AFS Film Envoy Alex Rotaru’s Adventure in Cyprus
During the mission, Michael Renov and I had our hands full – teaching – so we fed all the factual details to the super-competent Alex Ago, who took over the task of writing the initial reports. His comprehensive blogs were thus posted first, and contain all of our joint notes and photos. What’s left to report are personal impressions of this magnificent journey – and, on my end, the video links. The first is here with the post and there will be more to follow…
Arrival – June 29, Friday
I meet Alex Ago at the airport. Since there are two of us Alexes, we agree to calling each other Ago and Rotaru. We take the taxi to the hotel; my first time riding on the left side of the road. It will be a while before I stop calling it the “wrong” – as opposed to the “right” side. First impression: it’s HOT. Close to Death Valley hot (my own favorite Southern Californian reference point). The cab driver gets a speeding ticket. Mental note: if I get to drive here, which I doubt very much, pay attention to the posted speed limits.
The Holiday Inn is well air-conditioned – a welcome must.
Ago and I take a walk in Nicosia’s Old City. I count at least two Romanian grocery stores. It’s always amusing to me to hear my native tongue in foreign places. The place is alive, teeming with teens and the smell of ripe – and overripe! – fruit.
We learn that “meze” means “you sit there and we bring out two dozen or so sampler plates”. The place is filled with wild but friendly cats, pouting at our food offerings like overfed pashas. At the end of the meal we feel just like them.
June 30, Saturday
I sleep briefly, a jet-lagged slumber interrupted by the sun’s merciless sentries winding their way into the room through the drape folds, ever too short to cover the whole window, a common torturous feature in many hotels worldwide (conspiracy?). After the annoyance, I feel rapture at witnessing the sun rising over the mountains in the distance, across the buffer zone, in Turkish Cypriot territory. It’s Saturday, and the muezzin calls blend mellifluously with Orthodox church bells: a sound I will come to recognize as the Nicosia audio signature.
Renov is not arriving until tonight, so Ago and I organize for a rest day and jump into the unknown, taking a minivan taxi toward Larnaca and the beach. We share the hour-long ride with a Brit and a couple of Romanians (both nations over-represented here, especially now at vacation time), and a blind man who sits in the passenger’s seat – or the driver’s seat, for our American-trained vehicle layout instinct. I’m enjoying feeling unfamiliar.
We’re deposed in Larnaca at Phinikoudes Beach, not far from Ayios Lazaros, the Church of Saint Lazarus (the one of “Rise, Lazarus!” fame). The sand is brown, the water is warm, the margaritas cold, the walk to the old port charming and the fish meze at the water’s edge a-“meze”-ing.
We waddle back in the oven-like, shimmering, crystal-blue air. The perfect quiet is sporadically interrupted by cars barreling down the unthinkably narrow road, raising dust and scattering us either to the side of the sea, or the porches lined up facing it. We wonder how often cars fall into the sea here.
We make it to the taxi pick-up without entering the Church of Saint Lazarus, just walking by it (tsk, tsk,) and after an uneventful ride back to Nicosia we meet up in the hotel lobby with one of our hosts, Alana, and with Juliette from the US Embassy. After more planning talk and introductions, Alana and her husband Michael take us on a cross-island trip to the Olive Grove in Delikipos, where we meet another one of our co-hosts, Berangere, and her husband Denis. In the idyllic setting of this forest-ensconced estate primed for summer concerts, we begin to firm up the upcoming film camp’s details and to learn about the cultural landscape of Cyprus, while enjoying a very entertaining concert by Germany’s State of Hessen Youth Jazz Big Band Orchestra.
When we return, it’s late, and the Old City is hopping – it’s Saturday, after all. We stop by a hole-in-the-wall store that Michael has been raving about – for some truly delicious Armenian Kebab.
I go to bed with the random thought that in Cyprus the sun rises on the Turkish side of the island, and sets on the Greek side.
July 1, Sunday
Alana and Michael take Ago, Renov and me to the great beach of Kournas, not far from the young and happening, party-central, tourist-trap of Ayia Napa. It takes a while to get to the water from the parking lot high up the steep hill, but it’s worth it. So much better sand and water than Larnaca! Surrounded almost exclusively by Cypriot youths, we talk about films over our salads, and then weather the heat with more good conversation on the long winding roads back.
In the evening, we follow Alana’s recommendation for a good place to watch the Euro Cup final. Ago’s Dad hails from Italy, so tonight he’s wearing the azzurro jersey proudly. Sadly for our table, Spain drums Italy by a vigorous four-nil. During dinner, Yianna Americanou joins us for introductions and we plan our joint lecture later in the week on film distribution and festivals, while trying not to pay any heed to the puff of dark smoke hanging over Ago’s head.
I go to bed nervous about the next day – the beginning of the camp per se. How will we be able to fit our entire educational and production agenda into six short days? I remember Hamlet’s advice against asking too many questions of oneself lest one should “lose the name of action”, and I get ready for action — by getting some much-needed shut-eye. Dreams can be refreshing.
July 2, Monday
Nope – I’m still nervous. As a fairly experienced traveler on this kind of cultural trip for the State Department, I have an acute awareness of the special, overachieving and greatly ambitious nature of this particular mission, here in Cyprus.
The normal purview of these actions is to screen a group of independent, American documentary films to young (and, sometimes, not so young) people in the visited country, and to engage in lively conversations on the themes of the films, plus culture, history and society. Often there are one or several 2-5 hour master classes per week to complement the screenings, and several press conferences.
To my knowledge never has there been a trip which aimed to do all this — AND, in addition, to do a hands-on, week-long production workshop that would result in one or several documentary films being made and screened on the last day!
Not until now. Not until Cyprus DocYouth Camp.
As the production torch-bearer of the group, I feel particularly responsible for the success of this enterprise, so after Alana, Berangere, Keith, Juliette, Ago and Michael speak, I warn the seventeen students about the fundamental truth of their life over the next week:
“You all seem so fresh and full of energy… I’m here to fix that.”
They respond to my declaration with giggles replete with denial. I guess we’ll live and see.
We meet our last host, Amalia, and say hello again to Yianna. We’re ready to move on the next lecture: the star of this first morning is Costas, a Cypriot film historian with a great sense of humor.
As always on these trips, I remember that the key is MUTUAL enrichment. We learn the most when we teach, and Costas’ lecture is a high point for us.
After a short lunch, Renov takes the lead. I’m nervous as I wait for my cue. We’ve had time to go over the story pitches the 17 students turned in, but it’s not yet clear how many films we’ll be able to get started (as for finishing, God only knows), which pitches will prevail in conversation, how the crewing process will work out, and how many sets of shooting and editing equipment will we have… The embassy and CCMC provide 4 camera kits and 6 edit bays, or is it 5, we don’t know yet, there might a faulty external drive, and then some of the students have their own production and post production kits…
We have only a few hours to work out a production logistical situation that normally gets sorted in 1-2 weeks at USC SCA.
We can do it – and to our own amazement, after a lively discussion and not too many hard compromises, by the end of the first day we have 6 projects lined up, 9 camera kits (CCMC’s plus personal cameras) and 9 editing set-ups.
Each group will face different challenges, but that’s why we’re here. To count the challenges.
The sense of excitement is strong enough to defeat the heat, as some groups head off to get an early start to shooting. I watch them saunter off and envy their innocence. They just don’t know how hard this doc stuff is, and therein lies their advantage.
Alana and Michael take Ago, Renov and me out again. Amazing vegetarian food (and not only). Great company and joie de vivre.
The jetlag has abated somewhat, but I find it hard to sleep. 6 films?!?
July 3, Tuesday
Make that SEVEN. One of our groups has split in two, and one of those groups is made up of two very talented teenage boys who don’t live in Nicosia and are too young to drive. If they have to participate in all our daily activities, they will be spending 4-5 hours in public transportation minivans, and will never have time to make a film.
We realize that we’ll have to give them more time. They’ll be delivering us cuts via YouTube.
The whole class goes over the detailed production plans and story presentations. We realize that our goal of containing the shooting to Nicosia or the buffer zone for simplicity’s sake is not realistic: these crews will have to be shooting out of town, as well.
As we suspected, it will take a lot of extra effort to pack both agendas into the time we have, and time management becomes Job One. Job Two is making sure that we don’t take over CCMC — there are people there working, doing their own jobs, and we cannot just take over their office — but we do, and they graciously let us.
I also realize that David, the local post guru enlisted to help with post, is going to be a life saver. Alongside Amalia, he works the hardest, longest hours to help supervise the kids who cannot be at the facilities unaccompanied.
Before we wrap, we’re interviewed and photographed by Greek Cypriot press, who make us feel very welcome. There is a piano in the buffer zone cafe, and I try it out briefly… Should one aim to impress the press?
We leave class feeling that we’re on the right track.
That evening, Renov, Ago and me cross into Turkish Cypriot territory for the first time. We have our passports stamped, take a walk that seems longer going than coming, and enjoy an Italian meal in a Spanish restaurant next to the Turkish Mosque, which we visit on our way back.
We notice that at night, the streets of the Turkish Cypriot side of Nicosia are absolutely deserted, while as soon as one crosses into the Greek Cypriot side, you can’t help tripping on kids eating KFC. Or Cold Stone.
Ago and I allow an exhausted Renov to cross back and go home, while we stay on in the Turkish Cypriot community side, and look for an open air bar where one of our film teams is shooting a local band in concert.
We find the bar – incongruously named “Narnia” and complete with a stylized picture of the lion and its mane (?) – and marvel at the high quality of the music. This short doc about the music scene will be good, we can tell.
Finding our way back would be very difficult for me without a map, but Ago must have swallowed a GPS chip when he was a kid. I swear the man is a human compass. He unerringly finds the shortest right way back. Every time.
We amend our previous observation: on the Turkish Cypriot side, the streets SEEM empty because all crowded parties take place behind closed doors, in private gardens. A subtle difference to cap off a wonderful evening.
July 4, Wednesday
Happy Birthday, America!
Hard day of muddling through screening, lecture, rushes, first post-production problems, and personality clashes on the crews. I spotted the class troublemakers right away, but they’re really not bad after all (not by USC SCA standards!), and understand upon not too much prodding that they we all have to pull together if we are to get anything done.
After dispensing my daily quota of free pep talks, I’m still feeling we might have 3-4 films at the end of the week. Considering that we’re ready to settle for one, I think we’re doing very well.
Before we wrap, Yetin – a local-born, British-trained filmmaker – visits the Camp to share one of her documentaries (about the Turkish Cypriot diaspora in the UK) and to do a production workshop. Not only is she talented and articulate, but we’re glad to have a female Turkish Cypriot director share her experience with the class.
In the evening, left to our own devices on Independence Day by a series of scheduling mishaps on behalf of everyone, Ago, Renov and I follow suit on Alana’s advice to visit a major art multi-installation in Nicosia’s old power station. Today Cyprus assumes the presidency of the European Union for 6 months, and to celebrate this occasion, a massive exhibit entitled TERRA MEDITARRANEA: IN CRISIS has been in prep for months and opens tonight.
It takes a while to find the gigantic building. We ask several business owners who have no idea about it, until we stumble upon it pushed onward by – what else? – Ago’s homing instinct. As frequent travelers to Europe, we marvel at this ubiquitous phenomenon here: local business owners not being aware of major destinations in their neighborhood, even if – as in this case – they’re just around the corner. Could it be the comfort? The lack of a desire to explore? Hard to believe – Europeans explored the whole known – and unknown – world. Perhaps local culture and tourist culture simply exist in parallel dimensions…
However, once we find it, the place amazes us – it’s on the level of a top art gallery opening in London, New York, or Los Angeles. Housing some 20-odd installations from major artists from all over the globe, including a Marina Abramovic-style performance art by a live artist, it’s a delight to visit.
We run into a few of our students, who tell us this is the place to see and be seen in Nicosia tonight.
We’re content to be so hip and current, but we’re starving, so we look for a way back to the main restaurant strip in the Old City.
On our way, we pass a non-descript building with a conspicuous red light hanging at the door. Perhaps it’s another hard-to-find art gallery? I take a photo in case we get lost.
By the next-door, centuries-old Orthodox Church we run into the reporter who interviewed us yesterday – Cat. She’s out on a nice stroll with her girlfriend, who also goes by Cat. The Cats strongly recommend a restaurant where the chef makes great salads. Once again, Michael’s vegetarianism enables Ago and me to eat healthier.
The place, which turns out to be just next door to the Armenian Kebab place, is phenomenal. Renov gives it the highest approval: his plate is spotless when we’re done.
Before we leave, we run into another one of our student groups, on the prowl for footage of feral cats for their film. Normally that shouldn’t be a problem – as the three of us can attest – but tonight they’re out of luck. No kitties in sight.
Why would the felines have gotten suddenly camera-shy? We are puzzling this – when a stray dog runs by our table following a bicycle, and our crew takes off after it.
Having toasted our country, filled our bellies, and guided our students, we feel entitled to retire.
July 5, Thursday
It’s time to mention the breakfast buffet. The grilled halloumi cheese with fresh tomatoes is my favorite even if Ago is not the biggest fan. I figure given his Italian ancestry he has the right to complain about the cheese, wine, and architecture. He’s only complained about the cheese so far.
The films are beginning to take shape, but by now we’re smack dab in the middle of post production hell on all fronts, and they’re still all shooting, too. We have hard drive failures, format incompatibilities, and YouTube archival footage extraction issues, plus the translation and subtitling issue we almost neglected now threatens to be adding another half-day to our schedules, etc, etc, etc…
I remark that not a single person in the group speaks all three languages necessary for full communication here at Camp: Greek, Turkish, and English. I’m very proud of this keen observation – which is received with much nodding and “hmmm”-ing.
Regardless of its profound anthropological significance, I realize that my observation is useless to at least onen of us: it’s still David’s lot to try to keep this ship together even when we’re gone, until late in the evening, in whatever language. Which explains why he’s neither nodding or “hmmm”-ing.
I switch gears for more serious fare and gravely inform all the kids that they absolutely NEED to be done shooting BEFORE tomorrow morning, under penalty of not being guaranteed a finished film and a screening slot on Saturday.
Looking at them, I remember now what it’s like to be a film student in production: you feel both invincible and infallible. Which is why they’re nodding while I can clearly see they’re all plotting to be still shooting tomorrow.
They seem like good peeps, so I give them a free pass. This is their own journey through film Hell – I’m just playing Virgil to their Dantes.
Meanwhile, Ago has put some serious blisters on his feet from walking for miles in 130 degree heat on cement in flip-flops, thereby proving that he is fully half American (tourist!). He’ll eat at the hotel – so Renov and I are on our own for dinner.
I promise Michael that I wouldn’t necessarily disclose the fact that it takes us 45 minutes of walking in circles to find the same restaurant from last night which is no more than a half-mile from the hotel, but it’s time to admit to our lack of orientation. We protest mildly about needing Ago to guide us through the city. Pathetic!
We repeat Independence Day dinner, sans the cat filming crisis, and share USC SCA stories. I’m feeling a small pang of Trojan nostalgia, but mostly elation at having finally transitioned from feeling bad about being responsible for all the films, to feeling bad for the students’ nearly impossible tasks.
I fall asleep while reflecting on the moral implications of finding it preferable to feel bad about someone else’s problems.
July 6, Friday
Today begins, continues and ends like a total blur. I sit down with each group and with David and screen cuts, proposing changes, fixes, and even re-shoots (you better believe it). The heavy air of despair and resignation settles over the rooms, and we take to it like fish to the sea.
Several groups are very close, others I’m willing to swear will not have a film ready in a day. We screen, lecture, discuss in one room, and keep the edit-bay fires burning in another. Right before lunch we’re interviewed by Turkish Cypriot press.
We break after lunch to see “Rebirth”, then to have a Skype Q&A call with the filmmaker – Jim Whitaker – who wakes up early in the USA especially for this. It’s the first time our students are tongue-tied – under the strong impression left by the film. It’s good to see them shy like this! Luckily, always prepared, Renov leads with a few well-thought questions, and in the end the students open up and make their own voices heard…
Tonight, Berangere is throwing a good-bye party at her house. Keith and Juliette from the embassy will be there, too. The plan is to break from 7-9 PM, grab Amalia and David, jet over, grab a bite, then head back to CCMC for another hour or so of editing – while the students stay put and keep pushing.
Surreptitiously, Amalia and David sacrifice dinner and stay behind, but we the USC trio visit Berangere and Denis’ beautiful house (across the street from Juliette’s), and over delicious home-cooked food (thanks Denis!) I look over the magnificently and humorously “aggrandizing” article Cat has written about me in Cyprus Weekly. Much fun is made of me, but I take it in good spirit – probably because it is I who makes the most fun of me. All in all it’s an excellent press clipping, although Cat misspelled Tarkovsky as Cherkovsky. It’s my fault – using the “T” word on a twenty-something!
For Renov and for me – married men – the “find the right gift for your wife” activity has also begun. Berangere showed us a place earlier in the day, but we still haven’t found what we’re looking for. More advice is sought and offered, and we decide to raid the famous Buyuk Han mall on the Turkish Cypriot side – tomorrow.
Back in Film Camp, the films that looked good look better, and those who looked bad, worse.
July 7, Saturday
This is it, boys and girls. The moment of pressing “burn DVD” has arrived, but they all protest, despite having been given one extra half day of editing.
David smiles like the cat who swallowed the canary, and soon I realize he has good reason to.
We screen the cuts and, by Golly, I believe we’ll have seven films to screen tonight – SEVEN! I love it when low expectations are exceeded. I will resist the urge to lower them further in the future, though, because it seems clear that we (Ago, Renov and me) won’t be able to see all the films before tonight… In the buffer zone… In an outdoors theater being built right now… In front of 100 people – or more. I dry swallow, but in this heat I’ve been doing that a lot, so I don’t ascribe any metaphorical meaning to it.
Ago and I run off briefly to rent a car for our planned trip up and down the coast tomorrow. Then Renov and I go to Buyuk Han and finally find the right gift, during which process I get to hear the following pearl of wisdom from him as he looks at me, smiling benignly while I sweat over the choices:
“The advantage of being married for a long time is that you stop feeling the pressure to bring her the PERFECT gift each time. If you miss now, there’s always later.”
Suddenly I realize he’s absolutely right… The relief is so strong that it enables me to pick the perfect gift immediately.
We return to Camp in time for Yianna to hold her lecture on distribution and festivals. I chime in, and we officially finish. David is burning the DVDs…
The screening is upon us. We change into nice clothes, hold speeches in front of a packed audience of all our new friends gathered in the open air theater by the wall overlooking the Turkish Cypriot side of Nicosia, then give out gifts and diplomas to our students.
Most importantly, however, we watch seven wonderful short documentaries!
Somehow, even the roughest cuts have tightened into good films on the very last pass. I never fail to be impressed by how mixing messing around with the right amount of pressure and structure creates stories… These students did splendidly.
We taught them about making films – and through them, they taught us about Cyprus.
The exchange seems unfair. The camp is an unmitigated success for them, yet it is we who walk away with so many gifts.
Thank you, everyone.
July 8, Sunday
Sadly, Renov leaves at the crack of dawn, so he cannot join Ago and me.
I drive us on the – wait for it! – “wrong” side of the road all day, taking us to Paphos and back, and constantly making sure I obey the speed limit as throughout the day we see people getting tickets for speeding.
Four museums: check. One last fish meze (the best meal of the trip probably): check. Two amazing beaches: check. Swimming around Aphrodite’s birth-rock for good luck in love for life: check. Avoiding sun-stroke: check!
A short sleep is followed by my driving to Larnaca airport, dropping off the car and parting ways with Ago – we’re boarding different flights.
The trip is over, the new-born memories just beginning to stir.
I’m nostalgizing already, when I notice six under-dressed, sunburned British teenage girls constantly sneezing and coughing behind me in the queue for the Larnaca-London flight.
I pray that a) they don’t all sit in the row behind me with the worst serial sneezer directly in my neck and b) I don’t spend the next week in Los Angeles bedridden with a nasty cold while outside it’s 90 degrees.
Neither prayers are answered.
But I’ll always have Cyprus Doc Youth Camp 2012!