[8 November 2010]
In a city, with heavy metal music haunting the heroes and the voice of Maria Callas being heard, an aged man, ex-terrorist, who dresses like a woman, the “red Maria”, lives without any law and is hiding in the social shadows as a prostitute and performer. He is dancing in the streets, old and out-dated dances, for the passersby who give him money. In the street he meets a young boy, a street urchin at deaths door after a neo-fascists attack. The boy, alcohol addicted, hears the voice of Maria Callas, speaks with the dead diva, with the mother he misses. In overdose he dreams of the perfect world.
“Red Maria” saves the boy and teaches him the “job”. In order to survive they invade cafes, giving performances that talk for a new, political God, for the political mistake of God, for the end of the ideology. Their world is magical, poetical. And wild. “Red Maria” teaches the boy how to survive. Together they become the magician of the tribe, the holy fool, the rebel. They live a magical personal revolution. But a number of murders will change “Red Maria” and the boy from ideologists into serial killers.
The Rebellion of Red Maria is Costas Zapas’ fourth feature film. Previously he made ‘the family trilogy’, which consisted of Uncut Family (2004), The Last Porn Movie (2006) and Minor Freedoms (2008). The latter was financed and co-produced by Zentropa productions, Lars von Trier’s and Peter Aalbæk Jensen’s production company. The films attracted international interest. The Guardian has characterized him ‘as one of the main protagonists of the burgeoning Greek New Wave and Cineuropa ‘as one of the most outstanding directors of the auteur cinema’.
PopMatters: The last years there is a sense of a new Wave in the Greek Cinema, for example your previous family trilogy, the films of Eva Stefani, last year we had Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, which was very popular. Do you think that the financial crisis (which in Greece takes place for the last three years and is not something that occurred in April as many tend to think) was beneficial for the rejuvenation of Greek Cinema? What I mean is, do you feel that this new cinema reflects a self-criticism on the part of the Greek society?
Costas Zapa: In my opinion the film festivals globally want to justify themselves as Art festivals, because they are funded by the taxpayers. There are fashions that come and go. Now Greek Cinema is a fashion within the festivals, a few years ago it was Danish Cinema that was fashionable, then it was Argentinean and Romanian. My cinema, according to the critics, cannot be classified as national cinema.
Now as far as the second part is concerned, we the Greeks are still unable to engage into self-criticism. It’s going to take quite a few years. When it comes to film production, there are only a few filmmakers in this country that have something to say, but they are very isolated and they certainly do not have a good time.
PM: I know what you mean about the festivals creating fashions. Yet despite that, the festivals have helped to promote some good European filmmakers.
CZ: In my opinion the last auteur, in what I define as art cinema, is Lars von Trier. And this is the reason why the popular press condemns his films. We see that filmmakers such as Darren Aronofsky and Iñárritu started making radical movies and then they succumbed to the trend, making works that follow the Hollywood aesthetics.
PM: Could you briefly discuss your new film, The Rebellion of Red Maria? How would you describe it to a non-expert?
CZ: The Rebellion of Red Maria is an anarchist film. It is a story of love and anarchy.
The film is about an ex-terrorist, a man who dresses as a woman and meets with a boy that has been beaten by a group of neo-Nazis. He teaches the boy the ‘job’, which is entering bars and cafes to perform their happenings to make money either thanks to the peoples’ generosity or by stealing. In their happenings they talk about a ‘new political God’, the end of ideology, and the political mistakes of God. They live a magic revolution. It is a film about the limits of freedom, because freedom is the most important thing in life, but to the point that it does not violate the others’ right to freedom. Briefly Red Maria refers to the passage from the ideological person to the ‘superman of the instincts’.
PM: Yet despite being rebels and free they are slaves of money, too. Is there a contradiction in the sense that Red Maria and the Boy are rebels, but their revolution reproduces the exchange-value ethos?
CZ: Well that is exactly what happened in all the revolutions that took place in this world so far. We saw that Communist Ideology turned out to be a Stalinist monstrosity. The same happened in Cuba. Che, who was a visionary rebel, did not stay in the country, and the person who replaced him was an authoritarian figure.
PM: So Red Maria and the Boy start with the best intentions and end up becoming serial killers.
CZ: Red Maria says at one point ‘The Revolution is dead and it has been dead for ever’. Aeschylus says something similar in Prometheus, when the main character asserts that everything is pre-determined, nobody is free -and please do not take that as ‘fatalism’, but as a political thesis.
I am very suspicious of individuals with the best intentions. Take as an example our every-day life. You see that people go on strike and when they get 20 euros pay rise they are the first to oppose other peoples’ right to go on industrial action. The problem for me lies in the fact that even nowadays the human instincts prevail over our efforts to build a civilized society.
PM: Are Red Maria and the Boy slaves to their instincts?
CZ: Red Maria is a former ideologist who saw his dreams turning into monstrosity. This made him a terrorist, and in the end the uncertainty that pervades our globalised environment turns him into a serial killer. The Boy, on the other hand, is not politically conscious and is ready to accept and follow anything. And this can be seen in light of the de-politicization that characterizes young people nowadays.
PM: Another important thing is your treatment of gender issues in the film. Red Maria is queer, but we do not have the stereotypical queer portrayal according to which the character is passive and the victim of society. On the contrary he/she is very dynamic.
CZ: As far as I am concerned there are no homosexuals or heterosexuals, there are people that know how to transgress boundaries and enjoy life and their bodies and others that are stiff and unimaginative irrespective of gender. And Red Maria as a character is a very revolutionary cinematic figure in the sense that he/she transcends all the gender clichés and conventions propagated by the film industry.
PM: Of particular interest in the film is the employment of music. You have a combination of heavy metal with Maria Callas and other contemporary material.
CZ: The music is not just embellishing the film. It does not simply reflect feelings but participates in the diegesis, like an actor. When you watch the film it is like reading a musical notation. We did a screen test and some people characterized the film as a political musical. Music reflects the characters’ environment and it is also the flow of the story, so you cannot dissociate it from the film’s form and content.
PM: So it sounds like a political musical, as you said. Talking about the political in cinema. There is a tendency in Film Theory, which considers that the political implications of a film have to do more with its form rather than the content. Emblematic is Jean-Luc Godard’s dictum ‘I do not make political films—I make films politically’. Where would you classify yourself?
CZ: I do not believe in form. I believe in meanings, because that is what makes a film alive. The definition of political cinema is very problematic, because everything has to start from the beginning.
We live in a universal state of decadence and this does not solely concern Greece or just the global economy, but global politics, human communication and culture, too. We need to redefine the term political cinema and mainly because people nowadays do not care about politics. This is Red Maria’s experiment, because the film is about young people and intends to stimulate thinking about a whole range of issues that are political.
PM: You told me that recently you had a screening test with young people of various backgrounds that had no relation with Art Cinema whatsoever, but their responses were very positive.
CZ: One young girl asked me whether I am planning to make a sequel of the film, because she wanted to know what will happen to the characters. It was really funny! Of course such a film cannot have a second part. But still, I think that the film works better with an audience that does not have a background in art cinema. It is a free film in form and content and it is about young peoples’ fears and desires. Music helps a lot as well, we use loads of heavy metal and other contemporary stuff, too.
PM: To go back to politics, Bertolt Brecht is considered to be the father of political art and his thought has influenced political cinema, too. There is a theoretical tendency which is named post-Brechtian. According to this tendency, Brecht’s art of exhibiting the contradictions is still valid but his suggestions for resolutions of these contradictions are not. In other words, the artist is not in the ‘know’ position, but he gives his audience material for thought asking for a more productive participation.
CZ: Of course my films are not didactic. How can you offer a solution when things are subject to constant change? The end of the film is open-ended and one cannot tell whether it is a happy end or a tragic one. I come from a country like Greece that we have suffered a lot from people that want to ‘teach a lesson’. Offering a single-minded solution is something like political fascism. Yet on the other hand, we need to offer food for thought to the audience. That’s how I see Red Maria’s statement—that the revolution is dead.
PM: When is Red Maria’s official screening?
CZ: We are in discussions with many International Film Festivals in Europe and North America that have expressed interest in screening it.
PM: For your previous trilogy you had a distribution contract with Zentropa, Lars von Trier’s and Peter Aalbæk Jensen’s company. In a way we could see that your films go beyond the Greek national borders and refer to an International audience.
CZ: I have never made money in Greece. My films have been recognized abroad but never in my own country. I am glad that all my works are produced independently and I did not have to make any compromises to get government funding. On the other hand, my film The Last Porn Movie (2006) is incorporated in the curriculum of the Cinema Department at the University of Montreal.
PM: Could we call Red Maria a punk musical?
CZ: Yes to an extent yes. I am very interested in punk and the great thing about it is that it started from the margins of society from the poor parts of London. Its power lied in its authenticity; that is, it reflected something true and raw that had to be expressed publicly. The same applies with everyone involved in arts. What matters is if your films or your music has something to say about this world and not whether you have graduated from a Film or Music department of a prestigious University.