Combining spices and politics

The first piece of information is about the use of spices: when to use cinnamon or cumin, what to use when making imam or dolmades to make them tastier. The second piece of information is about the abuse of political power: how the Greeks experienced deportation from Istanbul in 1964 as well as their return to an unfriendly homeland. Both these pieces of information can be found in Tassos Boulmetis’s new film. Whether cinnamon or politics have the strongest flavor in the film is ambiguous due to a clever pun in the Greek title. The director has refused to give an answer, yet did provide some explanation: «This is not a film about people who eat. It is a film about people who cook. I used cooking as an alibi to comment on the ‘cooking’ of social and political relationships.» Long before the production hit the cinemas (it opens tonight), it had already acquired a reputation for having a good script. That was the opinion of the Greek Film Center, which provided initial approval and funding and then the financial colossus Village Roadshow Productions decided to take on the film. Those who read Boulmetis’s script were impressed with its quality and originality. The director remained hesitant and refused to discuss the script, maybe because writing it was a painful process. «Writing included joy, creative loneliness and pain,» he said. «But there was a lot of joy. It took me eight years all together to complete the script, with breaks. I felt the need to talk about Istanbul. When I started out in 1994, the script was entirely different: The first draft was mostly political, it had a grandfather from Istanbul who protected those who were against the regime. It then became more of an ethnography about those living in the city, with a lot of family gatherings and a good dose of humor. In time, the picture became clearer and the script’s shape was defined; it struck a balance in 1998 and then I went into the finishing touches, which lasted three years.» Boulmetis takes his time, as he has done in the past. He filmed his first full-length film «Viotechnia Oniron» (Industry of Dreams) in 1990, shortly after his return from Los Angeles, where he studied film at UCLA. He moved into advertising to cover the costs of the film and he admitted that advertising appealed to him and won him over. «Advertising forces you to narrate things plainly. There is a goal to fulfill and to show off, and the result must be quick-paced, regardless of duration, which is usually only a few seconds. You are constantly in touch with the latest technologies.» Boulmetis’s experience in advertising helped him to make use of digital technology for «A Touch of Spice,» a demanding production that cost 1.5 million euros. Filmed in Athens, Lavrion and Istanbul, the film tells the story of a family from the 1950s to the present through the eyes of a child with a talent for cooking. The child, now a professor of astrophysics, remembers his childhood in Istanbul, his close relationship with his grandfather, the owner of a spice shop, and his first great love. Then comes deportation, Athens, the junta, his career and the return to Istanbul. It is a happy yet bittersweet film, with a lot of humor and stories of meals and various kinds of cooking. It is a tasty biography, a fictional reconstruction of the director’s life. «The atmosphere of the film is autobiographical as are the characters’ relationships, the situations and the different kinds of behavior. I was born in Istanbul in 1957, left in 1964 and went back in 1994. You must travel to the city in order to understand… You organize your mental geography. You understand a lot of things about Greek culture and what being Greek means. I went back 30 years later because of the film, and that was the journey of my life. The journey was a result of a traumatic deportation, the violent end to my childhood and the fact that the Turks drove us out as Greeks and the Greeks welcomed us as Turks.» Did Greece seem unfriendly at first? Of course. When I entered the classroom in the second grade of primary school, just 20 days after our arrival in Greece, all the children started shouting: «Miss, Miss, this kid is from Turkey.» I had problems fitting in. What would you say if somebody accused you of simplifying the political part of the film? If they said that things are in fact more complex and that you have treated them sentimentally? First of all, I didn’t want to produce a «loud» film that would present the bad Turks and the good Greeks. I don’t think that what we call Greek-Turkish friendship exists. In order to claim such a thing, you must have some relationship with your neighbor and we don’t have that. Things might improve, but Greeks and Turks must get in touch with each other, and with their history as well. There are very few Greeks today who can escape the models of our educational and institutional system, which project a certain image of Turks. Of course, the Turks have a similar image about us, and it is in fact much worse than what we think about them. They see us as the ultimate enemy. I wanted to be honest about this, both artistically and in the substance of the film. I did not add or eliminate things. I just let it happen. The film touches a political issue with a heavy experience of the nation, the deportations of 1964, which a large number of modern Greeks are not aware of. This might not be a loud film, as I said, but it is sharp. It tells certain things on a deeper level and is, I hope, balanced. Do you believe that that people from Istanbul are a «race» with certain characteristics? I firmly believe that, but I can only prove it artistically. People from Istanbul are, above all, passionate. I will tell you a story: A lady arrived on the set to play her part, and a great controversy broke out between her and the art director. The reason was that the latter had included a copper cooking pot in the set for the kitchen and the lady insisted she never had copper cooking pots in her house. She stormed off in protest! You will often hear people from Istanbul mixing Eastern and French expressions. They are citizens of the world, bon viveurs and gossipy. They use a lot of symbols, have strong ties between them and are very keen on the homeland-religion-family triangle. They know what uprooting means. As soon as they managed to settle down, something would happen and they would have to leave again. «A Touch of Spice» is also political, because it is made by people who left their food unfinished, somewhere else.