Stavros Psilakis: “I find people who live on the edge challenging”

Interview by Maria Nika on behalf on Peloponnisos International Documentary Festival

* Stavros Psillakis’s film “For no reasons” Meeting with Yorgos Maniatis” will be play on Monday 27/1 at 7.30 P.M at Kalamata’s Labour Centre (Ergatiko Kentro Kalamatas).

Stavros Psilakis’ movies are able to directly touch our heart. His documentaries are life- lessons whether they depict inmates of psychiatric asylums, doctors of Metaxa cancer hospital that they themselves have suffered from cancer, or a dying woman that gives birth to her child. He is attracted by people living on the edge. “ People who have reached their limits and rethink their entire existence”. Such a man was the writer and musician, Yorgos Maniatis, the protagonist of his film, which will be screened at the 6th Peloponnisos International Documentary Festival.

Maniatis was born in Messini, in 1939. He was raised in Athens and when he was 17 poverty urged him to leave for Belgium, where he worked as a coalminer. Later, he enlisted on French Foreign Legion and found himself in Algeria, but he eventually befriended Algerians. By returning to Greece he started working at newspapers and he published his book “ I escaped from the French Foreign Legion”, which became a great success. In 1973, he was the first Greek journalist that reached Chile after Allende’s death. His reportage entitled “ 40 days full of night” was never published, since prior to its publication the Greek coup-perpetrators made their way into the presser and stopped everything. That period- he was writing feverishly, he was publishing books and he started working on Greek music sector, and thus setting up his lab called “Evretirio”. He passed away in 2018.

Before his documentary’s screening in Kalamata, Yorgos Maniatis talked to us about the uncompromising, fiery-tempered Yorgos Maniatis. This interview was conducted before Christmas, so we had to talk about the current affairs of that period and especially about the police intrusion into Dimitris Indare’s house, his college.

- How did you find out that Maniatis was a rare case?

Yiorgos Papadopoulos, the director, introduced him to me. It was just a first encounter, nothing special. We just went for a while to the house of a nice man. After two months or so, I happened t to find his books and I started reading them. I was impressed and I had really great respect and appreciation for that man. I decided to go and visit him again so as to get to know him better. We started meeting with each other. After 4-5 meetings, I asked for his permission to have a camera with me and record what we were discussing. Perhaps, we could turn it into something, if it was something worthwhile, I said. There was no rush and no commitment. It was just a test for both of us. He accepted. 

- Was it easy to convince him to speak openly?

I think yes. We formed a nice relationship, there as a certain mutual trust and appreciation. He didn’t have any problem talking. Generally, he doesn’t have any problem talking.

- In the film, a love affair that he had with one his co-students in Poros’ Hellenic Navy, is depicted. I was surprised that he talked about that.

This is a “light” description I would say, because in our discussion we have talked about so much more, things that are no one’s concern. It’s self-evident that when he confides these things there is trust (between us), meaning that he says something that you just can’t make it public on your own accord. I took his permission for it. It is an instance that is taking place in a class of Poros’ Hellenic navy, no names are mentioned. I wasn’t interested in gossip, but I used it as an overture-when man is beginning to discover his body geography- in order to talk about love. From there the story goes to Plato’s Symposium, the picture of Dorian Gray and to many other things.

- He used to say that FFL , where he served when he was 18, was like a “mould” that formed his edification...

In the film, Maniatis says, our first birth happens without us having a clue about it. We don’t choose anything and we don’t bear any responsibility. Later, man must- at least once in his lifetime- find himself under those circumstances in order to “give birth to himself”. This second birth is a conscious choice. He went to FFL, and serving there was a catalyst for another internal process that led to an explosive upturn. That’s why he says it was a mould that formed this person.

-In the film, he also says, that what he was trying to do in his life was to supersede the circumstances…

When Grigoris Lamprakis read the “Legion” , he was impressed and invited Maniatis to dine with him. At some point, Lamprakis asked him how he did all those things and if he’d understood what he had done. And Maniatis answered : “ I tried no take consideration of the circumstances”. Lamprakis, excited as he was, stood up, hugged him and said: “That is what I am also trying to do in my life!”. This was short before his death…

-Even though he was raised by a right-wing family he had liking for the left, but he was also a Platonist… On the whole, he was independent

It is very difficult to put Maniatis under a certain category, very difficult. He had an open, clear mind that followed its one course. “Legion”, an initiative by Mikis Thoedorakis, was first published in ’61, in Dromous tis Irinis( Roads of Peace), a popular left magazine of that era. After a while, Maniatis signed the founding declaration of Lamprakis’ followers, though it would wrong to say that he was a man devoted to the left-wing and its struggles. He was certainly socially aware, he was concerned about what was happening then, however his thoughts and his concerns went further than that.

- He was against that title that was given to his book “I escaped from the French Foreign Legion”. Did he think he’d escape from everywhere?

Exactly. This book, the time it came out, had a huge impact. It marked him. Even today, when you speak of Maniatis, you say “the legionnaire” so that people understand where you’ re referring to. He, himself, however, considered it as a burden, meaning that he had done so many things in his life, his writing, his music. That’s why he used to stay “I didn’t escapeonly from the Legion, but also everywhere else”. And he was right.

-His writing was very strong. He was accepted by great well-educated men of his time. And suddenly he stopped. Was such a great talent lost in alchohol?

Look, all great writers are not common people. Something tortures them, they have their own demons, and if they didn’t have them, they wouldn’t write. Alcohol or other addictions to be part of his life, is not something unusual. We find these things I lot of great writers. But, I can’t say that if it wasn’t the for the drinking that Maniatis would still write in a great way. And I am referring to his meditative books. “ Legion” is very good, but his meditative books are another story. You almost don’t believe that they were written by the same man. Reading them, the question I had was, how far can the human mind go. Going that high is hubris and he will fall down, he can’t go further. The question, how this man, without having finished his basic education (he made it to the 2nd class of junior high school) managed to write these texts, was the basic, the moving force that urged me to get to know him.

- How long did the shootings last?

We met nine times during one month, in the summer of 2015. For the next two years, I visiting him every week, I had coffee, he-wine and we were discussing like friends without cameras or voice recorders. We about 80 meetings of this kind. It was an important approach that helped me a lot with the film. These two years, silently around us, was that loose end, what we were going to do. I couldn’t dare to proceed, I didn’t know how. A typical biography was not my intention, and I didn’t want anyone else to talk about him. In front of me was special case. A man who was constantly struggling with his demons, a consciousness that was always alert and self-immolating.

-The film leaves us with a melancholic feeling. In the end, you see a self-destructive person who ’s left himself…

There wouldn’t be any literature without such characters. All of them are like that. When you meet them in a book, you feel their agony, you are sorry for them, you have compassion for that man and his timeless tragedy. But in a documentary, where you have that person right in front of you, you are landed back to reality. I can’t have such melancholic feelings for Maniatis, for he gave what he had to give. The rest is rhetoric.

- What’s the idea behind the title “ For no reasons” ?

He says himself that, whatever he does is for no reasons. No one asked for the making of this film, neither Maniatis was asked to do what he did. Artistic creation often happens “for no reasons”. In the film, he says a great thing “that the artistic creation is a non-paying patriotism”. He was teaching in his lab without being paid for more than 20 years.

- He had an extraordinary sense of dignity…

He had his own principles. He said “I will not accept a pension from this state”. And he did it. How many people could have done it ?

- He didn’t manage to see your film. What do you think he would say, had seen it ?

I don’t believe he would out and cheer. I would be very calm, if he didn’t say anything, or he just nodded. I feel good in regard wit this film. I tried to honor our friedship, what we’ve shared with Yorgos, as much as I could and as much as it was possible. In the film there’s a Maniatis, who says lot’s of things. I’m saying and I hope this doesn’t sound selfish, that what you see is “Maniatis as perceived by Psillakis”. You see this part of that man which “spoke out to me”

- You first studied at the Technical University of Athens…

That has happened, as well. I finished the electrical-engineering department of the National Technical University of Athens

- And then you studied directing, with a scholarship from the French state?

When I finished the Technical University, I didn’t want to spend me entire life doing something that did not concern me. I didn’t want to work as a contractor, nor as a mechanic. I studied at the Technical University, simply because I liked math, physics and chemistry. It was a common thing for students with good greats to attend this university at that time.

-Did you give birth to yourself for a second time, as Maniatis did?

You could say that, but it’s a long story…

- In your films you deal with burning issues..

I find people who live on the edge challenging: people in psychiatric asylums, guerill man who went into hiding for 15 years in the Mountains of Crete, doctors of Metaxa cancer hospital that they themselves have suffered from cancer… People who have reached their limits and rethink their entire existence. These are timeless stories, they are not current affairs that you see today and you forget tomorrow. I could get involved with less “loud”, more daily issues, as long as I their timeless features catch my interest. Difficult human situations and the adventures of human existence have always been of interest to me, but without approaching them like a “prosecutor”

- All these things that happen nowadays, police repression, the intrusion in the house of D. Indare’s etc. do you keep track of them?

Of course I keep track of them. I am child of the Athens Polytechnic Uprising, I can’t be indifferent. I am furious, it’s not possible to go so many years back, to such aggression. And I think that in the imminent future the blow will be much more general. This is just a “dress rehearsal’’ we’ re living. Dimitris Indares is an amazing man , one of the best colleagues and not by a long shot has anything to do with those profane things they say about him. Similar things have happened to others as well, but it wasn’t known because they were anarchists or against the establishment. We became again a “good” petit- bourgeois society with all its “bunco”. Maybe is our dream.

- Could this situation be a documentary-theme for you?

Let others do it, who can do and much better than me. Daily current issues do not catch my interest. I do not have a television in my house, it is a world that does not concern me, but does not mean that I don’t watch the news. I feel too indignation about all these thing that we’ re going through, however that does not move me into making a film about it. But the themes that I work on, It think they are politic. A concerned citizen is the most political thing we could have. Politics is not voting every four years, but what you do with your life every day. In the beginning of the film, Maniatis says “ Life is changed, by those who change their lives”.

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