As I write this, it’s been about 18 hours since director Elina Psykou’s extraordinary film, Son of Sofia, won the Tribeca Film Festival award in the International Narrative category. You can read all about what makes this movie so great here: http://festworks.com/2017/04/17/tribeca-2017-reviews-elina-psykous-son-of-sofia/. I could not be happier with this victory for this very talented director – the film richly deserved this. Hearty congratulations to the whole cast and crew, this was NOT an easy film to make.
About a week before she scored the award, I had a chance to talk with Elina about her thoughts on the work. What she reveals only makes me love this film even more, leaving me with a longing to watch it again with this added insight. It was almost shocking to discover this gentle, cheery person with a disarmingly childlike smile was the same person who made such a dark and challenging movie. The contrast between who I encountered in a hotel lobby and what audiences will encounter with Son of Sofia only augments the sense of humanity both the film and filmmaker so strongly convey.
1. MC: I want to start with the surreal sequences when Misha is having his visions. They remind me of works like The Wizard of Oz and the children’s books of Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) in that the child is forging an amalgam of his reality and this thinly-disguised super-reality which he’s weaving. For Dorothy, her madness led to a sense of loss, while Sendak’s dreamers encounter delight. In contrast to both, it feels like Misha is escaping to a place where he can feel powerful. Do you agree with this? [If not, what is the driving force that defines Misha’s other world?]
EP: Yes. There are three dream sequences in the film. One is at the end, the other two previously. If you think about it, you will discover that all these dream sequences are the turning points for Misha, meaning the scenes where Misha has to make decisions for how he will continue with his life. Via these dream sequences, he [encounters] the struggles [that help drive] these decisions. That’s what I mean by “turning point.” After that, everything will be different. I won’t say what is different (I don’t want to give spoilers).
MC: Right. Some big things happen.
EP: Exactly. It’s via these dreams that he finds the power to make his decisions and change his life.
MC: It changes his life alright! [laughter]
2. MC: The theme of subjugation permeates this film. It’s interesting that in those scenes where we’re forced to sit in a sterile, grim room watching TV in uncomfortable silence, the characters are often fans of shows laced with nationalistic oppression. There’s the Bulgarian soap opera infused with Soviet nostalgia. And of course, the state-run “kid’s show” from Mr. Nikos’ career that’s really propaganda. It seems that in some ways, these characters are somehow drawn towards these rigid, authoritarian cultures. Are we seeing a cultured desire to be a victim? Was this something you were after?
EP: For me, the main subject of the film is the construction of identity. Part of this construction is the national identity. That’s why I wanted to use all these TV materials with Russian nationalism. And that’s why I decided Mr. Nikos had a TV show for kids, but during [the Greek] Junta, [which was a] dictatorship during the 60’s and 70’s. In the construction of identity, [TV is] how a kid discovers himself. It was very important for me. So when I say “identity” there is the national identity, there is the sexual identity, the linguistic, and also the religious identity. Religion is also something very important in the film. There are these scenes where Mr. Nikos is like Jesus. There is the prodigal son. The construction of religious identity. Russia is an orthodox country, like Greece.
MC: When Misha was growing up, there was also a communist/atheist aspect, no?
EP: The film takes place during 2004. Misha is 11 years old. He was born in 1995, so the communists has already collapsed.
MC: But there’s stills something there.
EP: Right. The Soviets were atheists, but in the bottom of their hearts were orthodox. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they started to become Christians very quickly.
3. MC: In a film loaded with characters feeling powerless, I think the person suffering the most is Sofia. While Misha knows that as a child, he’s almost “supposed” to get pushed around, I see Sofia blaming everything on herself. Can you speak more about her tragedy and how you think she influences Misha’s shocking trajectory?
EP: For me, it was very important to show to the audience that there is no black and no white, no bad and no good. Everybody has their own point of view, and from their point of view [they are in the right]. Sofia [is trying] as a parent, as a mother, to do the best that she can for her kid. She decides to tell her kid to come to Greece, to be together, to offer him a better life. But it’s a “better life” [according to] what she thinks a better life is. She did her best, but she forgets to ask her son what he really wants.
MC: Right, and that in a way is her tragedy. That’s the mistake.
MC: She’s just trying to do the right thing.
EP: She tries – but it’s not want Misha wants from her.
MC: This is the problem with many parents!
EP: Exactly. This is why I made this film! So when Sofia understands her fault, she feels guilty. [That’s the tragedy].
4. MC: There’s this very epic backdrop of historical Greek fascism and Eastern Block communism serving as a sort of a temporal foundation for the film’s world. But it’s also set during the 2004 Olympics – a time when democracy had supposedly replaced the oppressive systems in both cultures. How does this setting fit into the film’s thematic progression?
EP: I decided to set this story during the summer of 2004 and the Olympic games Because now [13 years after] the Olympics, Greece is in a very different situation. I think that period was a more “innocent” period. After the end of the Olympic games, it was like the end of innocence.
MC: Which is what Misha was going through.
EP: Exactly. Childhood is also innocence. After childhood, it’s the end of innocence.
MC: What specifically at the end of the Olympics killed Greece’s innocence?
EP: Of course, it’s a symbol. Olympic games – it’s a Greek symbol. The ancient Olympics were in Greece, etc., etc. We Greeks love our past. But we don’t love our present and our future in the same way. So we admire the ancient Greeks. [They were the glory days] that we live in our minds.
MC: So it’s a fantasy. When the innocence ends, the fantasy ends. Again, like with Misha.
EP: Exactly. It’s like an illusion. Misha lives in an illusion. And Greece lived in an illusion during this era. There’s the parallel.
MC: The perfect setting for the story.
EP: Well, it’s just the background, not the main story.
MC: But it’s the right “wardrobe” for the emotions!
5. MC: The film’s climax is surprising in how quickly and explosively a shift in power occurs. Do you see violent rebellion as a sort of inevitable ritual which constitutes a necessary exit from innocence? In other words, is the film saying that the oppressed almost need to become oppressors?
EP: [laughs] Misha feels violence throughout the film. Not only physical violence. The psychological violence [is what’s most impactful]. For me, the meaning of the film is that violence brings violence. Misha feels violence and after that – he becomes When your behavior with a kid is violent, it’s very [common] that this kid will be violent himself as well.
MC: Do you feel this goes beyond children?
EP: Yeah, exactly. It’s not just children. That’s just a metaphor.
6. MC: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the visual motif of the balloon, especially when we see it in the gymnasium and then at the end. Usually in art, the floating balloon is seen as a symbol of freedom, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. What were you using the balloon to express in Son of Sofia?
EP: The final scene is a straight reference to the closing ceremonies of the Russian Olympic Games. You have to watch it on YouTube [search for Moscow Olympic games]. There’s a moment where Misha – [not the character from the film, but] the mascot of the Russian Olympic games – flies with these kinds of balloons into the sky. In a “realistic” way, this is the reference. But in the film, it’s the moment the kid becomes an adult.
MC: So it’s not freedom, it’s evolution.
EP: Yeah, but you don’t know what this kind of “freedom” will bring. So the [finale] is open-ended. Something bad has already happened between mother and child. And I don’t know if this bad thing can be corrected. I don’t know if these two people can be together after all these things that have happened.
7. MC: Mr. Nikos is the one character who seems to have gone through most of his life without feeling too much oppression. Can you frame something about his own sense of victimhood? There’s an implication that he’s secretly gay. Can we guess that he had to hide his true nature during his heyday as a popular children’s show host?
EP: Mr. Nikos is a very interesting character for me. Via this character, I wanted to show – like I said before – that there is no bad, there is no good. In the beginning, the audience doesn’t like him because he’s very strict and very conservative. During [the course of the film] you start to sympathize with him. He has another mentality – but it’s not his fault that he’s strict. etc. It just the way he’s learned that “things are.”
MC: The moment I came to like Mr. Nikos was when Misha ran away and I think he was genuinely concerned. He really cared.
EP: Yeah, exactly! He really wants to have a kid and this is his final opportunity. He really loves this kid. [It’s just that] this is the only way [he can express] love. But the way he loves this kid isn’t a way that this kid can accept.
MC: It’s the cultural difference, it’s the generational difference.
EP: It’s a lot of things. It’s not just that he’s Greek and the kid is Russian.
MC: It’s that they grew up in different contexts.
EP: So these three people love each other. But they cannot express it in a way that the other wants.
8. MC: Following up on the gay theme, it feels like there’s this close association between the classical macho gender roles of military men and this secret world of their homosexual desires. Do you think hyper-masculinity in this context is a sort of self-imposed oppression and is that something the film sought to express?
EP: Like I said before, sexual identity – while not [the film’s emphasis], is a part of identity in general. Sexuality is something that kids at the end of childhood explore. As Misha explores his national identity, his religious identity, he also explores his sexual identity. It’s not a straightforward reference to homosexuality, but you can see it and recognize it.
MC: I didn’t feel he was exploring it so much. He wants to get away from a situation he doesn’t like and he finds a friend who’s not really a friend, and puts him into a dangerous situation.
EP: Yeah, but he doesn’t like it [either].
MC: But it seems to me this group of boys that he connects with – they know they have no escape. Except they know they can use sex to escape [their circumstances]. And they know all these “macho men” desire to have sex with young boys. So when you talk about identity, it seems like there’s this exposure that people aren’t even honest with themselves about identity.
EP: Misha’s friend Victor has sexual relationships with men. But if you ask him if he’s gay, he will answer “No!” This gang of “lost boys” – they try to escape as you say – but to be honest, there’s no escape for them. I think Misha understands that he doesn’t have a lot of choices.
MC: What would you like your audience to walk away from this film thinking about and feeling?
EP: Just to think about close relationships. And how often they really express their emotions and communicate with their loved ones.
MC: It’s funny because what you’re talking about is a very warm thing that you’re seeking. Yet, in the context of the film, I think it’s a very brave thing for you to try to find that warmth in the jungle of the darkness of the soul. You’re a brave explorer of this jungle.
EP: Thank you. I didn’t want to give the audience the answers – I don’t have the answers. I just want to pose the questions.