Vicky Yiannoutsos interviewed by Anastasia Bakogianni
AB: The myth of Persephone is a recurring motif in your work as a filmmaker and artist. Why this particular classical myth? Why do you feel it resonates with you so strongly?
VY: The myth "sprang up" while I was making the documentary 'Visible Passage' (1987), and I use that phrase literally, because it appeared somehow fully formed deep from within my unconscious. My job was to unpack it, unravel it, reveal its meaning, as it were. It was as if it had always "been there" – as a metaphor for my experience of migration, of living between worlds – waiting for me to discover it. That’s the only way I can describe it. At the time, I was meditating upon the film, because I was undertaking a difficult personal journey – a deep and conflicted encounter with myself, my heritage, my culture, and the myth sprang out of that struggle, from a deeply rooted place inside me. It was an instant eureka moment, and then I began the job of trying to make sense of it – in some ways it has been my life’s mission. I sought to explore the myth of Persephone as a universal archetype through my personal experience. Throughout my life, it has returned to me, demanding attention, demanding expression in some artistic form or other …
As the opening motif for 'Persephone’s Plight', the exhibition, expresses:
I carry two cultures, two languages, two worlds.
I belong to both, I belong to neither,
I am Persephone, destined forever,
To journey between them
AB: As the narrator in 'Visible Passage' (1987) you outline the myth of Persephone and its significance in the film. What do you think this adds to your film that it would not have otherwise possessed?
VY: I was trying to make sense of my own identity. My work on 'Visible Passage' was a desperate attempt to bring the two worlds together, to build a bridge across the divide. The myth seemed to me a living archetype, a kind of compass that helped me navigate the process of making the documentary. It gave me strength, it gave me hope. Once I unpicked the puzzle of how to proceed it was like being released from a burden – by awakening this thing bigger than me. I believe that without the myth, the film would not have possessed universal resonance.
AB: What is the concept behind your choice of title, 'Visible Passage'? Were you thinking of your own personal journey, that of your family, Persephone’s journey to and from the underworld, or does it refer more generally to the experiences of the Greek diaspora? And why is it important that this journey be made "visible"?
VY: The film most definitely came out of my own personal experience and that of my family. I didn’t want it to be about me, rather I wanted to preserve my history, the stories which I heard throughout my life, passed down in my family. For me it was deeply personal. Of course, my experience was part of the wider Greek diaspora but I wasn’t interested in an objective story about this phenomenon. I was struggling to make sense of deep inner conflicts, unspoken "invisible" hurts and pains I had inherited and experienced within the family, which I needed to heal. And the way I found to accomplish this was to make "visible" that journey, as I had experienced it using my family, particularly its women, as my key protagonists.
AB: At the beating heart of 'Visible Passage' are its female characters and their stories. Why did you feel it was important to frame the narrative in this way? In what survives of the culture of ancient Greece women’s real voices are largely silenced. Did you wish to redress that imbalance in terms of modern Greek women?
VY: My choice of the women’s voices was definitely a political act. I wanted to represent the socially least visible voices, that of the migrant, and within that context the least visible within the community, women’s voices. This was a conscious decision that arose out of a lifetime of seeing women’s voices repressed both socially and personally. So of course my own political agenda was very much at the forefront of my thinking. I could have told my father’s story, reunited him with Olga, told the story from the male perspective, but I wanted to focus on the women, the camera lens had to be focused on them and the rhythm of their lives. After observing the impact of patriarchy in my own family, I wanted the sisters to be in the driver’s seat. Also, I wanted to immortalize Olga, the one who had been "left behind". I wanted her to be remembered forever by all of us as the guardian of the land, the hearth, and the ancestral home. She was a force of nature, a woman I adored and I wanted us and my audience to never forget.
AB: As luck would have it, the name of the one aunt in your family who remained in Greece is Antigone. In Greek tragedy Antigone is closely associated with mourning and funerary rites because she buries her brother’s corpse in spite of Creon’s orders forbidding it. Towards the end of 'Visible Passage' there is a moving scene where the two sisters, Antigone and Olga, perform a mourning ritual at the family grave while the narrator reflects on the uncertain future of the village. Do you think, given the tragic Antigone’s renown, that the classical resonances add to the viewer’s appreciation of this poignant moment?
VY: I’m so glad you drew my attention to this, as I’d never made the connection with Antigone. It fits so well and of course will defiantly resonate for those members of the audience who also make this connection. I had always known that taking the women to the graveside would create a key moment in the film. And of course I knew it would be highly emotional for them both sharing such a time together. But when Olga stood back as Antigone wept and began lamenting my grandfather, I almost fell to my knees. It was breathtakingly moving.
Greek dance, song and language
AB: Greek dances and singing is a really important element in your film, as was dance and song in ancient Greece. Can you tell us why you included these sequences in your film and what, if any, connections you drew with antiquity?
VY: Everything about my Greek identity comes back to dance and music. It is the heart and soul of being Greek for me, and its expression an ancient ritual eternally present. I may have told you the story of creeping up on my father as a young girl as he sat in an armchair with his back to me, a whisky glass at his side and cigarette smoke rising, as Greek music filled the room. And I, a young girl tiptoeing towards him, as I anticipated him bursting into dance as he always did ... and coming upon him, face tear-stained from homesickness. Dance was always an emotional release, a powerful moment of self-expression of all it means to be Greek. So, yes, it’s very important for me. In the exhibition 'Persephone’s Plight' I set up an installation dedicated to my father and the spirit of dance I will always associate with him as a beautiful dancer of traditional Greek dances. Dance and music express for me the eternal emotional flow of Hellenism which carries and transmits through the generations the seeds of the Greek culture in all their many and varied expressions.
AB: The other key element in the film is the Greek language itself. Why did you feel it was important for the characters to speak Greek? And related to this, I will add this personal comment, if I may. As a Greek living abroad myself I was really struck by how often the Greek-born, New Zealand-based members of your family fell into the habit of mixing in English words when they are speaking in Greek. Greeks living in Greece often find this habit pretentious or annoying, but it demonstrates on the linguistic level the push and pull of two languages/two cultures.
VY: This again was something I was very determined to accomplish. I wanted their voices, our language to be heard, to be listened to, to be considered. When it was suggested that I dub them in English, I refused. I was fiercely opposed to this – the language as it was spoken had to be used. And this was a big struggle at the time as English was the only language one would hear on radio or television. There was no Māori spoken in public broadcasts and no other languages either.
To respond now to your comment about language, I grew up with this hybrid form of language when English crept into the Greek language, for example, caro= car, drivari = drive. The fluidity of words adapted within families was something that came about naturally, so that different generations favouring different languages could speak with one another. It was acclimatisation, adapting to the new situation, bridging the generations. I never thought about it. It was a natural thing – one of the ways we maintained our living communication. In families where people were speaking different languages for different reasons, it helped keep everyone connected. People living in Greece can’t perhaps understand that.
The importance of the past
AB: At the end of your film you emphasise the importance of the past for being able to continue into the future. You are referring to your own family’s history and more generally the histories that make up the Greek diaspora. But do you think the principle also applies to the stories and culture of ancient Greece and how they have enriched us on a global scale?
VY: I believe this with all my heart. We are in desperate need of ancient wisdom now, more than ever as we speed on a collision course towards a world of disconnection, loss of identity and, most importantly, loss of significant communion. I believe meaningful storytelling is one of the life rafts for our troubled times and as a teacher and filmmaker I often refer to its importance as an essential ingredient in reflecting on ourselves and maintaining our humanity.
As you know, I’m engaged on another project called 'Māori Bacchae' which is a theatre production being created by translating and transposing Euripides' play into the Māori language and worldview. Resurrecting the ancient stories, the myths and archetypes offers us a richness of spirit that is critical to our own survival. And, as my own experience with the Persephone myth taught me, a necessary compass with which to navigate the stormy seas of one’s own existence.
AB: You planned a sequel, titled 'Scattered Seeds', in which you intended to pick up the conversation and return to the question of the fate of the island of Kastos. This exists in the form of the preparatory work you did on the project. Can you tell us more?
VY: The work is currently in hibernation. It sits in my office in a box awaiting its next phase, an awakening perhaps, a call from the ancients. I began filming the "20 years later" story from 'Visible Passage' in 2007, when I returned to Greece to confront the passage of time and the questions on which VP ended. What will be the future of the island? Will it fade away with its humble way of life or become a part of the rest of the world? I returned in 2009 for more filming, but have never completed the work. Over the past few years, I’ve lost both my parents and my connection to the island has diminished. I don’t know what the future holds. I feel a duty to complete the work, but my heart aches for the loss of the past, and the difficulty of finding a current day solution.
AB: You also wrote a script for a film titled 'Kore' in which you wished to explore more closely the relationship between a mother and daughter. There are many examples of the importance of this bond in ancient Greek culture, not least of all in the Demeter-Persephone story.
VY: Yes, the mother/daughter theme is another recurring one, which appears in many of my short stories, poems, film scripts and so on. It represents the migrant too – the Homeland. 'Kore' is another return journey, where Demetra (now a yiayia, grandmother) is returned to Greece for burial. Strong forces oppose this, so the narrative follows the struggles the family has to undergo, and yes, there is a Persephone, who in this case is a granddaughter. Old widows allude to past wrongs that have caused people to leave the island and the saints to depart. They say this can only be rectified if Demetra is buried in the local cemetery, but local forces are preventing it. Modern day skeptics argue that this is nonsense and it is the lure of the new world that has taken people away. An old curse is only lifted when Demetra is finally buried. Life returns to the island when people who have been absent for many years are allowed to return.
AB: What of course distinguishes Demeter is that she has power, because she is the goddess of the earth and agriculture. In her grief she causes a famine and forces a compromise that means that Persephone’s time will be divided between Hades and the world of the living. Persephone herself acquires both power and influence as the wife of the king of the underworld. Can these ancient goddesses act as political metaphors for women today?
VY: Absolutely, I am fascinated by the Eleusinian mysteries. I see them as guarding the knowledge of female power, of Goddess power. The Homeric 'Hymn to Demeter' alludes to the Mysteries as offering answers to the questions about life and eternity. As a practicing Buddhist this is fascinating to me. We don’t know what happened to Persephone in the Underworld, what brings about her maturity as its queen, and how this knowledge contributes to the Eleusinian Mysteries, performed each year upon her return. What we do know is that the power of those two female goddesses – representing the upper and lower realms – is an integration of the power of eternal significance. At a time when the planet needs this energy for its very survival, I would say that mining the Demetra/Persephone relationship is a significant pursuit.
AB: Ancient literature survives in fragments. Most of it is lost to us. In your own working life you have unfortunately not always been able to bring all of your ideas to fruition, which is obviously frustrating. But don’t you agree that fragments matter and that just because we don’t have everything it is still important to engage with what we do have, what remains?
VY: I love this. It helped me feel a little more at peace with fragmented work, which in the early hours of a sleepless night can occupy one’s mind, demanding action, some kind of completion or resolution. I also know that there are larger forces at play, which like the Persephone myth can spontaneously take hold of one’s course of action. The importance of the journey, the willing engagement with what is, the awe and curiosity to re-imagine, the willingness to accept the process and one’s place within that process, there is merit in that. Thank you.
AB: In July 2010 you mounted an installation called 'Persephone’s Plight' at MIC Toi Rerehiko gallery in Auckland. How did this exhibition build on your previous work and what did it add that was different to your exploration of the myth of Persephone and its application to the migrant experience?
VY: 'Persephone’s Plight' was a response to a request by Deborah Lawler Dormer to create a video exhibition for the Moving Image Centre in 2010. This took me back to Persephone and all the footage from the documentary. I distilled a number of pieces and introduced poems into the experience and came up with 'Persephone’s Plight: The Four Seasons of Migration – Birth, Separation, Yearning, Return'. It was very satisfying to return to Persephone and to work on a new multi-faceted treatment of a recurring theme. She follows me, she really does. The exhibition was presented at the International Arts Festival in Kefalonia (2012) by invitation and just last week I received a call from them requesting I submit another work for 2017. I wonder if Persephone will return for this!
AB: Persephone is not the only classical figure to feature in your work. In 2006 you collaborated with Tolis Papazoglou who directed 'The Odyssey Aotearoa' (performed at the University of Wellington), a version of the Homeric epic set in New Zealand. Odysseus, the famous wanderer trying to return to his home island of Ithaca, offers us another classical parallel for the modern migrant experience. Can you tell us a bit more about your involvement in this project and your own views on Odysseus as a metaphor for the modern experience of migration?
VY: Yes, I was videographer on that work and compiled a filmed sequence which was used for funding purposes. Of course the Odyssey is a journey, an adventure, a time away from home and a return. In this production Tolis portrayed Odysseus as a migrant at the borders waiting and wondering whether he would get his entry stamp. Penelope doesn’t have as exciting a time sitting at home waiting as Demeter or Persephone, although maybe like Demeter she waits and pines and grieves, suffering because of the separation from her husband.
AB: What do you think these connections to the classical past add to your work as a whole?
VY: Depth, richness, meaning, connection, solid ground. A joyful, full heart.