Dimitris Zahos, right from his early steps as a passionate movie lover and a film student, perceived cinema as a conjoint and collective process.

Dimitris Zahos

Like a letter sent to long-gone friends

Text: Yorgos Papadimitriou | Photographs: Dimitris Zahos' Archive
Dimitris Zahos
Dimitris Zahos

Thessaloniki-born Dimitris Zahos studied Applied Informatics at the University of Macedonia and went on to conclude his postgraduate studies on Information Systems. Strangely enough it was during these studies that he first developed a crush on cinema. From that moment on, he never looked back. “I was already a student when I first discovered cinema, through the screenings of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Seeking to be at the very heart of this cinema feast, I worked for several years at the Festival’s ticket counters, where thousands of ardent cinema lovers paraded right before my eyes. I was intrigued by cinema’s codes and the broad spectrum of its expressive means. Later on, I enrolled with a couple of friends at the Iris school of Stavroupoli, to get acquainted with the art of cinema and counterbalance the technocratic world of informatics. I still fondly remember my first cinema teacher, Akis Kersanidis. Back at the time, I heard stories of kids having graduated from the Stavrakou School of Cinema or a cinema faculty abroad, having convinced myself that these studies are reserved for a special breed of people. When AUTh’s Film School was founded, I borrowed David Bordwell’s landmark book, Film Art: An Introduction, and took the entrance exams. When I come to think of it, it must have been something I found in this book – at the age of 26 at the time -that got my motivated. ‘Just for the sake of these books, it’s worth a try,’ I thought to myself.”

Dimitris Zahos, right from his early steps as a passionate movie lover and a film student, perceived cinema as a conjoint and collective process: “From day one, I watched films and discovered cinema alongside a group of beloved friends. As soon as my first classes were over, at my new faculty, I was aware of not being alone. I still believe that we share a common bond of passion for cinema that gets us going and moving forward. The seed of collective work was planted inside us, urging us to embark on this journey, into a new world, riddled with difficulties, frustrations and happy moments. Armed with new friends, new movies, and the will to utter our own words and craft our own view of the world. In my book, that’s what movies are all about. As poet Manolis Anagnostakis once wrote, like a night light in the mist, like a letter sent to long-gone friends, bearing nothing but these two words: ‘I live’. In real life, as in cinema, ‘our actions prove who we are’. So, without taking the time to overthink it, my decision had been made.”

Zahos made quite a sensation with his multi-awarded dissertation short film Penguins (2012), based on the short story Penguins outside the payroll office, by author Christos Ikonomou. With striking straightforwardness and bereft of unnecessary verbosity and melodrama, Zahos etches a gray and dreary scenery that pushes the movie’s heroes to extreme decisions, triggering an incessant dead-end. Sharp-edged and unpretentious dialogues, narrative starkness, as well as the well-rounded portrayal of both the lead characters and their surroundings, are the eye-catching features of a promising director’s impressive debut. Short films Mission: Zeus (2012) and Australia (2017) serve as the bridge leading to Zahos’ peak of maturity, the splendid short film Vouta (2019), which was bestowed with three prestigious awards at the 2020 Drama International Short Film Festival: the Special Jury Award, the Screenplay Award for Yorgos Teltzidis and the Set Design Award for Danai Elefsinioti.

Vouta beats to the pulse of the street, impeccably capturing both the rebelliousness of youth and teenage angst. At the same time, it finds the way (following in the Penguins’ footsteps) to emit an authentic sense of grassroot feeling; a feature so often misused in Greek films, which tend to succumb to caricature or the pretentious fantasies of a fake realism. The film’s dialogues are once again tuned to high tension levels, blessed with an exemplary naturalness of enunciation (yet another constant flaw found in Greek films), crafting an allegory of instinctive emotion, tinged with a subtle homage to Kazan’s On the Waterfront and coupled with an editing rhythm that keeps the viewer in suspense. The final destination is a deeply touching finale that interweaves lyricism with bareness. Like a dive into the void pulling back up right before the crash. Dimitris Zahos lays out the way in which the personal experiences of both himself and of the screenwriter, Yorgos Teltzidis, are channeled into this genuine and self-contained universe.

“We still carry within us the stories from our working-class neighborhoods; Harilaou in my case, Stavroupoli as far as Teltzidis is concerned. Yorgos grew up right next to the Vocational High School in Lagkada street, in a neighborhood haunted by the refugees’ dreams, who settled in, made families and still keep on dreaming. That was his source of inspiration for the film’s screenplay. At the same time, the people I met at the Second Chance School of the Korydallos prison complex, where I worked as a teacher for two consecutive years, forced me to reevaluate many of my stereotypes on offenders. I tried to convey this experience through the film’s characters,” he explains.

Apart from the four short films he has directed, Dimitris Zahos has a series of interesting collaborations and multifaceted activities under his belt. From 2017 to 2019, he worked as the coordinator of the theatre workshop at the Second Chance School of the Korydallos prison complex. In addition, he has a rich cinema-related teaching experience in both secondary and tertiary education. He has repeatedly joined forces with the hyperactive “En dynamei” ensemble art collective, while having collaborated with institutions of nation-wide prestige, such as the National Theater of Greece, the National Theater of Northern Greece, Onassis Stegi, Athens & Epidaurus Festival etc. Moreover, he has served as assistant director in the feature film USSAK (2017) by Kyriakos Katzourakis, as well as in a series of short films. Concluding our brief discussion, we invited him to answer two questions. Firstly, do awards and distinctions play an important role for short films? And secondly, how hard is the transition to feature films? Here’s what he has to say:

“Awards serve as a recognition of the work carried out in all levels; a small compensation for everyone involved. As to the transition to feature films, there’s no standard procedure to follow or a beaten track to walk on. In reality, every director has to find his/her way from scratch, all alone, without the slightest hint of help. There’s no institutional framework or any sort of meaningful support for this leap of faith. Everything’s back to square one.”