a very famous actress in Europe and the Balkans. You could call her Meryl Streep of the Balkans. And when she came, she told me that what she liked in the script was that we didn’t only stay in her quest for love. She has come here, she has something to demand and ask and love gets in the way.
MMM – I am afraid the next question is a bit of a spoiler. The father tells Eleni that you can’t turn the time back. How you, as a writer and director, managed to help them to fix their broken relationships?
Maria Douza – I think sometimes we can put aside old grudges in a moment. You can suddenly let go guilt, accusation, bitterness, anger – just in one minute. You are filled with love and your emotions are overwhelming. It is not because the other person with whom you have problems suddenly started to love you, but because you discovered your ability to love, your ability to be more open to others and you are prepared to forgive and accept. Also, when time passes, one has to drop some old complains, because there is little time left. So I think in that scene Eleni realizes that she had a share of responsibility for her relationship with her mother and that it wasn’t her father’s fault, but hers as well – something she had preferred to forget. When she realizes that she had part of the role in these difficult relationships and having experienced this whole journey, she is emotionally loaded, she has worked out lots of things coming back to her homeland. Now she knows her father is seriously ill, things have been revealed, she has learned a lot about things about the past and about herself. And I think because she has learned about herself, she is prepared to forgive and to express her need that she had as a child to be loved. And now he is too old and it’s easier. Maybe it’s not always like that in reality, but sometimes it is.
You know what I want to say with the film, against all the trend of being very harsh and very denouncing of bad things in the reality. I want to say that the potential to be kind is there and we just need an opportunity, a set of conditions to bring it out. We have it in us.
MMM: Sometimes humans are worse than animals, because the animals also kill, but nobody told them it’s bad, they don’t know, while humans they know that it is bad, but they are still doing it. But you are right, because we always have something good inside – you have, I have, many have. And if there is a little opportunity to show how kind one heart can be towards the other, we’ll have to show that.
Maria Douza – Yes, it helps. Because there is so much talk about how bad we are. There have to be stories of how horrible and violent we are, or how corrupt we are in Greece. We have been defamed as nation, as people because of the crisis. Everybody thinks that we are thieves, unreliable. And then I choose to make a film and say – listen, there is the potential. We do have, we have been, we can be, we will be – generous, giving, loving. That’s all. And that’s why many people are moved by the film. It’s not something tragically, it’s not melodramatic, but they are moved by that element.
MMM: Greece is one of the most beautiful countries. Can you talk about the locations that you have picked?
Maria Douza – I wanted the film to take place in the countryside because of the political reality of the immigrants: the refugee children that left Greece and went to Yugoslavia were mostly from North Greece. So the film should be set in Macedonia – I mean North Greece. I had the idea of this old house, because I wanted to play with the contrast of this fantastic house, that everybody would want, but Eleni didn’t want it, because she has made some other choices. It somehow illustrates her decision of not to be in Greece, not to have anything with her past, not to have anything to do with her family. She refuses to have a beautiful house because she’s so estranged from all this. So, that was the reason – it is realistic and in a way metaphorical. But, since we had very limited budget, we didn’t shoot in Macedonia. It’s all shot in and around Athens – we have the mountains and beautiful beaches and we just had to stay in Athens and do what we could.
The interior of the house is in the heart of Athens – dilapidated, old ruin. You can see it, we have a website and there is a section of behind the scenes. So you can see how it was and how we made it. It’s very well art directed. Nobody notices, but it’s totally art directed. London is in Athens, everything is in Athens. We didn’t have any money to go anywhere (laughs).
MMM: Even though there was crisis in Greece and the problem was sponsoring and the money, it seems that it had no impact on the film, because you actually deliver it in a way that it seems …
Maria Douza – It’s a high production value. It was made with 500,000 Euros – this is the nominal budget, but the real money was 300,000. The rest was – my salary, that I didn’t take, the producer’s salary, that he didn’t take, free services – the production company gave us the editing, we got the camera for free. The money we had to actually make this movie was 300,000 Euros, but the cost was 500,000 – nothing more.
MMM: So, home is where your heart belongs and you called your film ‘A Place Called Home’
Maria Douza – That’s true. Yes – where your heart belongs, but your heart belongs where you are accepted, respected, where you are loved. You choose to live in a place that receives you with acceptance and love.
MMM: What made you become a film director?
Maria Douza – I think that films are the most fascinating art. We are all fascinated, everybody is fascinated. So I was watching good films form a very-very young age, because my father was a cinefile and he would take me to watch all the Bergman’s, Fellini’s, Wajda’s, Mizoguchi’s films when I was 15-16, when I was an adolescent. And I was so impressed and mesmerized by those films. I thought – this is what I want to do for my life. I didn’t do it immediately, it took a very long time, but it was a very conscious desire and choice from a very early age. And it was a time, when I would say I want to become a film director, and people would ask – what is it? Now it’s a job that we all know what it is, but at that time it was not. Then I studied history and after that I went to study film in England and it took me many years. Then I became a mother and I stopped my career for a while, because motherhood is a huge chapter in one’s life and it’s very difficult to combine filmmaking and motherhood. Because filmmaking is like you make your own child and I already had children to raise and it was difficult to make another one and look after it. So it took longer than I hoped. And I thought time doesn’t come back as the film says.