“Tell your own story, that’s the one you know best”: Marios Psaras, director of The Call, on filmmaking

The launch of Cyprus’ Queer Wave Festival in 2021 saw Marios Psaras’ short film The Call (2020) premier at its place of production for the first time – as a matter of fact, just a five-minute drive from the place it was originally shot. While Marios hesitates to call himself a professional filmmaker, preferring the term film-scholar instead, his latest project is no doubt ground-breaking in the context of Cypriot cinema. It’s the first film shot in Cyprus that centres on a transgender character, partly inspired by Jean Cocteau’s monodrama The Human Voice, a one-woman play of a one-sided telephone conversation, about a one-sided love.

In The Call, a transgender woman receives a phone call from her brother, so as to attend their mother’s funeral; under one condition. The drama is hence transposed to a whole different setting, reframing the discussion about gender and human relationships, and focusing on the vexed issue of the patriarchal foundations of the Greek/Cypriot family. The short film has been selected by multiple festivals in Europe,the US and Latin America, and has won ‘Special Mention’ at the 43rd Drama International Short Film Festival (2020), ‘Best European Short’ at the 2nd Crete Fiction Film Festival (2021) and ‘Short Film Market Picks’ at Festival du court métrage de Clermont-Ferrand (2021).

Dr Marios Psaras was born in Cyprus and currently lives in London, UK, working as Cultural Counsellor at the Cyprus High Commission. He holds a PhD in Film Studies from Queen Mary University of London and has taught film theory at King’s College London, Queen Mary and Greenwich University and lectured across Europe. He has published on contemporary Greek, European and world queer cinema, including the monograph The Queer Greek Weird Wave (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). He is the artistic director of Cyprus Short Film Day in London, a member of the Hellenic Film Academy, and a member of the pre-selection committee for the National Section of the International Short Film Festival of Cyprus (ISFFC). Apart from The Call, Marios has produced and directed four other short films.

We had the pleasure of talking to Marios about his work on queer cinema, the response to The Call, how to make the most of film festivals, and the privilege and responsibility that comes with growing up in a culturally and historically rich place like Cyprus as a filmmaker.

Filmmaker and director, Marios Psaras

How did you find your way into the film realm? What made you focus on queer cinema?

It was a combination of my personal journey and my research. Right after my university degree at the University of Cyprus, I started doing some film projects, which were of course amateur. Once I came to London and began my masters and PhD, I focused heavily on the topic of identity. Gender identity, sexual identity, national identity and from that came about the topic of my PhD, as well as my book, on contemporary Greek cinema with a focus on the Greek weird wave from a queer analysis. I am interested in the way this contemporary wave in Greek cinema deconstructs identities but simultaneously deconstructs the hetero-patriarchal system; the way in which it attacks this system without suggesting an alternative system. It criticises it, leaving us to do an introspection to see what’s going wrong here, which people – in our realm, in our family – are left behind? Who does it suppress? Who does it marginalise? How can we subvert the status quo?

These were questions that, living in the UK, allowed me to assess them as a third person, someone outside of it, and see matters differently. It was also a personal need to evaluate the value system that organises our society, that’s so unfair to women and LGBTQ+ people. The need to re-evaluate this value system and command that human rights must not be limited to just certain groups of people but instead include everyone.

Still from The Call (2020) dir. Marios Psaras

I think these questions are especially important for Greece and Cyprus, as we’ve somehow ‘stayed behind’ from having these conversations that have to happen, and also the self-criticism that each one of us has to do.

Self-criticism, exactly, is the right word for this. Now in regard to if we stayed behind or not, and I’ve said this in another interview, I have some reservations.  There is a significant number of people in Greece and in Cyprus who are working towards that and are doing a really good job. Especially in the last 10 years in Cyprus, we have seen mainstream discussions around LGBT+ and feminist issues discussed on television, we have Pride, we have quite vocal feminist organisations that are calling for both the society and the state to look at these issues seriously. We have members of the parliament who are pro-feminism and LGBT+ rights, so I think we are moving in the right direction. Of course, we have a big percentage of people who are not comfortable discussing these things, and many of them who are still prejudiced and even aggressive. And the rise of populism in the last decade has only exacerbated things. 

Can you talk to us about the response of ‘The Call’ after showcasing it at Queer Wave, and the use of film as a medium to start important conversations about identity and the LGBT+ community in Cyprus?

Please allow me first to congratulate the organisers of the Queer Wave festival and especially Diego. It was a brave thing to do, and a necessary one, too, because it shed light on the discussions that we need to have in Cyprus. Also, a festival is a space that creates safe platforms for the emergence of new communities and the empowerement of existing ones: the LGBT+ community, the filmmakers’ community, and so on. For team building, to develop a network, and to develop relationships that will empower them to pursue their rights. It was an honour to have The Call screen in Cyprus and I think it was the best platform for the premier, in the place that it was born, and actually, a five-minute drive from the place it was shot!

It had a really positive response. It was a shame I couldn’t be at the screening, but Nektarios, the protagonist, was there. I really wanted to be there and have a discussion with the audience that night, but, unfortunately, I couldn’t be in Cyprus those days. However, I did have interesting discussions with many of the people who watched it that night. They contacted me via social media and we’ve had interesting chats about representation, participation, trans rights, etc. They asked me difficult questions and gave me sincere, constructive and helpful feedback that is always necessary to keep going on. Generally, I can say that I didn’t have any negative reactions – negative as in homophobic or transphobic reactions. 

The film had loads of exposure in mainstream media in Cyprus: newspapers, online media, on the radio, on TV. Nektarios, myself and Avgi (my co-writer), we all gave many interviews about The Call, so in a way it was embraced by the mainstream, which means that we are on the right track. “Negative” feedback was more about the casting decision, about choosing to cast Nektarios and not a woman, or a transwoman. But it is fascinating that this is actually next level feedback, an advanced conversation relating to production and industry; a conversation about the essence of representation, and I was thrilled that our little film provided the context and cause to kick it off. 

“It’s very important to allow yourself to digest the story that you want to tell, take the time to develop the characters, make some really good pre-production work with research, casting, and planning”

Poster for The Call (2020)

New national and international festivals have given a platform for more Cypriot filmmakers to showcase their work. Can you talk about some of the initiatives you have been involved with and what you think the impact and opportunities are for people who do get involved?

I’ve started my collaboration with ISFFC in 2016, I was invited by the organisers to join the pre-selection committee for the national section of the festival, and I’ve been on this committee alongside Adonis Florides and Nicholas Kabas since then. Due to Covid and travel limitations, I’ve only visited the festival twice, but was literally thrilled.. Anyone who has been to ISFFC will admit  it’s an amazing festival  that takes place in a fantastic location, at Rialto, and Plateia Iroon. The artistic directors Alexia and Kimonas,  and the organisers, Elena Christodoulidou (from the Ministry) and Georgia Dotzer (from Rialto) keep coming up with new ideas every year and keep everything fresh and seemingly effortless. It is a very important festival for Cypriot filmmakers, an ideal platform to showcase their work. 

What I would advise young filmmakers  is to be strict with themselves. We should be our stricter critics, ourselves. Especially when you’re young, in your early 20s – and I’ve done it in my early twenties myself – we’re so excited with so many ideas that we rush into it, and we don’t take the time to digest it, and don’t take the time to develop it. It’s very important to allow yourself to digest the story that you want to tell, take the time to develop the characters, make some really good pre-production work, research, casting, planning, finding the right funds to support a good quality production of the work and then also, while still in pre-production, you need to have at the back of your head where you will distribute this film. [Ask yourself] what kind of film am I making? Is it for the experimental festival scene, is it for museums & galleries, is it for A list festivals, for a niche market, for queer film festivals, for environmental festivals? There is a huge festival scene out there so it’s very important to know your audience and then design your distribution strategy. Ultimately a film is made in the editing suite, but you need to have a good script, strong characters and actors that you know will be able to deliver those characters. And then, once you have done your film, get it out there. If you cannot do it yourself, find a good distributor and let them do it for you. 

“You can only stand out when you tell your own story, because that’s the one you know best.”

I always think of filmmaking as such collaborative work, do you think people could use these festivals and these spaces to network with people, find other creatives to collaborate with, get inspired?

The quick answer is absolutely yes. And this is why film festivals shouldn’t be online. We can watch good films on Netflix, on Amazon and on Mubi (which is a treasure for good cinema) but film festivals have to be in the flesh. As you pointed out, it must be first and foremost an experience. A networking, social event for both the audience to experience film in the way it was designed to be screened, but also for the filmmakers themselves to have this sharing of their work with the audience and other filmmakers. To get the chance to have conversations and give feedback to each other. And also put forward new alliances, new collaborations, form new groups.

This is what’s happening at the ISSFC, but also at the festival I am the artistic director of, here in London, the Cyprus Short Film Day. We invite Cyprus, UK, Athens and US-based filmmakers and bring them here to meet each other and meet with industry people who are interested in Cypriot cinema.  Obviously, there is interest in Cypriot cinema as it is produced in a country that is so culturally rich but also so politically vexed, and we have so many stories to tell. And I think that the best stories we have to tell are the ones that matter to us, that come out of our Cypriot soul and Cypriot experience. Perhaps, that’s why The Call was successful, because there was some truthin it, some honesty. 

I am not enthusiastic about Cypriot films that try to imitate American cinema. Firstly, we cannot replicate Hollywood, we have neither the budgets nor the industry for that. Secondly, we don’t need to. We have such a rich heritage and culture to build on. You know, you can only stand out when you tell your own story, because that’s the one you know best. 

Still from The Call (2020) dir. Marios Psaras

You mentioned MUBI and other streaming services in your response, do you think young people can utilise these tools to get their work out there?

Yes, but not rely solely on these. I know millennials have other ways of interacting with each other, so I understand that there is a new generation who doesn’t rely on festivals anymore. They’re using streaming platforms, social media. It’s very hard to get on the big streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon, or Mubi; not impossible, but it is hard. We do have Cypriot filmmakers that are featured on these platforms. It is a way to get your work out there and potentially make some money out of it. Mubi is more difficult as it is a curatorial project. There is also Vimeo and Youtube, but I personally don’t use them to promote my films. I’ll use them when I know my film has run its circle and that it’s time to let it breathe out in the open and follow its own independent journey.

I understand that social media are the new way for filmmakers to interact with each other, to reach out to new audiences, so whatever suits each person. That being said, they should not give up on the opportunities that are given at film festivals because as I said earlier it’s different, it’s an experience.  Also, you meet lots of people at film festivals, you develop your network, you can meet future sponsors. There are industry events, masterclasses, parties, you never know who you’re going to meet next!

What are some of the perks and some of the challenges of being involved with the film ‘industry’ on a local level? 

Maybe I’m not the best person to answer this as I’m neither a full-time filmmaker nor based in Cyprus.  Clearly, we don’t have a film ‘industry’ per se. I only know a handful of filmmakers who are working full-time doing this. There’s little funding, but also a small audience, which does not allow for a commercially viable Cypriot cinema. That’s why most of the Cypriot filmmakers make films for the film festival scene and the international market, including streaming platforms. 

The perks are, first, that there is a sincere passion in it. Precisely because it doesn’t pay the bills, it has to fulfil something else, and for most of us, it’s purely an urge from deep inside. It’s like an internal itch that unless we succumb to it, won’t go away. We grew up in this culturally rich but also troubled place, with all these stories and transgenerational traumas, the exotic landscape, the colours, the light of Cyprus, its people, the larger than life characters. 

At the same time, I love working in Cyprus.  The filmmakers themselves are a beautiful community. The people I’ve collaborated with, I was only able to pay them so little with the film being a self-funded project, but they’ve all put their heart and soul in it: Avgi, Nektarios, Stephan, Anna, Stavros Makris and Stavros Terlikkas, Olga, Antony, Ollie, George and Melpo.

Once we started receiving the selections and awards, everyone was so thrilled and encouraged, asking me what our next project would be. I think the biggest accomplishment is having the people who have worked with you want to collaborate with you again. We had a great time and we truly believed in the project. We truly believed that we were working on something meaningful and, thankfully, we’ve managed to get this across and touch people.

Trailer for The Call (2020)

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