Interview by Alexander Strecker
For the first few minutes of our time together, filmmaker Daphné Hérétakis and I struggle to find the right words. We begin in Greek, stumble a bit and attempt English; she learns I spent time in Paris, so we try to connect in French. Daphné has been doing this kind of dance her whole life: born in Greece to an Italian mother and Greek father; educated partially in Paris before coming back to Athens for high school; returned to France for her studies in film. Her work, similarly, rests at borders: between fiction and documentary, purely autobiographical yet also descriptive of an entire generation of young Athenians. Indeed, Daphné’s work straddles many boundaries and peripheries — after all, the edge is where the most interesting work is made.
Eventually, we find our footing: we flit between Greek, English, and French, searching for the right words, les mots justes. Though she expresses a weariness with labels, I can’t help but ask her: does she feel like a “director,” a realisateur, or a σκηνοθετης, each word carrying its own valences and differing shades of authority and control. Daphné’s answer sets the frame for the rest of our time together: “I’ve avoided these titles for a long time. I like the American term ‘filmmaker.’ It’s a modest thing: you can ‘make’ a film using only your hands, as with any other art form. You can paint on film, put scratches on it, glue together a film from scraps. I’m not so extreme in my own practice — though I do process some of my films by hand. But this philosophy reflects the fact that I come from an experimental background. In the 1970s in France, they called it ‘a different cinema’: one that couldn’t take place in the larger industry. It’s true, I feel much more like an artisan than part of an industrial machine.”
᾽᾽You can ‘make’ a film using only your hands, as with any other art form. You can paint on film, put scratches on it, glue together a film from scraps.’’
“My real dream,” she goes on to say, “is to be a ‘film farmer’ or a ‘cinema farmer.’ What do I mean? I want filmmaking to be something I can practice every day. I want it to be a part of my life, not a major production that I have to direct. I don’t care about the technical parts of being a director and I certainly don’t enjoy raising money. What I hate most about the process of preparing a feature film, in the conventional way, is that you have to convince many, many people of your idea, and finally, when you have enough money, you have the permission to shoot for 10 days, 20 days, maybe 30 days. This is insane. I don’t want to have 30 consecutive days to prove I can make a film. Filmmaking needs time and space. It can’t be rushed. Maybe it needs one year, two years. It has to grow.”
Since Daphné’s relationship to cinema is so deeply personal, she aims to make the creative process as non-hierarchical as possible. This extends to the way she approaches the world with her camera. In several works, Daphné films a mix of friends and complete strangers on the street, engaging with them in intensely personal conversations, asking such questions as, “Do you have hope for the future? Do you believe in freedom?” In doing so, she engages with her subjects as equals, making herself as vulnerable as those she puts under the unblinking scrutiny of her lens. But her resolute intimacy also hints at something else: the unburdened eye of an outsider, the distance from which she observes her surroundings. Her subtle estrangement from the world — whether she is in Greece, where she is considered French, or in France, where she is considered Greek — drives her need to understand, and pushed her to make work in her first homeland.
As she puts it, “If I hadn’t left for France so early, I wouldn’t have wanted to come back to Greece to understand it. Every time I come here, there is a distance which I have to overcome to figure out who I am, what is this place’s history, and what is its current situation. When I was younger, I felt my distance was a problem and tried to ignore it. But eventually, I learned to share my authentic feelings — anger, loneliness, despair — and draw on them during the making of my films. This gave me an excuse to talk to people about difficult topics, creating a space for them to reveal their deepest feelings. Such exchanges allowed me to inscribe my story into a larger, more collective one. Ultimately, sharing such intense emotions gets me out of my head and helps me feel less alone. But I have come to recognize there will always be a gap, not least of all because there is a camera between us.”
In her 2014 film Archipelago, for example, she explores this in-between space. The film is brilliantly narrated through a friend’s journal — a diary that Daphné asked her friend to keep, since Daphné wasn’t living in Athens at the time and wanted access to the rhythms of daily life. As viewers, the diary invites us to join Daphné on an intimate journey alongside her distant friend, bringing us closer to a local’s experience of the city. At the same time, Daphné spends much of the film riding around Athens by car, seeing the urban landscape flow by like a first-time tourist. Throughout the film, there is both agreement and disagreement between the words and the images. As Daphné describes: “Sometimes there is a closeness between the text and the image, and other times a distance. I didn’t want to illustrate my friend’s words but rather create a difference. Yet every time the distance gets too great, I become intimate again and close the gap.” As with any act of bridging or translation, there are moments of both success and failure.
For all the journal’s soothing intimacy, Daphné contrasts this feeling with the jarringly direct questions she poses to people, of all ages, on the streets of Athens. By holding the shots for far longer than feels comfortable, Daphné conveys the tense but beautiful anxiety that occurs when confronting life’s biggest uncertainties. As the frame holds and holds, while a loaded question like “What is your biggest fear?” hangs in the air, we can feel Daphné trying to get closer, trying to understand. Ultimately, she describes the film’s aim as “taking small things that people don’t give importance to and making a document of them. In other words, I try to make a trace from a moment of time, a personal testimony, a subjective time capsule.”
She goes on to admit, “It’s really scary — but that’s why I do it. People often feel their answers are banal or stupid but they’re not: they’re honest. It’s amazing to see how people are already thinking about those things and are ready to open up if you really listen to them. All of us have moments where we feel vulnerable or alone but we rarely find ways to share these feelings, especially with strangers. It’s easy to overlook these shared moments of solitude; it’s easy to forget that there is a collective inner strength in people, one that comes out in times of crisis, when people are pushed to the edge. By reaching out to others, I allow them to be surprised by their own answers. In their honesty, I feel there is hope.”
Indeed, all of Daphné’s work rests at another border: between planning and surprise. As she says, “I don’t control anything — the city, the interviews, the diary.” For example, the use of her friend’s diary, which seems like a masterful bit of foresight, was actually a plan B. After she asked her friend to keep this journal for her, Daphné heard no news about it for months, and had almost given up on the idea. Only when she read the diary and began editing her images, did she understand the resonance between all of the material she had gathered. As she says, “The only thing I control is the editing, which is its own form of construction, even fictionalization.” But even with editing, the whole process feels instinctual, not analytical. For Daphné, it is moments of synchronicity and lucky accidents like reading her friend’s diary that help convince her when she is “in the right terrain.”
Daphné’s entire artistic development has been intuitive, difficult to premeditate. In particular, Daphné has never been able to fit into a single genre, especially between the two old poles of documentary or fiction. “It’s no accident,” she says,” that my films have long been going to both kinds of festivals.” Carving her own path has made things harder for her, but the process has been full of discovery. As she explains, “What kind of festivals do I submit to? Who do I apply for money from? I have to deal with so many different people and each time, I have to adapt to what they want, what they think, what they know. Trying to push others into a new territory, an in-between space — everyone always feels the risk is huge. Meanwhile, I am constantly having to explain and prove that something different is possible.”
In her next film, Daphné wrote a script for once (in order to raise money) and is working with actresses: all new territory. Even the casting process was a bit uncomfortable, as Daphné had the power to make people come to her and put on a performance. Still, she has made everything as open as possible. The script is spare, focusing almost exclusively on the relationship between two young women. There will be many improvisational parts and Daphné is recording the pair as much as she can, in both audio and video. Her hope is to afford them as much freedom as possible to be themselves and prepare before the pressure of “action!”
As we discuss her upcoming about youth, I think about how many student works or first films circle back to the self and mine the filmmaker’s own biography. Does Daphné worry about becoming too personal? Her response are words often repeated but much less often taken to heart: no, you need to make your work more personal. “I wish everyone made films more from experience rather than imitating what they’re supposed to make. It’s so easy to find some short-term success by following the trends. But I wonder what will stay from these films, which ones will have a lasting impact. I can see a film that is personal and it can have 100 technical problems, but if it’s honest, I usually like it. It tells me something different. I wouldn’t mind if someone made something diaristic all their lives.”
But this is not the biggest trap. For Daphné, there are two: comfort and money. To counter comfort, Daphné is now working in the realm of fiction; she had found that she was no longer at her edge, and so is pushing herself to see where this form takes her. And for money, the simple means of production are exactly what attracted her to documentary film rather than fiction. As a filmmaker, waiting for money is torture, and in any case, money is a trap. It comes with rules, constraints, expectations. Which is why Daphné feels better working as improvisationally as possible, with an open timeline and following her own rhythms. Like she said at the start, she sees herself as a cinema farmer, tending to her garden with nothing more than a few tools, some water, and the Greek sunshine.
She concludes, “As much as I go back and forth to France, I think I have to be on the periphery; it’s impossible for me to be at the centre. I am always wondering what can happen at the periphery, what will be possible there. Looking out while standing on the edge makes things easier to see. Ultimately, though, the freedom I’ve always felt by being between two countries, two languages, two genres: that’s what makes things exciting. When I make a film, I never know what it’s about. If I knew beforehand, I wouldn’t see any purpose in making it. Other people work from a script and want their film to illustrate it. But I want to explore something; it’s a form of research. Sure, I have an idea but maybe it will turn out wrong, maybe the opposite will prove true. I only find out once I begin.”
Filmmaker Daphné Hérétakis is a 2018 ARTWORKS Fellow. ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization that aims to create a fertile and nurturing environment for Greek artists through funding and public engagement opportunities. You can always learn more about our Fellows at www.art-works.gr
Alexander Strecker is pursuing a PhD in Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University. His research explores how artistic practices register the contradictions inherent in ideas of crisis, periphery, and technology, with a focus on how these tensions are felt acutely in contemporary Greece while also resonating worldwide.