Cyprus Mail
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DVD club owner hangs on to a vanishing sector

profile1

In the owner of one of the island’s last DVD clubs, THEO PANAYIDES finds a man looking for a kinder world who rests his mind in the films around him and in Nature, while struggling with the withdrawal and meanness of the world around him

Every time I pass by Ayios Antonios market in central Nicosia I note the diminution of ELA DVD Club, once one of the biggest video clubs in the capital. It used to take up half a block in the building opposite the market, then two shops, then just one. A few weeks ago I noticed that the small shop was shuttered, meaning ELA had closed down after many decades – making Fantastic DVD Club in out-of-the-way Makedonitissa, run by Andreas Tsavellas, possibly the only remaining DVD club in Nicosia.

Our conversation doesn’t quite go as expected, nor is his story solely about DVD clubs (if this were a film, it would come with a pretty big twist). Still, the collective disappearance of the sector looms large. ELA hasn’t actually closed down, it turns out – it’s just moved down the street, says Andreas, citing insider knowledge – but he still reckons that ELA and Fantastic are among no more than five or six clubs left in the whole of Cyprus, out of many hundreds in the 80s and 90s. Early on, not really wanting to sit inside with masks on, I suggest going to a nearby café to talk – but he says he has to stay at the shop in case any customers show up, at which point I realise with a twinge that the possibility that he still gets customers hadn’t even occurred to me.

He doesn’t get many, of course – a few old regulars, a smattering of teachers looking for specific films to show their pupils, the occasional student required to watch something for a course assignment. One teenager did come by quite recently, “he was very excited when he walked through the door”; the kid started talking about cassettes, and Andreas thought he meant VHS – he still has his old cassettes stored away in the basement, even though they were superseded by DVD in the early 00s – but in fact he meant audio tapes (I assume he thought Fantastic would have those too, as a purveyor of old tech). Mostly, however, the explosion of Netflix and online streaming options has pushed the whole video experience into obsolescence. Most households don’t even own a functioning DVD player.

What kind of person would continue to operate a DVD club in this environment? I can think of three possibilities. The first might be a very rich man who doesn’t mind wasting money on a hobby – but Andreas isn’t rich, though the fact that he doesn’t pay rent is a crucial factor in the shop’s continued existence.

profile2The second might be a rabid film buff who’s obsessed with movies – but Andreas, though he’s very proud of his collection (the shelves hold about 9-10,000 individual titles), doesn’t appear to be that, either. I ask about favourite films, but he has no ready answer. As a child he watched mostly cartoons, he recalls, plus “whatever was on TV” (who’d watch TV when they had their own video club?). In high school he checked out the usual blockbusters, the likes of Armageddon and Independence Day. He enjoys true stories and sports dramas (he’s a former athlete himself, having played football and futsal), especially when the two are combined in movies like Coach Carter and The Greatest Game Ever Played; he still hasn’t watched many classics, and was very late to The Godfather for instance. He’s gone through periods of watching a film a day – especially when the club was thriving, when he tried to watch all new arrivals before they went on the shelves – and periods when he watched nothing at all. He likes movies, but you couldn’t really call him a cinephile.

That leaves only the third option: namely, a person who marches to the beat of their own drum, holding on to the DVD club because it pleases him to do so – and because “money isn’t always the point”. It’s worth noting that arranging a time for our meeting wasn’t entirely straightforward. He’s at his pervoli (field or orchard) in the mountain village of Palaichori almost every day, Andreas tells me, only coming back when the club opens at 4pm; sometimes he’ll stay even later, directing customers to the kiosk next door. “There’s always something,” he explains breezily, his suntanned face testifying to hours spent outdoors. “A farmer’s work is never done.”

The pervoli is a family affair – he’s usually there with his dad, sometimes his brother or sister – and I naturally assumed it was a business, growing fruit and vegetables to sell to greengrocers (why else would someone spend half his day doing it?), but in fact “we focus on what we eat ourselves, then we’ll sell if there’s any left over”. The plot of land isn’t huge (about 4,000 square meters) but it’s certainly fertile. There are fruit trees: pears, apples, peaches, apricots, grapes, nectarines, figs. In summer the soil sprouts tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, broad beans, aubergines, peppers; right now they have parsley, split peas, coriander. There’s also a passel of hens and about 10 cats which is why Andreas goes up every day, even on weekends. They recently finished pruning, and have just finished planting potatoes. Not for profit. Just because it’s something they enjoy.

profile3 the greatest game ever played
the greatest game ever played

The whole family seems quite unusual. Andreas’ father, for instance, recently became a priest at the age of 65 (he’d been to seminary, but spent his working life mostly as a salesman) and is now ministering to a tiny flock in the isolated village of Drymou, where he was born. (Palaichori is Andreas’ mother’s village.) They seem to be quite self-sufficient – and have been since the early 80s, when his mum ran a kiosk and amusement arcade in Strovolos and decided (in 1982) to start renting video tapes too, which is how Fantastic was born. The whole set-up moved to the present location in 1988, kiosk, video club and the family home where they all continue to live (only his brother has moved out, living nearby); Mum still runs the kiosk, Andreas took over the club when he was 20 (he’s now 41). There’s a powerful sense of a bubble, something separate and a bit old-fashioned: Andreas works the land in the mornings and rents DVDs in the afternoons, two vocations which both – in their very different ways – seem to belong to a vanished world.

And there’s something else too, the unexpected twist we mentioned earlier. A few years ago, he admits, he was quite a carefree fellow. He didn’t go up to the orchard as much, but he had his futsal (he played in various second-division teams, training regularly) and the DVD business was going well. Then, about 12 years ago, he began volunteering at the Nicosia Dog Shelter (he’d always liked animals) – and a shadow fell across his life, apparent even now in his soft brown eyes when he talks about his experience. “What I’ve seen in the past few years made me lose a lot of my faith in people,” replies Andreas when I ask for his views on Cypriot society. “I used to be much more optimistic.”

He’s worked with many animal NGOs, currently volunteering at CVA (Cyprus Voice for Animals), and has witnessed many horrifying cases – not just the constant reports of abuse and neglect which he’s had to field as a volunteer, but also the strays he himself took in (he now has two Pit bulls in the flat upstairs). “I once took care of a Husky who’d been found abandoned with her babies, and her back legs had both been cut off,” he reports grimly.

An accident?

He shrugs: “It might’ve been an accident – but we also suspect it was abuse.” It happens, he adds, noting my shocked expression: there was another case of a hunting dog who was found in a rubbish skip, also with his back legs cut off (clearly, that was no accident). “We have many sick minds in our society. Not that animal abuse is exclusively a Cypriot problem – but it’s very bad here.”

An edge starts to creep into our conversation – and suddenly the thousands of DVDs around us, the film memorabilia (a rolled-up poster for Death Race, a cardboard cut-out for Along Came Polly), the figurines perched atop the shelves, all start to seem very innocent, almost an escape from the cruelty of the world outside. I recall what he said about his pervoli, that it’s physically tiring but “restful for the mind”: another escape. Andreas comes across as a gentle soul, yet there’s also a faint air of melancholy – a sense of disillusion with the world, especially perhaps for a sensitive person like him.

Even his good memories come with a shade of disappointment. I ask about friendships formed through Fantastic, and some of his customers did indeed become friends (over 10,000 people must’ve come through those doors over the years, he reckons) – but it wasn’t all chit-chat and camaraderie. People (being people) were rude and unpleasant sometimes. Some tried to open a second account when they still owed money on the first one; others protested when he asked for ID; others refused to pay fines, and became abusive. “I was literally shaking with anger sometimes.” One shouldn’t wax too nostalgic for the world before Netflix – yet there was something special about DVD clubs, and it fits into his general yearning for a kinder, better world.

A place like Fantastic “was a kind of meeting point. I mean, people used to spend hours here. Groups of friends would come looking for a movie to watch, families would come. This doesn’t happen anymore – now it’s just a button on your TV.” Life has become more impersonal, Andreas sees it in all sorts of ways. The neighbourhood has changed, going from a semi-rural place on the outskirts of town in 1988 – he and his friends would play football right in the street – to a bustling suburb today. Houses have been torn down, replaced by blocks of flats where people live shielded-off from each other. He sees it when a stray is found wandering nearby, and he goes around asking if anyone knows whose it is; most have no clue, even when the animal turns out to belong to a neighbour. “But that’s not even the point, that they don’t know their neighbour’s dog. They don’t know their neighbour!”

DVD clubs meant a kind of connection. Nowadays, on the other hand, even people in the same house will watch different things, alone in their rooms with their laptops and iPads. DVD clubs meant a kind of freedom. Nowadays, on the other hand, “people have learned to watch what they’re given”. Netflix offers the illusion of choice – but Netflix and its rivals only keep films for limited periods, and take them down when they feel like it; “I want somewhere to exist where you can watch what you like, when you like”. Besides, searching online is no substitute for physical searching, browsing the shelves and pulling out movies at random. Blind Fury from 1989, with Rutger Hauer as a blind samurai; A Love Song for Bobby Long, featuring a still-teenage Scarlett Johansson; the ‘TV Series’ section, with Friends and The Shield and The Benny Hill Show.

No. 1 on the shelves (i.e. his first DVD) is Titanic, purchased around 2000; No. 1,000 is Hollywood Ending, just a couple of years later – but there won’t be a Hollywood ending for the DVD business, even with the mildly encouraging news that ELA (the much-reduced club near Ayios Antonios market) hasn’t actually gone out of business. He himself isn’t thinking of closing, says Andreas cautiously, “but at some point I’ll have to… I’ve already dragged this out much further than I should’ve”. He’s not optimistic when it comes to viewers changing their habits. “People love the idea,” he says in his quiet, slightly melancholy way, “the romantic idea of – oh look, there are still DVD clubs! and they get excited. But that’s as far as it goes, just the idea.”

He’s not angry, exactly. He’s not even bitter, certainly not about his loss of income (money, like he said, “isn’t always the point”) – but the animal abuse has left him bitter, not to mention the “lack of respect” riddling our society. He tells me of collecting for strays outside supermarkets, and sarcastic passers-by saying, ‘There are people starving, and you’re raising money for animals?’ – though also of his cousin collecting for kids with cancer, and a horrible woman telling her, ‘They’re going to die, so why bother?’.

“Some people are just mean on the inside,” sighs Andreas Tsavellas – and looks around, as if in consolation, at the ranks of DVDs that have been such a big part of his life in the past 20 years. Films are what they are – like Nature, like animals. They don’t change, they don’t let you down. In a fickle, atomised world (made worse by Covid) they offer escape, reassurance. I exit stage left, making a mental note to retrieve my ancient VCR from the basement.

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