Why I make documentary, film or drama is to have some kind of impact and contribute to people’s well-being. I want to leave the audience with uplift about what it is to be human,” says multi-award-winning director Kay Pavlou.
Over the past three decades Pavlou has built an impressive body of work that has included feature and documentary films as well directing television shows the likes of All Saints, McLeod’s Daughters and SBS series Who Do You Think You Are?
Pavlou’s breakthrough came with her controversial first film The Killing of Angelo Tsakos which was screened on SBS in 1989. The 30-minute film she co-wrote and directed while she attended the Australian Film and Television and Radio School was based on the 1985 killing of Angelo Tsakos. At the time the incident led to a public outcry due to the young Greek Australian being shot dead by a probationary police constable while driving a stolen car.
Pavlou’s film questioned the conflicting versions of why the 16-year-old boy was killed and the director revealed that making the film led to some unexpected push back.
“The Police Association tried to put an injunction on the film so it wouldn’t be seen on SBS but that failed and the film was screened,” she told Neos Kosmos.
“I was in my 20’s and a student and I didn’t think that I would get into so much trouble. But I got to learn how the real world works. It was an important film to make at the time and to some degree if I knew what the reaction would’ve been I may not have done it. But I still believe it was an unfair shooting.”
For her next project, Pavlou turned to her parents’ homeland and directed another SBS documentary titled Cyprus – A People Divided. The two part series featured seven different perspectives – six Greek and one Turkish that showed what life was like 25 years after the Mediterranean island was invaded by Turkey in 1974.
Pavlou’s family was caught up in the conflict and her 1990 documentary showed how Greek Cypriots were affected by the Turkish occupation in the northern part of Cyprus.
“The village that my parents come from is the only village where Greek Cypriots stayed behind,” she says. “At the time they lived as an enclave in the Turkish occupied area and some of them still do. They were very restricted in their movements and were protected by the UN and the Red Cross. There is still grief about having lost my parents’ ancestral land, my father still feels that it’s an incredibly unfair situation. The situation is a lot more complex than I understood at the time when I made that documentary.”
Almost 30 years after that documentary, Pavlou revealed that she is currently in the works to make a feature film that is also set in Cyprus.
“It’s a story very close to my heart,” she says. “It’s a happy and sad film set in my parents’ village, Rizokarpasso in the Turkish Occupied Area. It’s a universal tale about love, family and war, full of pathos and humour. We hope to film next year and we are still looking for funding.”
Pavlou’s first film was the 1994 feature Mary which she wrote and directed, starring Australian actress Lucy Bell. The film was based on Mary MacKillop who a year later would become Australia’s first ever Catholic saint.
The director says she wanted to tell the story of MacKillop from a different perspective than that of the Catholic Church.
“Mary MacKillop was an interesting female character in Australia’s history,” she says.
“She was ex-communicated from the Catholic Church because they thought she was too rebellious. I wanted to tell that story of her as a rebellious woman who achieved a lot for the education of the poor. That story could have washed over the conflict she had inside the church and how many risks she took as a woman at that time.”
From challenging the narrative of powerful institutions such as the police and the Catholic Church, Pavlou has turned her attention from directing television drama and documentaries, most recently directing several episodes Who Do You Think You Are? with former AFL player and Australian of the Year Adam Goodes and film star Toni Collette.
In the episode with Goodes, he traces his family history back to the remote Flinders Ranges where he finds evidence of their lives from thousands of years ago.
While Goodes was not brought up with Aboriginal culture, Pavlou believes that the discovery of his ancestors became the catalyst for his response to the booing controversy that marred the final moments of his playing career.
“It’s part of his evolution for sure,” she says, “him finding his ancestry during the documentary in the Flinders Rangers was really significant for him and his mum. I know it contributed to his journey.”
Meanwhile Collette’s journey was historic as it was the show’s first ever DNA test and revealed that the man listed on her dad’s birth certificate was not actually his real father.
“It’s a big responsibility to pass that information on,” says Pavlou, about Collette’s shocking family discovery.
“Toni Collette has a big personality and she opened herself up to us. You don’t take that responsibility lightly because you need to look after people. Meeting someone like Toni you can understand why she is a great actress. She has got this incredible ability as a person to feel everything really deeply.
“So, I just try and create an environment as much as possible where they feel comfortable to be themselves. Because actors too are used to playing a part and playing a role – they are not used to revealing themselves.”
Pavlou is a rare breed of director who as an ethnic woman has achieved so much in her career. But she revealed that having longevity in the male dominated film and television industry hasn’t been without struggle.
“It is hard,” she says. “Gender matters have come up in the last few years where people realise again that women aren’t getting the sort of breaks that men get in this industry. It’s tough getting through that because you have to believe in yourself twice as much as my male colleagues. It does impact on your personal life because you work a lot of hours and as I make documentaries you do a lot of travelling. Personally it’s very demanding on your own life.”
In terms of her passion project, which is based on her family’s experience in Cyprus, Pavlou hopes to be part of the changing landscape of the film industry where women are given more opportunities.
“Yes I do absolutely,” she says excitedly.
“There is increasing support in development for women now to actually fund films.The #MeToo movement and reaction that is happening in the last year; you can see how the women in the film and TV business are being treated differently than in the last few decades up until now.
“So I think we are on the cusp of a lot of change and we will see the impact of that in the next few years as we see a lot more films by female directors.”