We Will Always Have Cinema

by Maria Flip

There are still directors that avoid the sling shot effect, they dig deep and discover the abundance of diverse and unique stories and narratives for cinema

            Two weeks into March, and the wintry atmosphere of the newborn year of 2020 was still present. The first wave of Corona had started to hit our small and unprepared country. Nobody knew what was going on but there was electricity travelling through the air in the forms of gossip, speculation and catastrophology. I had been through the first waves of panic myself and I had navigated them quite successfully, experiencing just a couple of panic attacks and a tiny tinny meltdown, thankfully not in public. I had already imagined the unimaginable, trying to mentally prepare for something that I didn’t imagine completely, but seemed like a necessity.

            Truth be told, I hadn’t changed my life too much until then, I just tried to avoid crowds and keep safe, stay away from the means of transport and focus on stabilizing my job situation. The only thing that bothered me was the general fear of everything, and the lack of cinema. Before Corona, I had been establishing a weekly cinema regime and it was kind of working for me. A cheap and very fulfilling Saturday night out with friends, on a date or even alone; not too much talking involved, but still social and with the prospect of sitting at a bar and talking about the movie over drinks afterwards. As one can imagine, the likelihood of not going to the cinema anytime soon was the drop that overflowed my glass. I mean, the bars, I wouldn’t miss; nor the restaurants – delivery is the best in Athens – not even the concerts. But cinema; just the thought not having of it was hurtful.

            It was a Saturday night, crispy and melancholic. I had just had a fight (as per usual) with my then boyfriend and I was feeling alone and vulnerable and in desperate need of some good entertainment. Still I wasn’t up to the task to go to the movies alone, I had to have a partner. I called my uncle and aunt and after I deconstructed our corona reservations, I presented the perks of the Brazilian movie that was playing that night and we met 40 minutes later outside Petit Palais Movie Theater in Pagrati. It is a small but historic, neighbourhood cinema, with only one screening room, with a sizeable screen and comfortable chairs. The first time I visited this cinema I must have been in my early twenties, discovering my newfound territory as a young student in the capital. It had the glamour of the Athenian sixties and the rusty echo of the thousands of movies that the Athenian public had witnessed under its roof. The 20:00 screening presented a range of audience between the ages of 40 to 70, with some surprising splashes of younger people on dates or just solo travellers caressing their solitude. That particular night, the crowd flew together to grasp the last moments of blitheness, just before the storm we didn’t know was coming but somehow anticipated, hit the country.

Since I was a kid I was fascinated by dramas. I enjoyed all sorts of movies, but dramas had an exquisite appeal on my psyche. The stories, the pain and the suffering had this magical power to transform my own pain and trauma into a small pebble, that – at the end of the movie – I would place on top of the grave of that pain and trauma and move on, lighter and free. Later in my school years I realized what it was that excited me so much about that particular genre of cinema. It is the action, the conflict, the contradistinction; alongside the ancient Greek triptych of hubris, nemesis and catharsis. Every good drama from the antiquity until today obeys in this scheme or defies it. Either way, one thing is sure, at the end of a good drama there’s always catharsis.

It’s been more than a year now since I watched The invisible life of Euridice Gusma; a 2019 drama directed by Karim Ainouz.  Perhaps I remember it so vividly because it was the last weekend before the complete lock down our country was put under; but I strongly believe it was also because of its firm atmosphere that completely captivated me.

The movie started as everyone was settling down in the room, with a few arriving late some phones ringing and some weird whispering and laughing. The movie commenced after the previews and I immediately had the feeling I had just opened my grandma’s photo box; a saturated and soft layer of light revamped an entire movie room and sucked its visitors in a time travel of fierce earnestness. We witnessed the life of two sisters and we followed their lives, bound together by mental ties and strings of blood. Ainouz managed to create an ambience, not only scenic but also acoustic, that left no margin for questions or ambivalence; it is a solid storytelling and a tight cinematic representation of the homonymous book; with tenderness and affection, Karim Ainouz presented his characters in all their grandeur and managed to unfold the perpetual journey of womanhood through suppression. He created an intimate representation of sisterhood and intergenerational connections, as well as brief but thorough display of the social realities of Rio de Janeiro during a time lapse of 60 years.

The end of the film found me stunned, crying my heart out as I stared at the credits. In the entire time of the screening I couldn’t help but think of my own sister, my mother, my grandmothers and their own lives. The struggle, the bitter smiles and the fights, the compliance and the defiance, embroidered with grace and craftsmanship, posited truthfully and freely, leading its characters and therefore its audience to catharsis. The liberation, the reinstate of the universal balance, the acceptance of fate, all these elements that have been inculcated into tysis and then irrigated by the audience, reconstructing and providing comfort for their own trauma. I am an old-school spectator, I go to the movies to learn and be improved as a person and The secret life of Euridice Gusmao hit all the boxes.

Tonight, June is right around the corner, but May evenings are holding on to their flowery allure; the scent of evening primrose mingling with a soft breeze and the voices of the people taking back the streets. Suddenly the city is not asleep anymore, people are outside, they sitting at metal tables and drink wine and chat, they laugh and they socialize. Feels like the past winter is just a bad dream and it hasn’t been even a month since the bars have reopened and the curfew is extended. It’s strange and scary and kind of annoying, in the way that Athens used to be so peaceful during the lock downs and now it has regained its prior chaotic, rigorous sound. The bars are overcrowded and that’s why I still avoid them, it is impossible to get a table in any restaurant unless you have a reservation and although everything seems to be going back to normal, somehow it doesn’t feel that way. I have been swamped with work, unable to enjoy the last sparkles of spring and unable to socially connect. That is how I have found myself two Saturdays ago stuck in between a broken heart and panic attacks.

Amidst my own chaos, encircled by the city’s newly regained chaos, I was looking for a way out. My good friends got me out of my misery by just highlighting a very important fact that I had neglected to discover, drowned in my stress and sorrow: Open air cinemas are now open. And it just hit me. For the past year I hadn’t been in a screening room. I kind of watched movies on my laptop or on my friends’ ridiculously big but really enjoyable TV screens, but I had been deprived of my favourite past time: the movie theater. As a child, I was taken to the cinema very often, at times even twice a week. It was a family affair and the selection was mostly curated by my parents and sparsely selected by me and my sister. We would watch Disney classics, Greek cinematography, blockbusters and art house movies, depending on the season and the selection the local cinemas. My hometown at the time hosted two winter cinemas that were gradually induced into an open air cinema, and a newly constructed multiplex that lead the local cinemas’ bankruptcy in less than 10 years.

Until today I can vividly recall the anxious days of my teen years being soothed by some visionary director’s work, in a dark room, by myself or with friends, dealing with my issues through the stories of other people.  So I guess it is understandable how excited I was when my two buddies came by my apartment with their motorcycles and dragged me to the nearest open air cinema, rescuing me from my own misery like a modern day princess. The night was chilly, demanding at least a hoodie so to be in the right temperature to sit and enjoy a feature film. Laura is an open air cinema located in Vyronas, a pretty central residential area of Athens and it is very well sized for the area. As almost all of the Athenian open-air spaces, it is filled with bushes and greens of all sorts and it is surrounded by massive blocks of flats. This particular scenery creates a very distinct feeling. You are being watched while you are watching. It is almost as the voyeurs have become the recipients of the gaze.

We got our tickets and joined the rest of the metropolis’ cinephiles in the first post quarantine screening. We grabbed some Bacardi breezers – a blast from our teenage past- and settled in to watch Nomadland by Chloé Zhao; a movie that had already been screened and crowned as the best movie of 2020. The lights dimmed and my eyes were tearing from joy by the end of the “coming shortly” list of movies playing in this venue in the next few weeks, whilst my friends were poking me saying we should watch all of them. The movie commenced with the appearance of the breathtaking Francis McDormand and a swift tempo that was maintained throughout the entire movie. Time is a very interesting matter for movie making and it has become an issue for me as a spectator. In Nomadland time seemed to hold on to its accuracy, taking advantage of all the necessary pauses, but without becoming dull. In a white van that is also a home for the protagonist, we followed the captivating journey of a widow through the vastness of the American land and the crippling freedom that occurs when the partner is lost. It was a journey through grief and a rebellious ode to our nomadic forefathers.

Chloé Zhao conducted a meticulous research of the human soul and the extent of the freedom that derives from the renouncement of what western humanity thinks of as normal life. An intellectual comment on Andreas Horvach’s 2019 road movie Lilian, it developed its own elegiac cinematography. The script was tight and well written and ringed by the grayness of the northern lights and the softness of the dawn and twilight. The characters were approached with such affection and precision, the stories were narrated beautifully and there wasn’t any clod of sentimentalism; these three aspects of Zhao’s cinematic work resonated with me. There was no intermission, so for two undisturbed hours we were following this woman on her peripatetic life. I couldn’t help but think of her journey and ponder about what loss is and how we process it. I thought about the margins of rebellion and despair and finally as I saw Francis McDormand drive away of everything and everyone in the last scenes of the movie, I felt healed and hopeful.

We stayed in our chairs listening to the title music and staring at the moon until the venue was empty. I felt so grateful for the experience. I wanted to thank the kind men and women working at the cinema, I want to congratulate the owners for keeping it running through the hardest year for businesses since the financial crisis of 2010 and at the same time being courageous enough to stand up to Netflix and the Multiplex monsters of capitalism; I also wanted to high five my fellow spectators for being present, for supporting the local businesses, for resisting in their own way in the fast food culture of the spectacle. In a time that we are forced to change, to go faster, to work more, to consume fast and furiously, cinema still holds on to its essence of amplified time, raw information and lyrical cinematography. There are still directors that avoid the sling shot effect, they dig deep and discover the abundance of diverse and unique stories and narratives. At the same time some devoted viewers keep the small movie theaters alive and advocate for different forms of recreation. Overflowed by all this in my head I joined my friends outside and we walked towards a crowded park in the area and sat down to enjoy the rest of the night, just 45 minutes before curfew time. We all agreed, under a full moon and listening to the youngsters party in the park, that however the situation and the circumstances, we will always have cinema.

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