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Maria Kourkouta and Niki Giannari • Directors

“We have seen the migrants’ strength and their beauty”


- Cineuropa sat down with Maria Kourkouta and Niki Giannari, directors of Spectres Are Haunting Europe, which won the Best World Documentary Award at Jihlava this year

Maria Kourkouta and Niki Giannari  • Directors
Niki Giannari and Maria Kourkouta at the Torino Film Festival (© TFF)

Cineuropa chatted to Maria Kourkouta and Niki Giannari, the directors of Spectres Are Haunting Europe [+see also:
film review
interview: Maria Kourkouta and Niki Gi…
film profile
, which won the Best World Documentary Award in the Opus Bonum section of the 20th Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival in October, and was screened in the TFFDOC section of the recent Turin Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: What brought you to Idomeni, Greece?
Maria Kourkouta:
We went there, along with hundreds of other volunteers, in order to encourage and help these people during their long wait...
Niki Giannari:
When you are faced with the violent nature of borders, when you really try to comprehend them, you realise that their symbolic dimension serves a very realistic purpose: in front of the border, you are excluded from an “elsewhere”, from the “other”, even from your own self. What brought us to Idomeni was the feeling that we were all living as if we were prisoners, like a people forced out by the barriers imposed on us, as well as those that we impose on ourselves. So we felt it was necessary to go and see, feel, and then decide how to react.

What was the shoot like?
In a place where the only thing you see are thousands of people waiting in lines for 24 hours a day, there was nothing to do but record the wait itself, above all as a temporary condition. We are aware that this part of the film might be difficult for the viewer, but for us, their feet, the steps, the small gestures, the broken shoes... All of these details are images that tell thousands of little stories about the people and populations of today, but also those of the past and the future, be it in Idomeni or in other corners of the world. The black-and-white shoot with the 16 mm Bolex camera was a completely different experience. Their relationship with the camera was both more direct and more intimate, a far cry from any kind of journalistic rapport.

How did you decide on this bold approach and the triptych form?
The general structure of the film does take the form of a triptych – perhaps because we wanted to avoid a linear narrative that would have been deceptive. There was no perceivable progress in events: people were not achieving their goal of crossing the border, which actually they have still not managed to do. Besides this aspect, the film's editing was guided by our own experience of time and space in this monotonous, overcast and enclosed place. We wanted to convey this feeling of enclosure and lack of progress by using long shots filmed on a tripod, as well as through the fades to black scattered throughout the film but not necessarily denoting any noticeable development. We tried to create long loops intercut with the passing of the train, the only thing that would cross the border. This section gives way to another, where reality is reversed: the refugees block the train tracks, and now it's the train that cannot get past, and the refugees begin to raise their voices and demonstrate their opinions collectively. It was like a moment of liberation, of emancipation, in spite of and against the enclosure.

For us, the third, black-and-white, section of the film has a dialectic relationship with the two parts that were filmed digitally. It’s a juxtaposition of two different visions of the same reality: one very open-ended for the viewer in terms of meaning, and the other, the last one, in which we adopt a necessary and urgent position with regard to this situation. It is also a dialectic between video and film, which speaks of cinema itself and raises the burning question of the fate of celluloid in today's film production.

How did you strike a balance between the political and the humanistic?
Our perspective doesn't stem from humanitarian sentiments or ideals. We don't feel compassion or pity for the refugees, which is the reason for the absence of interviews about personal stories and dramas in the film. We do not consider the migrants to be victims... We have seen their strength and their beauty. In a certain way, they are stronger than us, and as they cross all types of borders, they act politically. Their movement is therefore a significant political act, a sign of our times. So it's like a gift to Europe, which also acts on a political level by creating new walls and barbed wires. The question of hospitality is not a humanitarian question; it is a political issue, as crucial in our times as the fight against discrimination, deportation, racism and fascism in Europe.

Niki's text in the final part is also very balanced – this time, between history and poetry. How did you decide on the line that speaks of history reinventing itself? Do the fleeting mentions of Greek refugees in Aleppo and of Walter Benjamin require research, or a functional knowledge of history?
The black-and-white images and the accompanying text, which is read by musican and poet Lena Platonos, are there in order to show something that is born of our own history and which leaves deep impressions on us. Walter Benjamin committed suicide at Portbou one day after the closing of the border, and one day before its reopening. If he had arrived one day before or one day after, what would have happened? Poetry is the tear of history. In the same way, the Syrian that we see on the occupied train tracks, and who calls to mind the government-sent mediator of the Greek refugees in Aleppo in 1922 – this refugee who conveys the knowledge of the history of other refugees – holds up a mirror to us, he writes history, and so he becomes a poet. The poetry is there to suggest what doesn't come across in the narration, that which survives through time, from the Warsaw ghetto to the Turkish prisons, from the closed borders at Portbou in 1940 to the closed borders at Calais or Idomeni.

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