Panos Deligiannis: “Happy princes is a political movie”

An interview by Maria Nika for the 6th Peloponnisos International Documentary Festival

If you take a look at the program of the Peloponnisos Documentary Festival and you read that “Happy Princes” is just about some kids in Rio de Janeiro putting on a theatrical play, do not think that Brazil is too far away and that the topic might not apply to you. It is high probable that at the end of the screening you will be moved and bursting into tears…

In his documentary, the director Panos Deligiannis relates Oscar Wilde’s “Happy Prince” with the life of the children in a favela in Rio. He has created a deeply human and political film that can touch every viewer no matter on which corner of the world he lives. After all, it is proved by the awards it has won so far in Greece, Hungary, Colombia and Norway.

“Happy Princes” is screened during the 6th Peloponnisos International Documentary Festival on Monday, 20th of January in the “Theodoros Aggelopoulos” amphitheatre in the Kalamata Labour Centre. There the director will be present and will have a chat with the audience about his movie. A little earlier, after having watched “Happy Princes” we had a chat with him.

(The documentary will also be screened in Gythion on 18/1, in Patras, Tripolis, Argos on 20/1 and in Xylokastro on 26/1.

Are indeed your “princes” happy? The story of Oscar Wilde is wonderful but it is also as sad as their lives. And the ending is so melancholic…

The princes in our movie have their feet firmly planted on the ground. They dream, they have hope, they get optimistic, but still every day in the favela leaves them with scars. Insecurity, lack of freedom, fights, shootings, death. It looks like a warzone, but in their reality as simple kids they have hope and thirst for life and in return they get lots of love at home. Theatre offers an amazing creative escape and the play touched them somewhere deep inside them. They felt as if it was written for them. As much as it concerns the melancholic ending, it was turned into something more optimistic in order to make the children feel good.

What is your relation with Brazil and how was the idea for this film born?

My relation with Brazil is completely beyond logic. It started with my love for Brazilian music during my teen years. For about twenty years, I travel in Salvador, in Bahia, an almost African state to learn and play drums as well as in Rio de Janeiro with the favelas and its truly unique geography looking for the story that could make an interesting movie. “Happy Princes” was the story that spoke directly to my soul. It contained everything I had in mind until then and I wanted to depict the life in a favela. So, I felt it immediately when I met Mrs Yolanda, the principal of this truly particular school, the “Solar Meninos de Luz” in the favelas Pavâo Pavâozinho and Cantagalo in Rio, along with Sotiris Karamesinis (he has already been living in Brazil) and he decided to teach theatre to the children there.The next day I flew to Rio de Janeiro and with a camera I put together a draft of the first approach on the story. Back in Greece, my old friend and producer of the film, Argiris Papadimitropoulos, was also fascinated with the story and after having the ideas of the writer, Natasa Segou, we had a strong basis for a beautiful movie: the homonymous tale by Oscar Wilde, in which it is described the imaginary story of a statue of a prince, who, just like Christ the Redeemer in Rio, observes from above the life, inequalities, poverty, social margins and the injustice in the world underneath his feet. The story written about eighty years before the making of the Christ’s statue is rather similar with the current situation in Brazil and especially in the favelas, where children and students-actors got immediately excited, they worked hard along with their teachers, and they immerged in the play and gave us this incredible outcome.

 

Did you face any perils while filming? I just remembered a news story on the newspaper “Vima” having as a title: “Rio de Janeiro: Five citizens killed every day by the police”.

The reason we managed to film in that specific favela, where no movie has ever been filmed, was Mrs Yolanda’s, the school principal, demand to the police and the bandits (“bandidos”) for protecting us and the children. She was a wonderful, brave and giving woman and I feel happy having met her and managing to send her a copy of the film before her passing away. Even though we had her “protection” – given that this school has raised many generations of children in the favelas without any discrimination – and we constantly had at close range armed bandidos (bandits) watching us (and maybe watching over us) there were a few times that we got close to gun fights with the police resulting in dead and wounded people that mede me really uncomfortable with my colleagues. Sure, I was lucky to work with people who trusted me, and especially my director of photography, Christina Moumouris and her assistant Kostas Mpampis, who were proved more than apt and brave in every occasion.

The children surprise us with their bright minds, their maturity and their sensibility despite the harsh conditions they live in. “We love the favela but sometimes it makes us cry” says a young boy in the movie. What is the future of these talented children growing up?

Those children that attend the theatre classes are brilliant and during the theatre classes they act like professional actors. There is, of course, a term in this particular school: Are you studying? Are you diligent and responsive? Then you will enjoy the best free education and care in the toughest favela in Rio where every educational mean is exhausted. Aren’t you like that? There is no margin to fail. At the end of the school year, if you have not made it, you leave and someone that seeks it and needs it more will come instead of you. You learn to try. Another important criterion to be accepted in this school is bad family situation with frequent examples of parents in prison, addicts and gang members. The work that is getting done is so impressive that slightly more than 90% of the school’s graduates manage to get accepted in higher schools and find a job and an escape from there. Life, of course, is not that generous to those children who let loose and get absorbed by the dark side of the favela, the crime…

 

You got inside the children’s houses. How did their parents treat you?

It was in fact really emotional. The fact that we got the courage and got with the crew inside the favela and filmed their houses and their lives was largely appreciated and surprised them in appositive way. We became friends with most of them and we still stay in contact. Their doors and their heats opened wide without any fear.

Would you characterise the documentary as “political”?

My intention has always been to give an idea of what it means for someone to live in a favela whose citizens have been abandoned in the margin by the state. From that scope, it is indeed completely political. Especially today that the president of Brazil, Bolsonaro, a former military man of the junta, who from time to time in the past had made public statements like: “I despise black people, women, gay people, the citizens of the favelas, the poor…” It is sad and makes you wonder how such a far-right politician became president of the country. But, there is an explanation. The citizens in the southern part of Brazil, who mostly supported his election, are of white colour and conservatives. People were also exhausted by the rise of crime. Right before the period of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games an informal agreement for “ceasefire” was made between the state and the crime world so as these two big international events to take place without problems. This practically meant installing police departments inside the favelas and order. When they finished every control in Brazil got lost and as a consequence crime and corruption surged dramatically.

 

One of the teachers in the team says that as child she also used to live in the same bad situation and nothing has changed after 30 years. From 2002 until 2016 Brazil had a government that was considered to be left-wing. Not even during that period did nothing change?

There have been some measures in help of the poor during the left-wing administration of Lula and Dilma. The situation before them was even worse, but poor people do nto survive easily and the public sector in Brazil is incredibly corrupted. This can be justified by the fact that left-wing governments fell due to scandals and their presidents are under investigation along with Temer, the right-wing next president. He was the politician who claimed to dissolve the Ministry of Culture and just the following day after announcing it he took it back. A few months after Temer’s caretaker government, elections were held and the Bolsonaro phenomenon appeared. I would also like to highlight that the majority of people living in the favelas are neither unlawful nor criminals. They are normal working-class people that fate brought them to live there and share their neighbourhood with a minority of bandits who carry guns and deal in drug trafficking. When police raids to check every now and then, they know that there will be a fight with possible dead and wounded from both sides and they have learnt to live with this. They know their fate and they do not expect many things to change for the better, especially now with the new President.

The children are all seriousness with putting on the play and this is so moving. A theatrical can change the people’s lives?

Finally the excellent choice of theatrical play by our writer Natasa Segou might have talked a bit deep in the souls of these young children. The dedication of the theatrical teachers had also such a strong impact that through acting they identified themselves in that and in the remake of the play caught them even singing rap lyrics feeling a part of it. Yes, I can definitely say that theatre can heal both actors and viewers and “Happy Princes” and the emotions that stirred in all of us involved in creating the film is the greatest example.

 

Your documentary has been screened in many countries. Can the story of a poor Brazilian community apply to the rest of the world?

I believe that it applies to everyone in every part of the world. It is obvious in the screenings. We all have a child inside us that observes and sympathises. This child also always tells the truth and everyone who has lived this movie can feel it. For me, these children in the film are heroes. That is how I felt and I filmed them and I always admire them.

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