Love and jasmine in war’s shadow

Ioanna Karystiani spent a few days frantically searching for jasmine flowers on Andros in early March before finally coming across a few handfuls in two remote parts of the island. Symbolizing a love and a promise, the flowers were an integral detail in a script she had penned and whose filming had only just begun on the Cycladic island.

Details – in gestures, expressions, costumes and objects – play vital roles in “Mikra Agglia,” the film based on Karystiani’s namesake novel (published by Kastaniotis in Greek and translated into English as “The Jasmine Isle,” Europa Editions) and directed by her husband, filmmaker Pantelis Voulgaris.

Unfolding on the seafaring island – Andros came to be known as Mikra Agglia (Little England) due to its special ties to London, center of the international shipping community – in the years before and during the Second World War, the story focuses on siblings Orsa and Moscha.

Orsa is reserved and in love with Spyros, who asks her to wait for him while he makes a name and a fortune for himself at sea. The girls’ mother, Mina, who thinks little of feelings, arranges for Orsa to marry Nikos, the scion of a wealthy local family. Betrayed, Spyros returns to Andros and marries the younger, carefree Moscha.

Actors Pinelopi Tsilika (Orsa), Sofia Kokkali (Moscha) and Andreas Constantinou (Spyros) bring their youthful vitality to a cast which also includes theater veteran Aneza Papadopoulou (Mina) and Maximos Moumouris (Nikos).

“My aim is to reconstruct a new universe in each film,” Voulgaris told Kathimerini English Edition. “I always have in mind a sort of archive of actors, people I interview and talk to, a gallery of faces which I haven’t seen around very much. In this case the protagonists had to be young. In the end it all comes down to a combination of luck and experience.”

Beyond a triangle of ill-fated passion, lingering frustration and multifaceted loss lies a tight-knit society defined by the solitude of strong women whose partners in life are laboring away from home. Linking people and their emotions is what Voulgaris refers to as the “endless, exuberant sea, whose underground power accompanies life itself.”

The relationship between Andros and the novelist-filmmaker tandem of Karystiani and Voulgaris goes back some 25 years, when the couple purchased a house in the mountain village of Stenies. They had no family ties there – Karystiani was born in Hania, Crete, while Voulgaris’s family comes from the islands of Samos and Naxos – but their own attachment to an island which has been described as not particularly friendly to strangers.

“When I grow fond of a particular place it’s not just about the landscape, but about the human factor as well,” noted Voulgaris. “The people of Andros are not inhospitable, they are reserved and because of their nautical tradition they remain closed until they figure out who’s standing in front of them.”

For the film, many Andriots opened the doors to their living rooms and closets to set designer Antonis Daglidis, who spent about six months scouting the island in search of interiors and exteriors prior to the nine weeks of shooting. Furniture was moved between residences, silver was polished and garments brought out of old trunks.

The story of Orsa and Moscha led Karystiani to spend long periods of time on the island, conducting research and sharing life stories with ship captains and other residents. “Mikra Agglia” does not paint an idyllic, summertime-postcard picture of the place, but a more realistic, rougher portrait through the lens of cinematographer Simos Sakertzis. Of Andriot descent, singer-songwriter Katerina Polemi developed the film’s original music score.    

“Period films have always been a major problem in Greece. You don’t have the cities, the villages, the objects or the costumes ready at your disposal,” said Voulgaris. “In this case we were fortunate to have everybody on our side, including quality and elegant objects; part of the film’s success is due to this.”  

Besides contributing in terms of props as well as through an army of extras who appear in crowd scenes – many of them members of two local theater groups – the people of Andros are responsible for making “Mikra Agglia” happen in the first place, with a group of islanders putting up the movie’s entire 1.7-million-euro budget. An unprecedented move, according to the director, who hopes it will prove an incentive for other local communities wishing to promote their own stories.

The movie is not part of what was recently dubbed the “weird wave of Greek cinema,” led by directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth,” “Alps”). A seasoned filmmaker, Voulgaris was born in Athens in 1940. His first feature film, “To Proxenio tis Annas” (Anna’s Engagement), was released in 1974 and was followed by a string of films including “Nyfes” (Brides), the story of a mail-order bride, one of 700 young women heading to America on board the SS King Alexander in 1922. Released in 2004, “Brides” counts Martin Scorsese as one of its executive producers and Damian Lewis in one of the leading roles. Prior to working on “Mikra Agglia,” Voulgaris had explored the Greek civil war in “Psyhi Vathia,” released in 2009.

After opening in 107 cinemas across Greece on December 5, “Mikra Agglia” sold 90,000 tickets during its first week of screenings. The film is distributed by Feelgood.

How does one’s perspective through the camera change over time?

“My films are not defined by a strict and particular cinematic style,” noted Voulgaris. “My images were always part of an effort for a discreet description of scenes. All 12 movies vary from one another and each story has its own aesthetic challenge.”

[Kathimerini English Edition]

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