The success and the international appeal of Greek cinema is a kind of recompensation for local filmmakers, also triggering a feeling of awkwardness for a system that produces artists forced to content with a limited amount of work

Stella Serefoglou

No beauty can exist without pain

Text: Yorgos Papadimitriou
Stella Serefoglou

Stella Serefoglou walks down a demanding and multifaceted road as an artist, moving on the fourfold axis of pedagogy-theater-advertisement-cinema. Her resume becomes even more impressive, when taking into account that her initiation in art came through dancing. Following a stint alongside renowned Vicky Maragopoulou, Stella Serefoglou took part in many projects of acclaimed choreographers in the early 90s. In 2019, Stella began her collaboration with the National Theater of Greece, teaching theater education for children and teenagers. Her theater play, Avgo, destined for young children and based on an idea conceived by her and Antonis Papatheodoulou, has been staged at the Musical Library “Lilian Voudouri” (Athens Concert Hall) for five years in a row, starting from 2018. In the same year, she directed her debut short film, One, starring legendary Greek actress Xenia Kalogeropoulou. One can’t help but wonder as to how this rich mosaic of artistic qualities unfolds in her work.

“When directing a movie, you craft a new world, from scratch, coworking with other people. This way, individuals from different wavelengths come together and – devoutly and explosively at the same time – work towards the desired destination, creating a brand new universe, in the image of the artist’s initial vision. When teaching, the classroom, the teacher, and the students coexist and while each of these entities embodies and reflects a separate world, they jointly mold something new that is seemingly bound to vanish as soon as the course ends. However, and if the team is closely knitted together (the adult teacher is the one to fully assume this responsibility), this new world outlives the course’s session. Therefore, in both cases I have the responsibility, as well as the moral satisfaction, to be the one to guide this group to the source that will provide us with all the necessary material to build these new worlds. Nevertheless, now that I come to think of it, the list of ways through which these two identities complete one another is way longer, as other intersupportive qualities come forth, such as imagination, caring, inner and outer discipline, observational skills, the mood for play and inquiry, the artistic vision etc. It is only natural that one quality must take a step back for another one to shine, but in no way can it be smothered or dismissed.”

Stella Serefoglou is the living exception to the rule that art is undervalued in the Greek educational system. Nevertheless, she goes on to explain that our country’s take on this matter cries out for drastic changes, especially when it comes to the overall mentality and approach. “I am not sure I can add anything that hasn’t been said already, so I will share my personal view, formed through my experience. My first contact with cinema, as a moviegoer I mean, came in my adolescence years, at an age I had already developed a full-blown character. As a child, I had the privilege of getting acquainted with art, by learning the piano, but most through many years of ballet and classical dance. This intense engagement has shaped who I am. If I hadn’t got attached to art at such an early stage of my life, I might not have sought it in such a fervent way,” she initially points out.

“Don’t get me wrong, children’s engagement with art must not be orientated towards breeding future artists. Nevertheless, and since art has the power to transform people and shape their moral stance, aesthetic and perception, it needs to have a key role in the educational system. Unfortunately, it’s the other way round. As blessed and touched as I may feel whenever I witness the lonely and almost heroic efforts coming from individual teachers struggling against our times’ tendency, a whole lot more needs to be done if we wish for things to change for the better. Art teaching should be regarded and treated as the most meaningful investment for producing skillful, conscientious, sensible and mature citizens. Within the framework of the Cinekid Film Festival, where my film was selected and screened, I was amazed to discover unknown aspects and possibilities (institutional support, pedagogical vision, social awareness) in the fields of both children-oriented art and cinema education for adults and children. The benefits would be overwhelming and our education could learn a thing or two and follow in the footsteps of these practices,” she concludes.

Her sophomore short film, The Penguin’s Flight, will celebrate its premiere at the 45th Drama International Short Film Festival. The film revolves around Elli, a lonesome teenager who spends her summer holidays cut off from everyone and everything, while her parents are on the verge of a definite separation. Her cat named Molly is her only friend and its disappearance will trigger Elli’s journey of adulthood and self-awareness. A charming paradox can instantly be spotted in the film’s title, as penguins are among the few birds that cannot fly; a subtle allegory on the transformative process of adulthood, which forces us to deal with buried traumas and unconfessed fears.

“I drew inspiration for the film’s title from a piece of information I came across that made quite an impression on me. The grace and the beauty of the penguins is suddenly endowed with a tragic hue, reminding us once again that no beauty can exist without pain. This way, the paradox and the contradiction found in the title become directly linked to the story of 13-year-old Elli, who is going through a rough time in her life due to the nature of adolescence and family complications. Adulthood encompasses shattered expectations, confrontations, existential frustrations and innumerable hardships. Whether it will turn out to be a liberating process is up to each and every one of us, depending on the level of reconciliation with ourselves and our close ones, on how well we accept and adapt to every change of conditions. Then and only then can we relate to the taking off of a penguin.”

In the harsh reality of the Greek movie industry, the transition from short films to full-length movies often proves to be impossible, making it really hard for all beginners to gain a living and identify themselves as film directors. Here’s what she has to say: The transition from the short film format to full-length films is no walk in the park, as the demands rise in accordance with the scale shift. Directing short films in no way unlocks the door to full features. Quite often though, short films – apart from their charm and allure – are seen as an investment. First and foremost an emotional and financial investment, but at the end of the day an artistic one, too. It is common knowledge that other factors may be the ones to define whether this transition will take place or not; it is a huge step forward, involving a high level of complexity and difficulty. Working on set with little Yasemi (the protagonist in The Penguin’s Flight), I saw two of my goals come true. On one hand, narrate a short and simple story focused on a teenager protagonist. On the other hand, test myself against the challenge of the short film format, paving the ground for something more extroverted, both in terms of storyline and production,” she explains before adding: “As to how a film director should professionally label oneself, that depends on that very person, the extent of connection and implication with one’s art, the financial aspect, and of the work itself of course. The way I see it, since the question was addressed to me, I do not identify myself as a film director for two reasons: I lack the body of work to back up that label and I do not depend on it to make a living. On the contrary, I can call myself a director of commercials, as well as of theater plays for young children, which has been an occupation of mine over the last years.”

Multidimensional and pluralistic, Stella Serefoglou has many exciting projects under way. Her latest theater play, destined for preschool-age children, will be staged in February 2023. In addition, a full-length film project has already been given the green light by the Greek Film Centre, while her third short film is included in the eight projects selected for the workshop held in Torino Short Film Market / Word-Frame Greece. However, the most common concern for all Greek films that earn international distinctions lies in the danger of not finding their way to Greek movie theaters. The causes behind this dire phenomenon are everywhere to be found, stresses Stella Serefoglou.

“In my view, it is a combination of many things. Therefore, it makes no sense to put the blame on one particular part of the process. It is not rare for a good film to find its way and its audience at a later stage. However, such cases offer no answer to the problem, as we should not just abide by a system that calls for improvements on all sides of the spectrum. The success and the international appeal of Greek cinema is a kind of recompensation for local filmmakers, also triggering a feeling of awkwardness for a system that produces artists forced to content with a limited amount of work. Therefore, we need to find a new starting point, but the necessary prerequisite for that to happen is to embrace the obvious: cinema must be dealt not only as a cultural product, but also as a viable and substantial financial investment.”