Masterclass with Yorgos Arvanitis: When you are young and enthusiastic, you take risks
19 September, Bitola – The film professionals and the guests of ICFF “Manaki Brothers” had the special honor to attend the masterclass with Yorgos Arvanitis, the Greek cinematographer with a cult status in Europe and the world, and with about 150 titles in his career. Arvanitis enjoys special status of a founder, in a way, of art film in Greece and Europe.
The festival director Gena Teodosievska introduced the recipient of the Golden Camera 300 for Lifetime Achievement, Yorgos Arvanitis, and the talk was moderated by the film critic Massimo Lechi.
Arvanitis was born in a Greek village in 1941, in the dark days of World War II. After the destructions in the war, his family moved in with some relatives who had a dairy farm, so Yorgos as a five-year-old was distributing milk, and was going to school in the afternoon. He continued his education as an electrician, and went to a cinema at 15 for the first time.
The first contact with professional film was when there was a film shooting in his neighborhood, so Yorgos asked the cinema operator from the local cinema to help him do something on the set. He was most fascinated by the camera, and he says that cameramen were real gods to the children of those days.
-I found a black-and-white film strip, and with the help of two lights I shot my first film. I screened the film in the cinema and I got an offer to be a camera assistant. The next five years, I was a camera assistant, Arvanitis remembers his youth fascination with film.
At a young age he had shot his first film as a cameraman, and although he didn’t go to film school, he respected the advice of the older cameraman to see and remember everything at the shoots, because that is the only way to achieve greater knowledge.
A turning point in his life was meeting the few-years-younger Theo Angelopoulos, who in the beginning of the 60s had come back from France. The moderator Lechi noted that the connection between Angelopoulos, a Marxist-inclined film critic, and the self-taught cinematographer Arvanitis, who had learned all about the camera through shooting films, is an unusual one.
-We had shot some short films together with friends, helping each other. One day, Angelopoulos came with his script. I read it and I realized that there is a film in it. Thirty-three days later and with 4 actors, only one of which was a professional, we finished the film, Arvanitis talked.
Arvanitis pointed out that he was a great enthusiast and he took risks in the pioneering days of his career. Lechi noted that even in the first works of Arvanitis and Angelopoulos one can see landscapes of Greece, which will be dominant in the whole opus of Angelopoulos.
-I had a problem with Angelopoulos because he would always pick the same location for his films – Florina, Arvanitis says.
A turning point in the internationalization of their careers is the film Landscape in the Mist from 1980, and their last common film is Eternity and a Day form 1998. That film had won the Palme d’Or in Cannes.
Their second film done as a tandem, Days of ’36, is shot in color. At that period, Arvanitis had been employed in a film studio, and every day in the afternoon and the evening he worked with Angelopoulos. They shot their second film with Angelopoulos from the filters which had been “left out” because of the inadequate color in the process of shooting of films in the studio. When he was supposed to shoot a comedy, Arvanitis quit the job and he continued his career as a freelancer. The rest is the better part of the history of Greek and European film from the 60s until nowadays.
A war junta was raging at that period in Greece, so Arvanitis talked about the anecdotes of how they avoided censorship of the left-wing art films they were shooting with Angelopoulos.
Talking about his professor experience at the La Femis film academy in Paris, Arvanitis pointed out that one can make a great scene with little light and with a lot of organization. So, during some work with 5 students and an actor-model girl, he firstly asked them about the conditions they live in, and taking it from the scarcity they exist in, he gave them the following task: he gave them a room with a bed and a chair, 30 meters of negative film, a single spotlight and half an hour to shoot a scene where loneliness dominates.
-Only one student was successful in the task, using a soft light from the back and a reflection of a metal box on the camera. He “wrote” the scene with light, Arvanitis explained.
That is also his belief. Arvanitis reminded of the meaning of the word photography, of photos – light, and graphos-writing, coming together as ‘writing with light’. He pointed out the example of shooting a long scene, and children were supposed to be in the foreground. Instead of using too much light, he marked a path where the children were walking, and he showed the people around them through their shadows.
The moderator Lechi reminded of the aesthetic of Arvanitis and Angelopoulos with their long shots in motion in nature, and that these two creative thinkers were the only authors in the 80s and 90s who were using such shots. Lechi illustrated their creative relation as playing tennis and transferring the ball from the one to the other, to which Arvanitis added that there were cases when that play was turning into a real “fight” of ideas and attitudes.
The next phase in the career of Arvanitis is the professional work in France.
-I went to France to become more widely known, because if I only stayed in Greece, I would have been left on working in television, Arvanitis says.
Lechi pointed out that the films Arvanitis did in France are very different from the ones in Greece. Arvanitis agreed with his notice that he had abandoned landscapes and went into apartments.
-It’s correct that I’ve had some problems with some directors, especially with the ones who were used to saying “I am the director!”. Now, a lot of young directors want to know all and want to say all, considering that the film is only theirs, Arvanitis says.
The Australian cinematographer Ron Johanson came into the conversation, remembering the times as young children when they were seeing the films of Arvanitis by projecting them on a cloth.
-We were wowed, we were wondering how he does that. What was your experience while working in Australia?
-It is correct that I was working for some time in Australia as well. What was sometimes bothering me was that they were making brakes for all sorts of things, for morning, afternoon tea etc. But, still, it was very good for me, Arvanitis answered.
Arvanitis pointed out that he started to understand cinematography through dance, the image and what was in it to look like a great dance, as well as through painting, understanding a lot about the composition, colors and focus.
The cinematographer Nigel Walters asked Arvanitis about the motive to shoot on fim.
-I think that nowadays they shoot more digitally because it is faster and more economical. They say digital film is different, but it isn’t, everything is the same. There are still actors, a script, costumes, a camera, lights etc. Only the fact that technology maybe makes the job a little easier, you don’t have to prepare a film strip, you don’t get so confused in the editing room about the film strips, Arvanitis thinks.
He pointed out that when they were shooting on film, the director was next to him and they worked together with the actors.
-Now I work alone with them, and the director sits somewhere on the sides, watching everything on a monitor and talking to the monitor, Arvanitis says.
Before closing the talk, the moderator Lechi asked Arvanitis the question of does he think that his greatest work is already behind him.
-I don’t know, I am waiting to see. While my legs hold me, I will work, then we will see, Arvantis says.