Experimental film does not have many followers around the world, or in Cyprus either. THEO PANAYIDES meets a curator of it with strong views beneath a calm exterior and a love of the handmade
The first time I see Christiana Ioannou it’s at the Weaving Mill in Nicosia, about halfway through the Images and Views of Alternative Cinema festival. She’s presenting Soft Fiction, a 1979 work by experimental filmmaker Chick Strand, part of a programme she co-curated with visiting US academic Christopher Zimmerman. Her speaking style, as she briefly describes the movie, is chatty and informal. I’m in the front row, so it’s hard to be sure, but I’d estimate – based on a quick glance back as the lights go down – that there are about six people in the audience.
The second time I see Christiana is two days later, again at the Weaving Mill. It’s a Saturday morning, a handful of sun-dappled tables filled with people drinking tea or working on their laptops. We take some photos, then sit down. I liked your expression in the photos, I mention, it was very serene. Christiana laughs: “It’s the expression of a mum who didn’t get any sleep!” she replies wryly.
She is indeed a mum, of a two-year-old boy. She’s also a curator of experimental film – though of course no-one makes a living as a curator of experimental film, let alone in Cyprus. For the past few months she’s been teaching part-time at a private college, mostly theatre design which was also her degree subject at Nottingham Trent University (she also holds a Master’s in Performance Design and Practice from Central St. Martins in London) – and she also works mornings with her dad, who has his own business supplying home textiles (stuff like cushions and towels) for shops. In between she runs the Cyprus Contemporary Film Centre (CCFC), a platform for experimental and alternative cinema. How many people are employed there? “It’s just me!” she says, and laughs happily.
Some may tune out at this point, dismissing Christiana as not an important person – at least by the “bourgeois” standards against which she occasionally rails in our conversation. Then again, I doubt she’d let that faze her, just as she wasn’t fazed by some horrified reactions (at least initially) to the fact that she’s married to a man 20 years her senior (she’s 29, he’s around 50): “Another of the things where I said ‘I don’t care’”. That serene expression is no accident, nor should it be put down entirely to a lack of sleep. She rants, or complains, about a lot of things during our hour together – but the energy she projects remains calm, the energy of a tall, rather long-faced woman with a toothy smile and the manner of a down-to-earth Madonna. It takes a certain type, after all, to devote themselves to an artform as marginal as avant-garde film, and not let it faze them.
“I know you’re never going to see big theatres full of people watching experimental cinema,” she admits frankly. Most casual viewers are driven to distraction by such films; it’s a weird fact of life that people will watch the most banal, predictable drama to the end, just to see ‘how it turns out’ – but give them something abstract and without a story, even if it’s visually dazzling, and they’ll often walk out. “For instance, last year [at the festival] I was watching Brakhage’s Chinese Series,” recalls Christiana, speaking of a two-minute short Stan Brakhage made shortly before his death by using his fingernail (!) to physically scratch marks into the film emulsion. “And I burst into tears, because I was thinking of a man on his deathbed, scratching at the film with his last remaining strength”. She shrugs: “Other people were walking out. It all depends on how you look at it”.
One of CCFC’s first events included a screening of The Colour of Pomegranates, a 1969 Georgian classic made up mostly of ravishing, plot-free tableaux. “We had 30 people. Only two stayed to the end,” she recalls, laughing. “Once the first one left, they all started leaving!”. Two things should be borne in mind, however. Firstly, the intrepid viewers who stayed – both very young, probably high-school students – seem to have really enjoyed it. Secondly, the audience for such films is sparse everywhere, not just in Cyprus. For her next project, Christiana put out an open call for found-footage films (i.e. films using pre-existing footage), advertising on specialist websites. Despite the fact that her festival was taking place on a small island – and of course she wasn’t offering any money – she received about 300 shorts from all over the world (including a couple from well-known names in the field), eventually programming 13 of them at Fotodos in Nicosia. The world, it turns out, is full of artists making what she calls “handmade” work, away on their own – and longing for their films to be shown somewhere, anywhere.
That’s what draws her, she affirms, the handmade quality – whether it’s Brakhage literally scratching at the celluloid or an animator crafting the illusion of motion, frame by painstaking frame. “It’s one person, sitting by themselves, making something with their hands. I think there’s a lot of spirituality in doing that.” Money is… shall we say, less important. She rented Fotodos at a discount, recalls Christiana, for around €50; tickets for the event cost €5 and the audience was comprised of 10 people, so she just about broke even. How money-driven is she, generally?
“Not at all,” she replies at once, then shrugs: “I don’t mind, really. I mean, I make a very small income every month, I organise things so we can pay our electricity and water bill.” Her husband Tasos is a well-known musician, but they’re not exactly raking it in. “Of course I try to spoil my son a little bit, too.”
So it’s a simple lifestyle?
“Very simple, yeah. I haven’t taken a holiday in years. We might go for a trip somewhere in Cyprus”. Her only bad (or at least expensive) habit is a passion for chocolates – the good stuff, 70% cocoa. “When I’m on my own I go nuts sometimes, eating chocolates and making pancakes! I’ve got a sweet tooth, for sure.”
What about going out? Is she a party animal?
“Not at all!” laughs Christiana. She doesn’t even go to bars and clubs anymore; she doesn’t like the crowds, and feeling cold in skimpy clothes and uncomfortable shoes. “The best party is when my son goes to sleep, and my husband might be somewhere writing – he has his own studio [at home], so he’ll often be in and out – that’s the best party for me. I’ll sit down, watch a nice movie, spread out, stuff my face with chocolates…”
She smiles happily – though I’m also reminded of something she said earlier, about “the quality of the outcast” in the handmade cinema she loves so much. That’s partly why she loves it, explains Christiana, “because, in a way, it’s connected with us human beings, right? I mean, we’re constantly with others – but in the end we’re alone, even if we have kids, even if we have wives or husbands. We’re still lonely in a way, maybe we just don’t accept it. And maybe this type of film speaks to our psychology – precisely because the people who make them are also mostly alone when they make them.”
It’s a telling detail – and maybe Christiana Ioannou, for all her (mostly) unexceptional life and serene expression, also has something of the outcast, the eternal loner standing apart from the mainstream, whether we’re talking parties or party politics. She has strong views, for sure. One of her favourite films, Martha Colburn’s Join the Freedom Force, is a stop-motion animation “bringing together protesters from all over the world”. She’s been known to cut off people – even family members – whom she considers toxic, she tells me. She hates the hate being peddled by the Church, and the lack of female solidarity in Cyprus (as opposed to empty “talk of feminism”). Politics, i.e. the shambles of local politics, annoys her deeply, even if her manner remains calm.
“It really bothers me, our political situation. It bothers me that we’re all taking steps to try and come closer – we and the Turkish Cypriots – and these five gentlemen, let’s say, start sowing discord and creating intrigues among themselves. I don’t like hearing people who make 20,000 a month being populist, and making speeches like ‘The common people, the working man, wants to hear the truth…’ I mean, give us a break. Give us a break!”. She shakes her head ruefully: “It’s all just games, it’s theatre. Not a single person believes them – yet they still vote for them, that’s what gets me. I can’t understand how we have this president – and for a second time, too!”. The system needs to change, sighs Christiana. “How’s the change going to happen? It’ll happen if we all stop what we’re doing, and just go and burn it all down.” There’s a street fighter lurking behind the serene expression.
But the worst part, she adds, the most annoying thing about Cyprus (a place she nonetheless loves, despite its relative indifference to avant-garde cinema) isn’t political, it’s cultural. “Our worst trait is that we don’t protect our heritage. Our natural environment, our crafts, our traditional foods. All we do is posture in tavernas on Sundays. I want to see women learning to make Fytiotika,” says Christiana fervently, meaning a type of weaving (now dying out) hailing from the village of Fyti in Paphos. “These are the things we should protect, and only then sing and dance in tavernas on Sunday – and only then start building casinos, and pretending like we’re in New York or something.”
There it is again, a recurring motif when it comes to Christiana Ioannou: the love of craftsmanship, and all things handmade. It speaks to her own creative talents (she was quite the model-maker while at uni in Nottingham), but also informs her work as curator – and is also, incidentally, a love of honesty and authenticity, the hallmark of experimental cinema and precisely what’s lacking in politics, and mainstream affairs more generally.
Her relationship with her husband is honest because it was based on feelings, not bourgeois norms; some people thought it unwise to marry an older man – “but when you feel something, you feel it, so I think it’s best to dive in”. Motherhood, too, is a kind of traditional craft – and the way she approaches it is almost like her son were himself an artwork, one of her creations (which of course he is, in a way). She’s devoted to the kid, and takes him everywhere. He’s a frequent visitor at the Ministry of Culture and also accompanied her to Animafest Cyprus (she’d made a video that competed there), clinging to her side and playfully stuffing pie in her mouth while she tried to give a speech – and her aim in being such a diligent mum, she explains, is partly to “educate” the boy, to try and mould (or nurture) a particular person, not unlike an artist trying to hand-craft a beautiful movie. “I want to make him a good man, to be proud of him,” she says. More than that, she’d like “the change I want to see in the world to happen through him”.
Most parents will tell you that trying to create a child in your own image is the surest way to be disappointed – then again, most people (not just parents) will also tell you that curating films for an audience of six people is a waste of time, and something like the CCFC will never bring in any real money. Maybe Christiana’s a romantic – or maybe she just doesn’t care what people will tell you. “I just feel like those 10 viewers who like this type of film are waiting for the evening when I’ll present something,” she shrugs amiably. “You might not get 50 or 60 people – but you know that those who saw it liked it, then maybe they went home and thought about it. Just as I was thinking about Soft Fiction the other night, which was so amazing”. I suppose that’s where I came in.
CHRISTIANA IOANNOU’S 6 EXPERIMENTAL FILMS TO SEE
Thunder (1982) by Ito Takashi
Chinese Series (2003) by Stan Brakhage
Fake Fruit Factory (1986) by Chick Strand
Étude cinégraphique sur une arabesque (1929) by Germaine Dulac
Join the Freedom Force (2009) by Martha Colburn
Twice a Man (1964) by Gregory Markopoulos