Greek photography director at the 55th Cannes Film Festival

Greece might not be represented with a film at this year’s Cannes Festival, but it does appear conspicuously in the credits, as director of photography Giorgos Arvanitis undersigns two films: Israeli director Amos Gitai’s «Kedma,» which is competing for the Palme d’Or, and «The Last Letter,» by the American documentary maker Frederick Wiseman, which is being shown out of competition. «Kedma» was the name of one of the ships which, in 1948, transported Jews from various countries to Israel, then just being created. The film tells their stories, and of their extermination by British and Palestinians. Filming lasted for two months last December and January, when Jenin and Ramala did not signify fear and horror. «The whole crew was against Sharon and his policies,» Arvanitis recalls. His collaboration with the great American documentary maker Frederick Wiseman came first, on Wiseman’s first feature film «The Last Letter,» which also, coincidentally, deals with Jews and World War II. «It’s based on a play by the Russian Jewish writer Vasily Grossman, and there is only one female actor. It’s the correspondence between a mother and her son, who is on the front line. Gradually, we realize that she is in the Warsaw ghetto,» says the director of photography. Arvanitis, whose work is closely connected with Theo Angelopoulos, is now international. In the 12 years he has lived in Paris with his wife Angeliki and three sons, he has worked on 25 productions, with new directors as well as distinguished filmmakers, such as Marco Ferreri (on the director’s last film before he died) and Marco Bellochio. «I left because I wanted to see the world, to come into contact with different people; I wanted to discover things which I didn’t know,» he tells Kathimerini. «I was in danger of becoming a cliche in Greece, simply repeating one style of photography. And, I won’t hide from you that I had a financial problem. I had three children and was starting to think of their private tuition. As I’ve said, Greece is a poor country with rich inhabitants, while France is a rich country with poor inhabitants… I was also lucky. I got jobs immediately. I’d been trained within Greek conditions, to work quickly with only a few means, and word of this spread in the French cinema world.» Arvanitis was indeed trained hard at Finos Films, from 1958 until the early 1970s, when his collaboration with Theo Angelopoulos began. Between 1966, when he first did the photography on a film, and the time he left Greece in 1989, his resume amassed 60 films. He has been in Greece for the past few months, working on Nikos Panagiotopoulos’s new film, «Kourastika na skotono tous agapimenous mou» (I have tired of killing those I love), which was inspired by an essay by Costis Papagiorgis. He also shot two ads that he was invited to make for the 2004 Olympics. Do you feel that, as the year’s go by, your role is changing, it is becoming more «senior»? My aim is to give the film whatever I can. Because, to be honest, a good film with bad photography is a good film. A bad film with amazing photography remains a bad film. I don’t «make» the film. I simply help to achieve a particular aesthetic result. The director of photography transforms the director’s dream into images. He attempts to understand the dream, to walk alongside the director… The director of photography is not a creator. He takes part in someone else’s creation. He is a co-creator. What I look for is collaborations, which sometimes I have, sometimes I don’t, because many directors are worried that I’ll get my way with them. On occasion, you have argued and disagreed with directors. With Theo Angelopoulos, Jonathan Nossiter, recently with Amos Gitai. They were different kinds of disputes. With Angelopoulos, they were about the work itself and were creative disputes. With the other two, the arguments were deeper. With Nossiter, I had a completely different idea about the aesthetic of the film; I argued with Gitai because the way he works doesn’t suit me. His roots are in documentary and he improvises a lot, with the result that the director of photography doesn’t have time to think or to decide what to do. I shot what there was, but I wasn’t interested like this. You said that your role is to «transform the director’s dream into images.» Have all the directors you’ve worked with had a dream? Yes, in their view, yes. You can see, though, which ones are working for the vision and which ones for the money. I try and take the good bits from each collaboration and keep that for myself. The rest I throw away. What do you most appreciate in Theo Angelopoulos? His obstinacy. Whether you agree with his films or not, you can’t deny their grandeur. I am pleased with the films I have made with him. It might be hard work, but there is a feeling of satisfaction at the end. My soul has been drenched with fulfilment. Exhaustion is creative with him. We have been working together for 26 years. I’ve often felt complete. I’ve stopped the shooting in the middle, on «The Traveling Players» I think, because it was so beautiful I was crying and couldn’t see through the visor. Do you think that the new generation of filmmakers experiences similar things? I am anxious to understand this generation. The difference is in the gaze, the language… A young director won’t ask for me. We take a different line. Team work is missing from cinema today. In the old days, even the boy who brought the coffee would talk about «our film.» Now things are more professional, impersonal. Has your work changed your «gaze» on the world? Do you, for example, break up reality into camera shots? Yes. On the bus, on the metro, everywhere… I «see» things that other people don’t perceive in the same way. I thank God that, through my work, I have been able to see the world differently.