The life of a documentarian is to see but not to intervene THEO PANAYIDES is told as he meets the woman behind A Haircut Story
I’m sitting in the lobby of the St Raphael in Limassol, talking ethics with Danae Stylianou. Documentary ethics, that is. She mentions a German film she watched at the recent Limassol International Documentary Festival, where her own film A Haircut Story also screened – it screens again at the Rialto this Thursday – and talks about a certain dilemma faced by the German film’s director, Marc Bauder.
Bauder’s documentary is called Master of the Universe, and includes extensive interviews with a former top banker who reveals some of the (often shocking) goings-on within the German banking industry. At one point, recalls Danae, the subject shared some outrageous trade secret and added: ‘But please don’t put that in the finished film’ – but of course Bauder went ahead and included it anyway. It’s a classic case of the ethical dilemma facing documentarians, a dilemma that may be summarised as ‘To whom do I owe a greater duty, my subject or my audience?’ (it’s a variation on the dilemma of the war-zone photographer who doesn’t know whether to help people or take their picture). Or, to quote Danae: “This is an ethical decision, whether you decide to embarrass the person – in order to convey the meaning which you have to convey – or respect them. I think it depends on the individual case”.
Has this happened to her? It has, she replies (she’s made two feature-length documentaries, Sharing an Island in 2011 and now A Haircut Story), and she didn’t betray the person in that case, choosing instead to omit the controversial line. It’s a hard choice, she admits, even harder for a Cypriot making documentaries in Cyprus: you’re bound to run into your subjects again at some point, and she does want to stay in contact and maintain a relationship whenever possible. People realise that you’re making a film, of course – but there’s still the unspoken assumption that you’ll try and protect them (hopefully even make them look good) in exchange for their time. “I don’t think I’ve ever embarrassed anyone.”
But she’d do it if needed?
She thinks about it: “I can’t think of any specific example” where that might be necessary, she replies carefully.
Well, what about if she were talking to a racist? Sharing an Island, after all, is explicitly bicommunal, a case of ‘Big Brother meets the Cyprus problem’ with six young people from both communities forced into close proximity. Her own views are clear enough. Wouldn’t she try to expose the toxic views of someone she violently disagreed with?
Not as such, she hedges. Maybe she’d just give the racist enough rope to hang himself. After all, “everyone else, who isn’t a racist, will see that you’re making him look bad – whereas he’ll just see the things that he actually said.”
So if you do it discreetly –
“It’s not about being discreet. He himself believes these things, which the rest of society finds reprehensible. So, when he sees the film, he’ll just think ‘Yeah, I sound really good!’. After all, that’s what he believes in.”
Danae has a point – but there’s also something bothersome in what she says, something in the way she takes for granted what “the rest of society finds reprehensible”. Out-and-out racism (of the ‘only good Turk is a dead Turk’ variety) is admittedly rare these days – but Western societies are polarised on most social issues, and getting more so. Views that some might consider fundamentally racist, like calling for curbs on immigrants, are becoming mainstream all over Europe. Even when it comes to the Cyprus problem, after years of mistrust and the thorny question of the settlers, the arguments for ‘sharing an island’ or just building a big wall between the communities are increasingly fraught. Danae’s conception of society (and indeed of her audience) seems a bit utopian, compared to the messy beast that exists in reality.
One gets a sense of someone very clear in her beliefs, even to the point of complacency. I suspect her worldview favours those she agrees with, right-thinking people, people like her – a sense I also get later, when I ask about A Haircut Story. The film is composed of an introduction and seven stories, focusing on seven people who’ve been affected by last year’s Eurogroup-imposed bail-in of depositors – and I ask whether she included people saying unpopular things, maybe things like ‘serves them right’ or ‘it’s our own fault this happened’, but she shakes her head. “Since I don’t believe that myself, I wouldn’t include someone who would say something like that”.
Fans of that journalistic sacred cow ‘editorial balance’ may disapprove; then again, her approach seems to work. Sharing an Island is among the most widely-viewed Cypriot documentaries, having screened on TV more than once and played assorted festivals (it also has more than 6,000 views on YouTube); indeed, one of the awards Danae won for Sharing is what allowed her to make Haircut without any grant or subsidy. Her “character-driven” approach is unabashedly emotional, with laughter and tears – much of Sharing an Island consists of the six protagonists getting to know each other, sharing memories and demolishing taboos from their respective communities – and it’s changed people’s minds, she insists, having heard as much from nationalists who’ve pledged to re-think their views after watching it.
There’s a slight contradiction in Danae. On the one hand, she fits the profile of the typical documentarian, which she’s able to describe after meeting lots of non-fiction filmmakers at festivals: “They’re all very, very low-profile people. They’re present but they’re also invisible, which is a very important trait. Fame hasn’t gone to their heads at all, and they observe everything closely. That’s the profile of the documentary filmmaker – he or she is there, but also not”. Like them, she also loves observing people (she was people-watching just before I arrived, in the lobby of the St Raphael), trying to understand why they do what they do. Part of her is neutral. It has to be, or she couldn’t do what she does.
On the other hand, she’s a very specific kind of person, and has been throughout her 30 years. Her political views are specific (and specifically left-wing); they’ve developed over the years, she admits, but they’ve never changed. Her professional life is specific, namely the life of a photographer and filmmaker. She’s always done this job, and never thought of doing anything else. Her father and grandfather are both photographers; her uncle runs a film production company. Choosing a career, she smiles, “was a very easy decision”. She was taking photos even in primary school – “When you see your dad holding a camera 24 hours a day, at some point you start being influenced” – and making short films in high school. She studied Film Production in the UK, worked in Athens for six years, then came back to Cyprus with the very specific aim of making a film about bicommunal relations.
Her job, in other words, is to be a sponge, yet her own identity is sharply delineated. Like all documentarians, her passive (ie non-interventionist) approach to interviewing subjects – her cardinal rule is “never to pressure anyone to do anything” – is in inverse proportion to her active interest in effecting social change. “I think people are kind of in denial,” she muses when I ask what the general climate is like in Limassol (the city that’s been least affected by the economic crisis). “Maybe it’s because it’s summer, and everything’s OK, and let’s just go to the beach and everything will pass. But personally I think the worst is yet to come, unfortunately – even though I’m not at all pessimistic [as a person].
“I think people still have that faith that someone will rescue us,” sighs Danae, “or someone will make the right decision. And they don’t understand that they themselves have to demand it, or at least be present in the decision-making – which I think is possible. You can have direct democracy, you just have to demand it”.
She’s a firm believer in “mass mobilisation”, whether because of Karl Marx or just being part of the social-media generation (probably the latter) – but she’s also despondent because people don’t seem to realise the potential of ‘people power’, blindly believing that things will get better. They won’t, she asserts; countries that come under a Memorandum always suffer negative effects. Besides, the whole system is broken: “We have an economic system that produces corruption, it produces inequality”. Capitalism craves inequality, it’s part of its template. Danae is so up-the-workers she won’t even blame our leech-like civil servants for the current mess; yes, there was inefficiency, she admits, but “I don’t believe the civil service is to blame. That’s the rhetoric used by ministers of right-wing governments to pass the buck and mislead people”.
It’s a given that A Haircut Story will reflect her beliefs. “Obviously I won’t construct an argument I disagree with,” she says. “I’d never make a film that supports partition, say, or racism. That goes without saying”. Yet the new documentary is quite eclectic in the subjects it covers, ranging from a German in Cyprus who lost his savings, to a Laiki Bank employee whose faith in the system backfired spectacularly, to a group of young people forming a collective workspace to fight the recession, to the case of outspoken lawyer Michalis Paraskevas who’s refusing to pay social security as a form of civil disobedience. She started shooting right after the haircut, recalls Danae, back in March 2013, just going out and shooting footage of protests and shuttered banks. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do [with it]. I just knew it was something really important that had to be recorded.”
I can picture that, even based on our brief acquaintance – Danae Stylianou on the streets with her camera, shooting all this really important stuff with a steely expression. She comes off, with her clear eyes and rather severe features, as a serious person, an impression reinforced when I ask about her lifestyle. “It depends,” she replies. “When I’m working on a film, I do nothing else – because it absorbs you so much, you can’t relax and do anything else”. Any hobbies? Photography, she says at once. Apart from that? Gardening? Sports? Maybe something strange and unexpected?
She thinks, casting about for something: “Well … I really hate cooking!”.
And what of films? She has nothing against entertainment, she says, but likes films made “for a purpose”; one of her all-time favourites is Born Into Brothels, the Oscar-winning documentary in which the filmmakers got slum kids in Calcutta’s red-light district interested in photography – a subject dear to Danae’s heart, the power of Art to inspire and transform. Documentaries are too powerful, too incredible to be just for festivals and cinephiles: “It’s a tool that should be used, fundamentally, for social change”.
Sharing an Island had many screenings (and A Haircut Story will have many more) – but the one Danae recalls most fondly is when the film got shown at the Central Prison in Nicosia, at the suggestion of the prison psychiatrist. She sat there nervously, surrounded by rapists and murderers – but in fact their reaction was positive, indeed more than positive. More than any other audience, the prisoners ‘got’ it – because, as one convict explained, “in prison, you have to learn how to live together with your worst enemy”, not unlike the film’s Turks and Greeks. It’s a funny image: Cyprus as a prison, the two communities as rival gangs eyeing each other warily in the prison yard – and Danae as the filmmaker/shrink listening patiently to their stories, trying to bring them together. She chuckles at the thought – then she’s off, lost among the milling guests (potential subjects for future documentaries) in the lobby of the St Raphael.