Bringing life and body to the cinema screen

Sotiris Dounoukos talks about his approach to films both as a director and an observer

The medium of short film is the perfect vehicle for presenting a brief glimpse into particular moments in people’s lives. Lack of resolutions and an absence of a back story typically add to a film’s intrigue, rather than being frustrating detractions as they might be in a full-length feature.

Greek Australian writer and director Sotiris Dounoukos has used these characteristics to tremendous effect in A Single Body (Un Seul Corps), released almost one year ago yet still riding its momentum to acclaim and awards through various film festivals around the globe: at last count standing at approximately sixty events.

The 19-minute short gives a snapshot of two abattoir workers in France, David (Mexianou Mendenou) and Wani (Doudou Masta), who share a small flat and plan to open their own butchery in the near future. The events that occur in the story serve to highlight the transitory and fragile nature of ambitions, friendships, and life itself.

Speaking to Neos Kosmos, Dounoukos explains the conception of the script in Australia. “It was a chance meeting with two people who work in an abattoir outside of Melbourne, [but] I couldn’t find a location for that film, for that script, here,” he begins.

“So when I moved to France, which was about a year later, a producer asked me if I had any scripts that I would want to make … over the next six months or so I developed it for France, and that takes time because you can’t just simply superimpose another culture, you have to live it.”

Coming from a family that worked in supermarkets, but also having spent time growing up in a Greek village in which he had to assist in the slaughtering of animals, Dounoukos is able to relate to abattoir workers just as easily as anyone in a creative field. This proved to be instrumental in gaining the trust of an industry that would perhaps otherwise be suspicious of a crew of people holding recording equipment.

“The biggest thing was that [they] had to be sure we weren’t making an exposé of the abattoir. They also wanted to know what we were saying, even in terms of the experience of the workers, and I had great confidence in having that dialogue – because the last thing I would do is use a film to subvert someone else’s business.”

The chemistry and friendship between actors Mendenou and Masta is immediately apparent, and was not simply for the camera. “Straight away they just clicked,” Dounoukos reminisces. “They were everything you want from actors. They were open, they were trusting, curious. They were there for each other.” Through this good fortune, the director says that the bond helped him to “rediscover” the film during the production process.

Despite being written in Australia and shot in France, it turns out that Dounoukos was not the only Greek who had a hand in the creation of A Single Body. Cinematographer Leonidis Arvanitis is the son of Giorgos Arvanitis, who worked on many of Theo Angelopoulos’ films and a number of Finos Film productions. Dounoukos describes Angelopoulos as “the greatest Greek auteur ever,” but adds with a laugh, “And he would’ve told you that himself.”

“Humility isn’t something you encounter often amongst the very well-known Greek filmmakers, it’s quite the opposite. That explains a lot. But they have strong points of view, they have their own film language.”

Aside from Arvanitis, Dounoukos also enlisted the help of Angelos Angelidis, a Greek film editor who lives in Paris. The film’s audio was also finished by Milk Audio, an Athens-based post-production group who have won an Academy Award for their sound work.

Speaking about the Greek film industry in general, Dounoukos says that he would like to see more filmmakers turn their gaze inwards, and see a more personal investment in the subjects they are questioning. “It’s a stronger place [from which] to make a film,” he states. He’s also observed that to make things happen, the industry in Greece tends to rely more on relationships and personal connections compared to elsewhere.

Filming A Single Body in France, however, proved to be particularly beneficial due to the French government’s support of their film industry, one of the world’s largest in terms of revenue, attendance, and number of productions. The financing of the industry is sourced through a tax on move tickets, including foreign blockbusters, and thus French productions are bankrolled almost entirely through domestic revenue.

Dounoukos, originally from a law background, describes the process of filmmaking as something akin to a compulsion or a yearning that must be fulfilled. “It’s not really a job, it’s more like a calling or a fever. It enters you, and making the film is a way of finding peace or order again. So you wake up with this voice telling you to keep going, it’s like a crying baby – ‘help me, feed me, do something’ – and each day you tend to this creature that needs help.”

Through such descriptions of the process, there is a sense that he is very much dealing with something that takes on a life and consciousness of its own. “[A Single Body] was originally a 27-minute film and it kept talking back to us – or whispering, initially – that it wanted to be something else. And then when you strip it back and realise that because of what the actors and the locations bring to the film, there’s so much life there in a way the script can’t anticipate.”

Despite his passion for filmmaking and love of “hardcore art film” such as that of Angelopoulos, Dounoukos is hardly a film snob and professes to enjoy a wide range of movies. All he asks for is sincerity and self-awareness from the film and its creator; in other words, “when a film knows what it is and who it’s for.” He cites Marvel Studios’ 2012 superhero film The Avengers as being perfectly enjoyable for its sense of unity between the filmmaker, the audience, and its execution.

Dounoukos further emphasises the point: “At the same time, you can say that a [John] Cassavetes’ film demonstrates the same intimate relationship between content, who this guy was, and his audience, how he defined it. Who was he having a conversation with? That for me is probably the most important thing.”

It’s a philosophy that is evident in the making of A Single Body and what it is trying to achieve. The film’s events and locations may be particular to the characters of David and Wani, but the emotions they experience are something pertinent to many of us at certain times in our lives. “It’s like reading Hamlet and saying ‘how can something still be so relevant?’ … time isn’t that linear, and we still share so much with the generations that precede us,” says Dounoukos.

“But to get these snapshots into humanity at different times in different ways, the filmmaker can do that. It’s pretty special.”