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Culture

The 11th Los Angeles Greek Film Festival Pays Tribute to Maria Callas

By Vasilis Papoutsis

LOS ANGELES, CA – The Los Angeles Greek Film Festival’s (LAGFF) theme of Building Bridges is reflecting the new social economical realities that have shaped a new landscape, not only in Greece, and the United States but internationally as well.

Plateia Amerikis

Yannis Sakaridis’ award winning film Plateia Amerikis (American Square) to open the festival on June 7 illustrates the struggles of four different people, residents of the vibrant Plateia Amerikis, also known as the Via Veneto of Athens.

Nakos a local resident who had enough of the thousands of refugees who have flooded the Plateia, Tarek a Syrian ex-military doctor who is looking for a way out of Greece with his daughter, and Billy, the tattoo artist who has fallen in love with Tereza, an African singer, all find their fortunes interweaving and pressed for time.

Director Sakaridis said that “Greece is seen today as a melting pot, now in the middle of the biggest refugee and displacement crisis or our time, which has propelled the rise of racism and refugee haters. Plateia Amerikis is the modern Casablanca, where thousands of people wait for a seat in a track or a boat or a fake passportthat would transport them to Europe.”

Our Own Maria Callas

The Hellenic Ministry of Culture has declared 2017 as Year of Maria Callas in order to commemorate 40 years of her passing, and LAGFF scheduled June 9 to pay tribute to the great soprano with the screening of Babis Tsokas’ documentary Our Own Maria Callas. Because Callas’ family originated from Neohori, a village near Meligala Messinias, Messiniaki Amfiktyonia(MA) initiated an effort to produce a documentary to celebrate her life and hometown. To bring the vision to life, MA selected prolific director Tsokas, who has hundreds of short and feature films on his credits and studied with legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

The first task ahead was to cast the role of Callas. A coincidence brought Myrto Kamvysidi to the project. When Tsokas spoke to the Maria Callas Music Academy’s Alumni President Giorgos Eliopoulos, he asked if he could suggest someone for the role. He emphatically said that Myrto Kamvysidi would be the best choice for the role, “Myrto not only looks like Callas but she has a tremendous voice. You should take a look at her.”They met her in Meligala. Callas’ father had a pharmacy in Meligala before moving to America, they talked and after the first reel the director realized that he had found his Callas. Then the odyssey of filming the documentary began. It was a three-year effort that took the crew from Meligala, to Ancient Messini, to Kalamata, to Milan, to New York. Along the way they found tens of Messinian volunteers to assist them at their every stop.

In New York, they were assisted by the members and President of the local Messinian association Aristomenis, Stavros Giannopoulos who also originates from Neohori. He was one of the 250 volunteers who assisted the production.The two main challenges according to Tsokas were filming in the apartment in Paris where Callas spent the last two years of her life and the private island of Scorpios, where Callas spent some of the best moments of her life with the love of her life, Greek tycoon Aristotelis Onassis.

Tsokas said that “it became evident to me that we could not have a documentary about Callas without filming her apartment in Paris or Skorpios, but they were both extremely challenging because the apartment is owned by Qatari billionaire, who would not allow filming and Skorpios is owned by a Russian billionaire. But we found a way in.” They could not get a permit to film at her apartment at Georges Mandel Avenue so “we showed up and rang the bell. Myrto and Eleni Roussis did the talking. Then, we came back the next day and they let us in. It was important to get the shot from the window where Maria isoverlooking Georges Mandel Avenue.

Scorpios was an even bigger challenge because the Russian billionaire owner did not want any filming on the island. “Even Al Pacino’s request to film on the island was denied despite a substantial offer. A volunteer, Despina Giannari got us in, but she has not disclosed to us yet how she achieved that. We had five hours to complete filming on the island” said Tsokas. The director noted that after the crew got a security clearance the personal was very polite and accommodating. “They even offered us a tasty buffet to eat before filming began.” The film was “truly a labor of love for Callas and for Greece with a tremendous amount of personal investment but I am happy that the film has been received with warmth and pride everywhere it has been shown” Tsokas told TNH. MA defines the message of the film that Maria Callas was a Hellene and Hellas continues to be the birthplace of international giants. To that effectthe Municipality of Meligalas -Oihalia have purchased the Callas home and efforts to renovate the house are under way. The goal is to transform the home into a Maria Callas Museum.

Roza of Smyrna

Roza of Smyrnaisan emotional story of a forbidden love between Roza and her Turkish lover, Ismael, which took a tragic turn and it is set during the Greek Genocide in Asia Minor. Produced by Panos Papahadzis and skillfully directed by George Kordellas, the movie was based on the Giannis Giannellis-Theodosiadis’ novel and was filmed in Athens, Mytilene, Costantinople, and Smyrna.

Frozen Ambrosia

Frozen Ambrosia is a homage to Greece’s gorgeous mountains and skiing slopes that most people do not realize that exist in Greece. The abundance of snow during the winter season could be the catalyst to jump start winter tourism in Greece by making skiers and snowboarders around the world aware of Greece as a destination for their competitions. By creating this movie director Constantine Papanicolaou is hoping to raise awareness of Greece as one of the premier destinations for winter tourism. As a filmmaker specializing in ski and snowboarding movies,Frozen Ambrosia is “an attempt to reverse the perception of Greece as just a country with islands and bay shores and to showcase Greece asa destination to visit during the winter. I worked on the film for nearly five years and during filming I was brought close to death more than a few times but finally it’s finished and I couldn’t be more thrilled for the upcoming screening at the LAGFF,” the director told TNH.

This year LAGFF will present 13 features, 22 shorts, and15 documentaries.

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