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Marios Piperides • Director of Smuggling Hendrix

"Borders can be broken down once we recognise familiarity in the face of the unknown"


- We spoke to Cypriot writer-director Marios Piperides about his feature debut, Smuggling Hendrix, Best International Narrative Feature at Tribeca

Marios Piperides  • Director of Smuggling Hendrix

Cypriot writer-director Marios Piperides, who is better known in his role as a producer, is taking part in the International Narrative Competition at the 17th Tribeca Film Festival with his debut feature, Smuggling Hendrix [+see also:
film review
interview: Marios Piperides
film profile
. We got the chance to have an extensive talk with him about the inspiration for his film, the current situation in Cyprus and his belief in borders.

Cineuropa: What was the inspiration for this absurd story?
Marios Piperides:
 I grew up in a conventional Greek-Cypriot environment just after the 1974 Turkish invasion, which divided the island. So for many years, the “other side” of Nicosia was based on stories being told. I crossed “sides” in 2003, when the first checkpoint was opened, and I realised that everything was different and strange, but familiar at the same time: the places, the buildings, the architecture, the smells, the people and so on. It was an uncomfortable, familiar strangeness. Since then, I’ve experienced “the other side” through both personal and professional ties. The stories I’ve encountered varied greatly, from the utterly tragic to the downright absurd, which triggered the desire to tell a story that captures both.

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Smuggling Hendrix is one of these stories. Based on a real-life event, one man’s devotion to his dog, it provides a lighter touch to offset the more serious issues. Its micro-plot reflects the complex real-world social dynamics of today: the divided island of Cyprus, the complexities of lost-property issues, and the thorny issue of the Turkish settlers, who have remained faceless all these years and are only used as figures for negotiations by politicians on both sides.

Did you want to spark any political discussions on the Cyprus dispute?
Even though I’ve never been too deeply involved in politics, both of the short films I’ve made dealt directly with the Cyprus problem and with our need to coexist on a divided island. I try not to take sides but show the situation from a bird’s-eye view. What has happened in Cyprus is tragic; there are still a lot of open wounds – the people who lost their loved ones, the refugees who lost their homes and their properties, the tragedy of the missing persons (on both sides). These wounds have been used as propaganda by both communities. There is still a lot of hatred and prejudice that is being cultivated in classrooms and, later, in the compulsory two-year military service.

For anyone who’s not accustomed to the division of Nicosia, do you think that Smuggling Hendrix paints a realistic portrait of the current political/diplomatic paranoia? 
The film approaches characters and situations in a more satirical way; I couldn’t approach them in any other way. The beauty with comedy or satire is that you can push the boundaries to show the truth. But generally, yes, I believe the film realistically portrays the current political situation and the status quo of the Cyprus problem. There is no agenda or political propaganda. This is how things are, this is the situation, and it has to change.

What were the personal challenges that you encountered?
A lot of Greek Cypriots object to the crossing to the occupied side, to showing their ID at checkpoints, and to showing Turkish flags or symbols. If we want a solution, we need to start seeing beyond flags and symbols. It wasn’t easy for me to write the film and actually “challenge” the meaning of some of the symbols that I’ve grown up with all my life, which were deeply entrenched in my own mind. I also had to leave my own comfort zone. Fortunately, the support I received from my (co-)producer Janine Teerling throughout the process, and the lengthy discussions we had, helped me do exactly that.

Do you think Smuggling Hendrix can be widely accepted by the Cypriot audience?
I think we will have some reactions, from different groups of people in Cyprus, especially regarding the character of Hasan (Fatih Al). This is the first time that a Turkish settler has had a name, a face, a family, hopes, fears and dreams. Identifying with him can be uncomfortable for some people. Turkish settlers are a big taboo in Cyprus, and nobody talks about them. They exist, but they don’t. They are only used as numbers for political influence, for the “give and take” on the negotiation table between the two communities. In the film, Hasan is a good man, a family man, with everyday problems, like everyone else. For a Greek Cypriot, to feel something for a Turkish settler can be unsettling.

How was working with the Turkish cast, and was any part of the film shot in the northern, Turkish-occupied territories?
Except for some visa difficulties we had, everything else ran smoothly. We only had one day of shooting in the Turkish-occupied areas, with a small crew and without the dog; we wouldn’t have been able to bring him back! We have a sequence where Yiannis (Adam Bousdoukos) is walking with the dog in “the North” for the first time. In this sequence, whenever you see Yiannis with the dog, it was shot in the South, and when you see him from the waist up or in close-up, it was in the North. Most of the scenes that take place in the North were shot in the South, as the two sides of the old town of Nicosia look very much alike.

How important is it for a Cypriot film to premiere at a major international film festival such as Tribeca?
We produce a couple of feature films per year – not just my company, but in the entirety of Cyprus! So having a film premiering at a major film festival is important. When I tell people that we make films in Cyprus, they are a bit suspicious. When I pitch a project abroad, I know that I’m starting with a big disadvantage, which stems from being from Cyprus. We still have a long way to go, and of course, a big festival like Tribeca gives a lot of visibility to the project and to our work. 

Hopefully, in the next few years, the Ministry of Education and Culture will increase the budget they have for cinema, so we can have a more steady level of film productions per year. And the new tax-incentive scheme with cash rebates of up to 35% and the new minority co-production programme will boost the local market and open up new opportunities for collaboration between Cypriots and international filmmakers.

Do you believe in borders?
We all want to be safe, but building walls and putting up fences was never the answer to our problems – and it never will be. We should instead invest in education and making sure we teach our children to embrace their differences, to respect one’s culture, way of life and religious beliefs without demonisation. It is our obligation to do that and to offer our help. We don’t need organised religions to instruct us. We can embrace our own humanity without their “help”.

Smuggling Hendrix examines how the borders, fences or walls we build, both real and imagined, between ourselves and the other, can be broken down once we recognise familiarity in the face of the unknown. I believe this is a global issue that is now more relevant than ever. I’m sure that when you see the film, you’ll understand my clear stance on the issue, or at least from the opening and the closing shots.

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