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As the Lemesos International Documentary Festival opens this week, NAOMI LEACH speaks to one of the filmmakers
“We want to address the elephant in the room. Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots can be sat in the same room, on the same table and they won’t beat each other up,” pauses journalist and filmmaker Stefanos Evripidou, with a smile.
“In 2003 the checkpoints opened and there has been almost zero conflict. They’ll eat, drink and do what Cypriots do but the moment you talk about a person’s understanding of history you hit a brick wall. There is nothing wrong with accepting another person’s point of view and engaging in a dialogue. From the moment you accept, whether right or wrong, when you allow yourself to even have a dialogue, what arises are many variations of the truth,” he stresses.
But in their debut documentary, Stefanos and co-director, cinematographer and editor Stephen Nugent were not interested in examining these conflicting accounts to find a universal truth. Instead, Birds of a Feather aims to illustrate that history is shaped by “perception and memories of truth”. The filmmaking duo were galvanised by the opportunity to initiate difficult, previously unspoken discussions between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots. The documentary was designed to create a space for mutual understanding and to highlight the need for fresh debate.
The film, set to be shown at this week’s International Documentary Festival in Limassol, unravels the Cyprus Problem by juxtaposing each community’s official histories with personal memories and anecdotal accounts of people who lived through the events of the 1960s and 1974.
“We’re not trying to provide an assessment about what really happened we want to stimulate questions. It’s about questioning the norm, questioning the official narrative you’ve grown up with and seeing that there is another one. There must be something more, regardless of the answer, if you go on the journey of deeper understanding of why things happen,” enthuses Stefanos.
This dogged compulsion to probe further into events is natural to Stefanos as a newspaper journalist with over 10 years experience in Cyprus. As a political writer, he has always been interested in education on the island. He explains that once the AKEL Education Minister of 2008 refused to have his appointment approved by the Archbishop, he became fascinated by the backlash.
“It interested me how scared some people were of questioning anything that has been taught for the past 38 years. Surely, regardless of politics, things need to change over time with multiple perspectives and multiple sources?”
Stefanos had ties to The Association for Historical Dialogue and Research who asked him to make a series of five-minute educational video blogs. He teamed up with childhood friend, Stephen, an award-winning cinematographer who is currently in the Arctic Circle filming for Greenpeace, to produce the videos. Some months later, the pair, with a grant from the Norwegian foreign ministry, embarked on their next joint project - Birds of a Feather, a “dense and intense” 40-minute documentary.
The co-director’s differing skills complemented each other well with Stephen’s camera know-how and Stefanos’ ability to reduce complex matters into simple journalistic content ensuring they could agree on the final result. It helped that the pair had decades of friendship behind them.
“We were the perfect comedy duo. We’d end up arguing in front of people and make them laugh. Steve was the creative, artistic cinematographer and I was the serious, responsible producer,” explains Stefanos.
The film took three months to complete with the pair assembling a diverse cast of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, found in the north and south, in former mixed community villages and in the buffer zone. Personal narratives were chased and characters linked to these memories were discovered across the island. The film conjured unique moments and coincidences, evolving and escalating into unexpected avenues as the project developed.
“We’d get people, Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots, who used to live somewhere and get them all together to talk about the same event ( a man who got shot in the shoulder and why) for the first time in a village where Turkish Cypriots go back every weekend yet they never talked about politics, memory or history. We’d invite them all to the coffee shop to debate, refute, reject and argue. Tensions were raised a little bit but this was the first time they had ever debated these things, and it was on camera,” says Stefanos.
The challenge of perception in the film, isn’t confined to just the witnesses of the events, even historians were brought together to debate the Cyprus Problem and each offered a contrasting version of events. The pair were keen to address the conflict but without falling into the NGO trap of “extreme equality” were every point of view and every loss is matched person for person on each side of the experience. Stefanos admits this approach of emphasising the spectrum of perspectives, ruffled feathers on both sides and he was disappointed that some officials showed concern with their attempts to challenge traditional historical accounts. Although the film does not include a young voice, Stefanos says it illuminates the importance of an honest and respectful dialogue and how it could benefit the education system for future generations.
Stefanos hopes that Birds of a Feather is received by audiences as a call to action. “Don’t believe everything, engage in debate. Get rid of the elephant in the room and allow two people with passionate views to actually listen to each other,” he insists.
Lemesos International Documentary Festival
1 to 8 August 2012, Birds of a Feather will be screened on Monday August 6 at Theatro Ena in Limassol at 10pm. Find the screening programme on www.filmfestival.com.cy