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Director Volonakis’ Lyvia’s House, Produced by St. D Alumni, Screens Sept. 28 at MoMI

September 21, 2023

ASTORIA – The award-winning film Lyvia’s House has several Greek connections, including a Greek director, Niko Volonakis who was born in Queens, NY and raised in Athens, Greece; one of the producers, Nicholas Levis of BrandCinema, attended St. Demetrios High School in Astoria; and the lead actor, Joshua Malekos, is also of Greek descent. Lyvia’s House screens, one showing only, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Thursday, September 28, 6 PM.

Volonakis and Malekos spoke with The National Herald about their Greek roots and how their heritage influences their work.

Volonakis’ father is a Greek national whose family is from the island of Rhodes. Though Niko was born in New York, he immigrated to Greece at age seven, when his father relocated his family there. Since 2002, Volonakis has divided his time between Athens and northern California, where he participated in the Modern Greek Studies program at San Francisco State, studied film at City College in San Francisco, and embarked upon his indie film career, playing in a number of indie films, and meeting another indie filmmaker, Egyptian Taher Medhat from Cairo. Medhat returned to Cairo in 2010, and kept in contact with Volonakis during the Egyptian uprising. Shortly thereafter, Greece had its own upheaval, and it was at this time that they decided to film both rebellions and use them as the backdrop for the films, ‘Cairo Year Zero’ and ‘Hate Your City.’

Lyvia’s House, official poster. (Photo: Courtesy of Graffi Media Inc.)

Volonakis’ primary aim as a composer and filmmaker is to produce songs and films that focus on the injustices and tragedies of modern society, most particularly that of Greece, his adoptive country. Cairo Year Zero was released in 2014, and won several awards at festivals, but Hate Your City is still incomplete. A passion project that Volonakis has self-funded, he had worked on the film in fits and starts— whenever he managed to raise more money— for more than eight years. He finally got to where he’d be able to complete filming, when COVID lockdowns in Greece slammed production to a halt. Devastated, Volonakis left the country to be with family in the USA, and to regroup.

Behind the scenes of Lyvia’s House with Niko Volonakis at Thiara Walnut Orchard in Sutter County, California. (Photo: Courtesy of Graffi Media Inc.)

In the interim, Patricia V. Davis had completed the screenplay for Lyvia’s House, and was ready to put it into production. She and Volonakis had worked together before on smaller projects, and with utmost confidence in his talent and abilities, she asked him to direct. Although he liked the script, he turned her down, anxious to get back to Greece, raise more money, and complete his own film. But when the lockdowns prevented him from returning for several months, he agreed to create a fundraising short for the film. He promised to do it as a favor to her, but that, he told her: “Would be the beginning and end of his contribution.” However, during the production of that fundraiser, he met Director of Photography Cody Martin, and the two worked so well together, Volonakis decided to take on the project. Once he did, he put his heart and soul into the creation of the film, his own Greek influences, Theodoros Angelopoulos and Nikos Nikolaidis, as well as two non-Greeks, Tarkovsky and Lynch, apparent in the direction and cinematography. For the Lyvia’s House score, which pulled in Best Music Score at Sin City Film Festival, Volonakis added a ‘Greek chorus’ feel with the haunting vocals of Danielle and Shela Octavian. Constantine Cheimarios and DeVanté Winn are featured composers, but the harder melodies are influenced by many other artists, including yet another Greek, Sakis Tolis.

Behind the scenes of Lyvia’s House with actor Joshua Malekos in front of the Vernon Schoolhouse in Sutter County, California. (Photo: Courtesy of Graffi Media Inc.)

Actor Joshua Malekos, the male lead in the film, plays Johnny Beers and has roots in Crete. He told TNH: “I was amazed to learn the role the Cretans had in holding back the Nazis from taking Greece during World War II. They were true warriors, and that doesn’t surprise me. My great-grandfather came to the USA from Crete, and served at Pearl Harbor. And, I and my entire family, from my grandparents down to our generation, each have a tattoo, ‘Μαχητής’ which means ‘fighter’ in Greek. It’s to honor my little sister, who was a star basketball player in high school, but had a medical condition called hip dysplasia. It’s shouldn’t have been a big deal to correct, but somehow the surgery went wrong, and the doctors told us it was likely she would die. Our whole family was gutted by that news. She was only 15. But months went by, and she kept fighting. Finally, they told us she would live, but never walk again. Long story short, she ended up recovering completely, played basketball in college, and was later hired to coach basketball at the high school she graduated from. So, we all wear the tattoo, proudly, in her honor.”

When asked how his heritage influences his work, Malekos spoke about Lyvia’s House specifically. “I love the Greek myths and the first thing I noticed right off when I read the script was how many elements of Greek tragedy the story held,” he told TNH. “It’s all there in the characters and plot, even though the story is not about Greeks, and takes place in a farming community in northern California. Specifically, ‘hamartia’ (ἁμαρτία) is a hero’s tragic flaw; a hubris of the hero’s character which ultimately leads to their downfall. And so, that’s how I played Johnny Beers, as a tragic hero, because he certainly embodies that.”

Behind the scenes of Lyvia’s House with Niko Volonakis and Tara Nichol Caldwell. (Photo: Courtesy of Graffi Media Inc.)

Lyvia’s House has been making the rounds of film fests, including The San Francisco Greek Film Festival, and the Athens International Digital Film Festival (where it received Honorable Mention in Directing) and has three wins and four nominations thus far.

Davis received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for her work on the film which opens with a quote from Medea. Davis and producer Levis were residents of Astoria for a number of years as Davis was a teacher at IS 145 Joseph Pulitzer in Jackson Heights and prior to that at St. Demetrios in Astoria, where Levis was also a student.

For tickets to the screening at MoMI, email: [email protected]
The trailer for Lyvia’s House is available online: https://vimeo.com/601258222.


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