THEO PANAYIDES meets an energetic and organised film maker whose first project is about to open in local cinemas
First things first: Committed, a Cypriot film in English, opening June 20 in local cinemas. It’s only fair to put the promotional aspect right at the top. That, after all, is why Stelana Kliris is sitting at the poolside café at the Nicosia Hilton, having driven in from Limassol on a few hours’ sleep after coming back from Cannes last night at 3am – and of course she was in Cannes because her sales agent had a stall in the Market touting Committed, a film she wrote, produced and directed with more dedication than cash (plus a massive leg-up from the internet and a so-called “angel”).
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Stelana has brown eyes, flowing black hair, speaks very fast and radiates positive energy; it’s no surprise that one of her favourite films is called Life is Beautiful. “I do love Moulin Rouge, I’m such a girl!” she burbles girlishly, jotting down another of those favourite films (you can find the full list below) – and she also appears to be a ‘good girl’, with a touch of the head prefect. At school, she did loads of extramural activities and recalls herself as “a bit of a nerd”. “Oh shoot!” is the closest she gets to a swear-word, at least on tape. She’s excitable without seeming strident, assured but feminine. In the story of her life she might be played by Emma Thompson, at least if Thompson was a few decades younger (Emma is 55, Stelana 33) and spoke with a South African accent.
Sum her up in one word, and that word might be ‘organised’. “I’m super-organised. Insanely, OCD organised!” she laughs, adding: “You have to be”. Sum her up again, and the word might be ‘filmmaker’. It’s all she’s ever thought of being, from her early years as an only child growing up in Pretoria. Her parents (both refugees from Rizokarpaso, though her dad emigrated before the invasion) worked all the time, running a fast-food takeaway in the centre of town – so young Stelana, left on her own, watched old musicals like The Sound of Music and Singin’ in the Rain, graduated to Spielberg then expanded to just about anything (though her tastes remain unabashedly mainstream). She didn’t make movie juvenilia like the teenage Spielberg, but recalls putting on a play of Aladdin at the age of 12; it was so much fun, she says fondly, “setting it up, selling tickets”.
Note the choice of words: not ‘wearing silly costumes’, or ‘positing Aladdin as a symbol of post-apartheid South Africa’, but setting it up and selling tickets. Stelana loves setting things up, and I’ve no doubt she loves selling tickets (one of her peeves is that Cypriot filmmakers don’t think enough about the business side). She’s a person who likes things sorted out and squared away. At one point she absent-mindedly rearranges my tape recorder on the table between us, and I discreetly put it back. “Sorry, sorry!” she apologises, mortified: “It’s a habit”.
Remember that word: ‘organised’. She shows me the blue exercise book where she writes her daily to-do lists (she must get through a dozen of these books every year). Today’s list contains a staggering 21 items, from preparing the workshop on low-budget filmmaking which she’s doing at the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival (where Committed will be showing in a couple of weeks) to confirming that Rio Cinema in Limassol has the marketing materials for the movie. To that list she adds a No. 22 (‘Send film stills to the Sunday Mail’) – and I instantly notice her handwriting, small and impeccably neat, every letter the exact same size; it’s so neat I initially assume she must copy the lists from somewhere else but in fact she writes them directly on the page, patiently and methodically. They’re not all so neat, she counters, and shows me a (slightly) sketchier list from a day when she was feeling stressed-out. I wouldn’t have guessed.
This isn’t just an idle observation – because Stelana’s organised, methodical temperament was a big part of how she brought off Committed. She has experience in the industry, having spent seven years in Greece as an in-house Production Coordinator with Green Olive Films, assisting on high-end commercials for international clients, but she’d only directed a couple of shorts before last year – and the crisis has also made financing harder in Cyprus, squeezing the Ministry of Culture which was always the main source of funding. In fact, it was when another, Ministry-funded project was put on hold in 2012 that Stelana got the idea for Committed: “Just out of frustration, I was like ‘well, surely you can do something without a huge budget’” – so she thought about a romantic comedy with just two actors, a man and a woman meeting on the road and driving all around Cyprus. She wrote it in a month (though that skeleton was later refined, especially when the actors came on board), and went about trying to find financing.
Yes, but how? Her solution was to be organised, methodical – and a little bit shameless, using the power afforded by Facebook and social media. “I can’t imagine what people did before the internet,” she admits wryly. She used Indiegogo.com, a crowd-funding site where films seek investors, put together a page and a small trailer for the movie in her head, then backed it with a “massive online campaign” where she posted endlessly on Facebook and emailed details of the Indiegogo page to just about everyone – actors, producers and “every imaginable Cypriot-related company I could find”.
The campaign itself didn’t make much money (barely enough to cover pre-production), “but through that campaign, because we were advertising and promoting it so much, we found an angel investor,” the industry term for a private investor who agreed to cover most of the budget. That was the Pouroulis Foundation, the cultural arm of a mining company run by a South African Cypriot and his family who became “the most wonderful patrons I could ask for,” says Stelana with her usual enthusiasm.
And what if she hadn’t found them?
“In my mind – I don’t know why – I just knew we would find the money,” she shrugs. “I would’ve just literally gone company by company: $100 here, $100 there. I just would’ve found it one way or another. It was just kind of – it sounds silly, but it’s almost like it was meant to be.”
Her energy and bubbliness must’ve helped; the fact that she’s a beautiful young woman surely didn’t hurt. But, for instance, she also writes monthly newsletters on the progress of the film which she emails to her Indiegogo patrons, even those who may only have pledged $10; that takes discipline, and a certain work ethic. Similarly, one could say she got lucky in that her lead actress on Committed, London-based Melia Kreiling – whom she also met via Facebook – has a thriving career, including a tiny part in upcoming blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, making the film a slightly easier sell. But Stelana still had to email more than 400 sales agents all over the world, sending links to a trailer and the film itself, before she found her current sales agent, Wonderphil Entertainment (it’s run by a guy named Phil) in San Francisco. That’s a lot of daily to-do lists.
How Cypriot is Committed? Wonderphil’s website barely mentions Cyprus at all, pitching the film as “When Harry Met Sally meets Pretty Woman” (which isn’t quite right, but whatever) – yet Stelana is very keen on Cypriot films (including her own) being seen by local audiences, if only for practical reasons: “When you’re trying to get sponsorship from Cyprus and they’ve never seen a Cypriot film, they’re less likely to do it”. She’s been living here for four years now, and likes it though her lifestyle is frugal. She goes out, but “I’m very careful, I can’t splurge”; every spare penny gets saved for filmmaking projects – not to mention that, after living as an independent career woman in Greece for so long, she’s been rooming with her folks for the past four years. “Yah, welcome to the filmmaker’s life, yah,” she laughs, sounding very South African.
What about life beyond movies? She’s 33, after all; body clocks are presumably ticking. She laughs again: “Yeah, look, definitely. The movie’s probably a big projection of that – the movie’s all about love and marriage and commitment, so…” She shrugs: “Definitely that’s on my mind, but I guess it’s nothing you can really control, it happens when it happens”. In a way, the couple in Committed “may be two sides of me.There’s the hopeless-romantic side that really believes in great love lasting forever and so on, and there’s the very practical side, that fear of ‘What if you end up with the wrong person?’ and ‘How do you know what’s going to happen in the future?’. Those are the two characters, George and the bride [in the film]. So yeah, definitely, it’s kind of a debate between those two sides, and maybe it’s the two sides of my brain when it comes to this topic”.
Looks like the practical side has been more active lately, I point out.
“Because that’s a little bit more in your control,” replies Stelana. “I do think the love thing needs a little bit of luck. You can’t control who you’re going to meet, or who you’re going to connect with.”
If only one could add ‘Fall in love’ as No. 23 on a daily to-do list. Control is undoubtedly important to Stelana Kliris – but she’s also prone to impulsive moments (she loves to travel, which involves a loss of control), and in any case her energy is too positive to be curtailed by her practical side. You can see it even in details, like the constant outsider-dom of being considered Cypriot in South Africa and South African in Cyprus – a plight others might take as an opportunity to whinge, but Stelana views with glass-half-full optimism. “It’s nice to kind of stand out, and have something different to talk about with people,” she says sweetly.
“I think I’ve got a very good sense of perspective,” she adds. “If it’s not life-or-death, there’s no reason to get worked up about things”. Her family background helps, her parents being down-to-earth types (though her dad, in his youth, was “a bit of a playboy”) who instilled her work ethic back in Pretoria; growing up in South Africa also helped, because “you see a lot of things”. She’s lost people over the years, to crime, to illness. “Things like that are worth getting very depressed and upset about. Work and career, obviously you’re invested in it – but you’re not going to kill yourself over a bad review, or a bad film… You have your health, you’re walking, you’re talking, you’re able to work and do your thing. That already puts you way ahead of a lot of people”.
Then again, she’s just been to Cannes – the pinnacle of life as a filmmaker, especially one from the world beyond Hollywood. A few days ago she attended the red-carpet premiere of Timbuktu, a film set in Mali, made by an African director – and tells me all about it, the heaving crowds, the paparazzi, the five-minute standing ovation, the ushers holding hands to cordon off the audience so the director could pass, the Festival director coming onstage to congratulate him: “As a filmmaker, it’s just… I can’t describe it, your heart swells”. But Cannes also illustrated how cutthroat the business is, how many thousands of films languish unsold in the Market. “You’re so proud of your mammoth task,” muses Stelana, “and of the movie you put out there – and it’s just a drop in the ocean, when you see what’s out there! It doesn’t detract anything from your own film, but it’s really competitive. If you want to keep going, you have to really, really push hard”.
I assume she’ll keep pushing; she has the drive, the energy, even the business savvy. It’s unclear if she’ll stay in Cyprus or go abroad – it depends on the work – but the first step’s been taken, and she’s learning all the time. “It’s wild,” admits Stelana Kliris; making movies is a crazy business, it doesn’t matter how organised you are – but you wait, and you try to make things happen, and “in the meantime you keep living your life, and you keep doing your thing”. Speaking of which: Committed, a Cypriot film in English, opening June 20 in local cinemas.
STELANA KLIRIS’ TOP 10 FILMS
1. THE GODFATHER (1972)
2. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997)
3. MALENA (2000)
4. ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953)
5. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)
6. SEVEN (1995)
7. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
8. DIRTY DANCING (1987)
9. PSYCHO (1960)
10. MOULIN ROUGE! (2001)