Director Julian Schwandner on his short film, Anamesa
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
Anamesa is an atmospheric representation of the connection the three friends Maria, Markos and Julian share with the same island in Greece. By looking back on the memories of summers gone by, they create a beautiful picture of their different experiences of the island. However, this is not possible without asking yourself some questions.
I spoke with Julian about studying at film school, his initial conversations with cinematographers Nikos Nikolopoulos and Thomas Foster, and the biggest challenges shooting the film.
Did you study directing? Where did you go to film school?
I’ve been a bit of a nomad when it comes to my time at Film School. I did a Bachelor in Film and TV Production at the University of Greenwich in London, during which I did my second year at FAMU in Prague as an Erasmus student. It was during my time in Prague that I really caught wind of directing. After I finished the BA, I enrolled for a Masters in directing at LUCA School of Arts in Brussels, mainly because I wanted to get another film under my belt before heading out into the real world.
Who are your film inspirations/heroes? I would mention Coppola, Kurosawa, Rohmer, Bergman and Varda amongst my heroes. I also have a mild obsession with Terrence Malick, which might just be an unpopular opinion… However, I find there is something so rich and profoundly poetic in his film language. Badlands, The New World and The Thin Red Line are films that touched me a lot. Chantal Akerman, Judith Weston and Walter Murch whose books I gobbled up throughout film school, I would add to the list as well.
What initial conversations did you have with your cinematographers and crew about Anamesa? Was there a particular style/look you wanted to achieve? This is a bit of a tricky question, as I ended up having to reshoot a large part of the film. The whole idea of the film in its first stage, however, was to make something based on reality but looking and feeling like fiction. When Nikos came on board our initial conversations were just based around films we both liked, films that seem to make a lot out of very little. I asked him to watch Western by Valeska Grisebach for example. We wanted to make something very atmospheric and warm in nature. Roy Anderson’s A Swedish Love Story is a film he showed me that made things click a little bit. It has so many moments with hardly any dialogue that say more than words probably ever could. We then sort of built the visual blueprint around those references. I also brought a lot of pictures from my family archive to the table, pictures that already had the colours and textures I was looking for. The idea for our coverage was quite conventional I think - shoot for the edit and make the most out of the light available. Naturally, we ended up shooting a lot during magic hour. The core idea was to create a very soft and somewhat anticipatory gaze that would resemble my romantic and idealistic idea of the place. Back then I have to admit however, I thought I was making a fiction.
When I went back to Greece some eight months after the first shooting block, I had to change the working method entirely. Whilst the scenes we shot in the summer all looked incredibly beautiful, sadly I hadn’t really gotten what I needed from them. In the editing room, I realised it simply wasn’t authentic in the sense that one always felt the presence of the camera. I then had to make peace with the fact that this film wasn’t going to work as a linear fiction. After a short rewrite, I went back, this time with Thomas, and we categorically let the camera run as long as possible, just to sort of make it disappear if that makes sense. Above all, we tried to maintain the atmospheric essence of the material whilst digging deeper into the substance of the stories - trying to find those slices of conversation that would start gluing the film together. What little dialogue and voice-over is left in the film now was all shot during the second shooting block. However, I feel the visual language that the film orbits within was found and established in those initial conversations with Nikos. So when we went back as far as image goes, we just tried to mirror what we already had and build on it further.
Were there any particular films or directors you looked at before shooting? When I did my initial research for Anamesa, I stumbled upon a few filmmakers who ended up leaving a lasting impression on me. Chloe Zhao for example, who in her earlier films manoeuvres so delicately in between the boundaries of fiction and documentary (If there are any..) I really love her films The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Roberto Minervini too, whose film, Stop The Pounding Heart really opened up a new world for me. Celine Sciamma* is another one. In relation to her writing process on Portrait of A Lady on Fire, she spoke of this idea of letting the desire dictate the writing. This was something I relied heavily upon when trying to figure out the right written form for my film.
*(SOURCE REF: https://youtu.be/H7F9k-340fc)
Could you tell me more about the archival footage used? Where was this from? The archive footage sits close to the core of the film, although I admit I cover myself in vagueness with it. The whole reason I have a connection to this island in Greece is that my father was an archaeologist who has spent decades working and excavating there. He first stepped foot on the island in the late 1960s. With my stepmothers passing in late 2019 this super 8mm documentary she made during several spells of excavation in 1972 landed in my lap. It’s a 24 min piece that sort of depicts the ongoing work on the site. It has got her voice over and my (then) 6-year-old half-sister playing the flute underneath, it was all quite a lot to take in when I saw it first.
What absolutely baffled me, however, was my father’s face in it. At the time of recording, he was just a few years older than I am now and it felt as if I was gazing through a window of time and I realized how similar we looked. This and of course the beautiful shots of the columns, artifacts and the workers, that firmly ground the viewer in Greece made the whole material very appealing to me. It also correlates quite a lot to my core incentive of making the film- to somewhat understand my relationship to the island better. It made sense to go back to the beginning, everything that became my own on the island started with my father. I also say this in the film.
Then of course, there’s the statue and this is where I lose quite a few people I reckon. This assembly of the statue which also sits at the end of the excavation film sort of made me feel something in regards to this idea of concluding a rite of passage. The end of a story that is likewise a beginning. While we all dove deep into our shared and individual Greece memories to sort of understand the value of making the film, be they good or bad -, we all left something behind. So, what I see in the statue is an unravelling identity, this notion of looking deep into the past to understand the now, which is so akin to the practice of archaeology. For me, it all came full circle there and then.
What were the biggest challenges on this production? There were many challenges throughout the whole process, not to mention Covid of course. However, what I would say is if there’s one thing that this film has taught me, then that is to never give up. The hardest part of making this film was without a doubt having to admit to myself that what I initially wanted to do wasn’t working. Then I had to find ways to make it work differently, find the core again and allow this anamorphism between my idea and its subsequent form. It became all about keeping an idea alive that would change face and appearance time and time and again, whilst making sure I would remain at the helmet of it. I was at the point of giving up several times, but something always kept me going. I think this something is not just perseverance but also my curiosity towards going to thresholds, trying out, reinventing, letting go of preconceived ideas and as hard as it was, I think that that’s maybe what I learned I make films for. Anamesa gave me a chance to find myself in a threshold - challenging my artistic maturity and this notion of feeling lost in my twenties. All this is part of what went into the film for me and I can’t wait to watch it on the big screen again soon.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
A few months after graduating I relocated to Berlin and started freelancing as a Producer and Director. I’m currently working on a couple of projects with a production collective called Alibi Film and hopefully more to follow soon. Somewhere down the line, I’d like to write a new screenplay as well. As luck would have it, I lost a bet to a dear friend of mine from Vienna last year and I'm still a script short of fulfilling my debt. If she read this, she`d wanna kick my ass, so I better get writing.
Montage: Vince De Leenheer, Aulona Fetahaj & Julian Schwandner
Cinematography: Nikos Nikolopoulos & Thomas Foster
Audio: Aulona Fetahaj
Sound Design & Mix: Kwinten Van Laethem
Colorist: Nathalie Giakatis
Line Production: Georgia Vasalou
World Premiere: International Shortfilm Festival Leuven (BE, 04.12.21)