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LOCARNO 2021 Cineasti del Presente

Araceli Lemos • Director of Holy Emy

“We wanted it to be as true to the realities of the Filipino community as possible”


- The Greek director tells the intimate story of two Filipino sisters in Greece who have to protect their bond against the outside world

Araceli Lemos • Director of Holy Emy

Holy Emy [+see also:
film review
interview: Araceli Lemos
film profile
, by Greek director Araceli Lemos, had its premiere at this year's Locarno Film Festival in the section dedicated to young filmmakers, Cineasti del Presente. The director imbues this coming-of-age story with a study of social spheres and examines different forms of beliefs. We spoke to her about her research, the Filipino community in Greece and the actresses she chose to incorporate the main roles in the story.

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Cineuropa: How did you get in touch with these specific milieus?
Araceli Lemos:
The Greek milieu I know, because I grew up in it. The house of Miss Christina very much resembles the house I lived in, even though it's exaggerated. My mum got ill at some point and searched for refuge in a community of healers. She invited them to her house and so I have been exposed to them too. Concerning the Filipinos, it is more difficult. Their community is very strong in Greece, but it is closed and introverted. I saw them regularly in the city, but didn't have access to them. There is now a second generation of Filipinos who were born in Greece. I am very much intrigued by their habits, and even though it's still very difficult to enter this world, I was persistent and finally managed to have a glimpse inside. 

What interested you the most about the story?
I am interested in the rituals of different groups. What is real, what is magic? How does our body react to spirituality and faith? I also liked the relationship between the sisters and their diverse approaches to religion. The protagonist Emy faces a big transformation. At first, she is very close to her sister, they hug each other while sleeping in the same bed. Then a man comes by and takes Teresa's body away from Emy. This means Emy has to find comfort elsewhere. Maybe in her own body.

Emy's sister works at a fish shop and falls for a fish vendor. Fish can be a religious symbol.
I didn't actually plan to use it in a symbolic way, at first. The idea came to me quite spontaneously. But then I realised it carries a lot of meanings. It is associated with the port, for example, which is an entrance for all the immigrants who come to Greece. Filipinos are sailors and came into contact with Greeks through the shipping business. The fish is moreover connected with Christ, but is also a symbol for fertility present in tarot. It combines my interest in both Christian and more pagans traditions. 

Both sisters are under a lot of pressure, but it doesn't seem others appreciate that very much. Would you agree?
This is an interesting way to see it. And it's true, Emy says to her sister “I do everything for you.” She is not aware that others want to take advantage of her because of her gift. The gift is exhausting, people expect her to offer it to others without asking anything in return. But at some point, she stops with her obligations. She wants to be seen, to be accepted the way she is. 

How did you find the actresses for the two sisters?
I found Abigael Loma, who plays Emy, at the Filipino school in Athens. She was nineteen at the time, and had no experience in acting. It wasn't easy to convince her, since the community is very conservative and she is very shy. But it was great to have her, since she could give the character the right background information. By contrast, Hasmine Killip, who plays her sister, is a professional actress from the Philippines. She couldn't relate to the feeling of being an outsider in the Greek society. But the two had a good dynamic and supported each other very well. 

The film deals with fantastic elements but remains very much rooted in raw reality. How did you develop the concept of this contrast?
It took us several years to build the basis for the film. We wanted it to be as true to the realities of the Filipino community as possible. We spent a lot of time there, including the costume and set designers. We wanted to let people collaborate on the image we would create of the community. The magic came then from the elements that were already there. We wanted it to be unclear whether things are hallucinations of the characters, or if they really happen. The story should feel like a myth. 

What were the biggest challenges for the production?
Because we had a lot of special effects, it took a while to make them happen and it was tricky with non-actors to have these elements. An example is when Emy cries blood. Because Greece is a small country, the budget you can get for film productions is reduced. We had to be very creative to make things happen with what we had. 

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