Saturday, 26 April 2014

Interview: Sibylle Meder talks about the film THE ISLAND BUS


Youve just completed the documentary film THE ISLAND BUS. How did living on Tilos inspire you to make this film?

Living in Greece - and maybe particularly on Tilos - cannot but inspire a filmmaker to make a film. There is something so theatrical and dramatic about everyday actions here.
I was a passenger on this bus for a few times a week, going to Livadia either to do my shopping, go to the bank, or meet friends. And pretty much every time, something worth a story happened. By now, I have seen so many of them that I find them quite normal. But when for the first time the bus stopped in the middle of the road and the bus driver shouted something out of his window, and then a man appeared from his house and handed over a bag of fresh eggs, which was then passed around to some passenger who would take hold of it until we reached Livadia and the eggs were delivered to the shop - I couldnt help but try to imagine this in a bus in, say, London, Sydney or Berlin.
Of course, it has to do with the size of the population. So this might happen in a Scottish village. Yet, if you are on a bus in the Highlands - thats at least what producer Lindsay Goodall who hails from Scotland tells me - it is unlikely that in the course of a 15 minute journey, you hear the life story of the old widow sitting next to you, the village barber recites a poem of a national Nobel Prize laureate and you share the vehicle with passengers from at least four other countries.

Learning more and more about the island, I realized what an extraordinarily mixed community this actually is. Saeed, a refugee boy from Afghanistan whose story of arrival we follow in THE ISLAND BUS, was first one of the refugees. When Lindsay and cinematographer George Geddes were on Tilos for our first trailer shoot, we heard him being called 'the boy who came'. A few weeks later it was 'Saeed'. And now he is a familiar personality on Tilos. Same goes for the other characters of the film: Marta, Sveta, Menelaos and the ubiquitous driver Pavlos all have their own story.
This is what I find so beautiful about the place and the story of THE ISLAND BUS: it is human-sized. For every statistic, there is a name and a face.
So it was the combination of a small island and village life with the particular fault line that Tilos and Greece in general resides on. This has been the melting pot of populations from East and West, North and South for millennia. That is just what the Eastern Mediterranean is. In a way, Tilos and what happens here is a microcosm of contemporary events in Europe and the world - and the islands bus is a microcosm of life on Tilos.
Another inspiration was that I wanted to find other filmmakers to collaborate with - but with a topic that would attract only those who are on the same page as me. When producer Lindsay Goodall of Beau Films and I first swapped ideas about the project, it was clear very soon that she enjoyed the quirkiness of Tilos as much as I do. Same goes for our German co-producers Anja and Mike Dehghan of High5Films and cinematographer George Geddes who spent his holiday being stuck in between tripod, feta tins and a bunch of schoolkids. They were persuaded to collaborate on THE ISLAND BUS by the style of the documentary - and the island itself. Like so often on Tilos, things just started to fall into place. Local musicians recorded the island songs for us, composers Tom Mangano and DJ Badre took my ideas about the soundtrack and turned them into something unique and exciting, sound designer Ali Murray and colorist John Sackey took time out from their busy schedules to apply their talents because the 'virtual holiday' on Tilos was so very different to some of the other jobs they are usually offered, German artist Viola Welker created our poster design - all these wonderful people were charmed by the island and our story about it.

How would you describe the film?

As a warm-hearted, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes gentle observational documentary. It is crafted to feel a bit like an independent fiction film, there are only few interview scenes, but mostly you get taken right into the action of life on a tiny Greek island.
The film follows the bus and its journeys from morning till night and from Christmas until the height of the tourist season in summer, the festival of Agios Panteleimonas on 27 July. Along the way, you accompany Saeed as he is looking for a new home on Tilos and for people to call family.
I would say it is a coming-of-age-road-movie-observational-documentary - with some of the most eclectic music mix you will hear in a while.


How would you describe yourself as a film maker?

I make the kind of films I would like to watch myself. No one had made a documentary about Tilos like this - so obviously I had to make one. Because that is what I wanted to watch. I have a lovers approach to filmmaking: I fall deeply in love with the subject and then fight for it like only someone in that beautiful rage that is love can fight. That probably also means that I have a gentle approach to it. I like to laugh with my characters rather than about them.
To figure it all out and as a collection of resources for myself but also maybe for others who are thinking along similar lines, I have recently started a blog called The Happy Filmmaker (http://sibyllemeder.net/the-happy-filmmaker). I am searching for those aspects of life that we all know that bring us to a deeper understanding - or a deeper appreciation - of something. I like to focus on the positive - even in those situations and things that are usually perceived as negative. I like to search for what gets us beyond that. A quest for human resilience, maybe.
I have actually written a whole blog post (http://islandbus.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/i-fell-asleep-in-the-act-of-killing/) about what kind of film THE ISLAND BUS is and therefore what kind of filmmaker I am in response to watching THE ACT OF KILLING, one of the most celebrated documentaries of 2013 - which is a totally different film.

All that said, this is my first feature documentary. I am still starting out. Fortunately as directors, in most cases we dont even get close to being recognized before nearing retirement age. So I am really still a newby. Who knows what kind of filmmaker I become when I grow up!

How do you find living on Tilos?

Never a dull moment. I dont know what people mean when they ask me whether I dont get bored. Sometimes I crave a bit of boredom! If you want to, the social diary can take over your whole life. There are no such things as impersonal interactions - you just go to the shop to buy milk and are in the middle of a drama - or a party. 
But of course, the amount of events like theatre, cinema, nights out is still limited and the distractions can be reduced to what nature provides. So it can also be like an intensive work retreat if you organize your life that way: the lack of noise, advertising and general 'stuff' can leave you in that zone of intense focus on your work.
With the added bonus that as a workaholic you dont have to carve out some time to go to the countryside or to exercise. You just finish your work, step out the door and there it is: Nature. Can be squeezed in before dinner. That is a pretty healthy way of living - and working.
At the same time, you gotta love challenges. As you well know, for example we dont have an ATM since Christmas, so we need to go on a two hour ferry ride and stay overnight in a hotel - all this just to take out some cash. We only have a boat or two per week in winter that gets us to things like dentists, vets, supermarkets, an accountant or a shop where you can buy a computer cable. You might be told that something will happen 'tomorrow' and 7 years down the track, there is still no sign of it. So this makes you immensely resourceful.
I used to laugh about it, then get annoyed about it, now I am back to laughing - and make sure I enjoy that fantastic view that unfolds just outside my window. I never tire of that: there is this beautiful deep blue bay and only the sound of the waves clasping at the shore just outside my house. When you see and hear and smell that, it is pretty hard being annoyed for too long.
For all the complications, another upside is that some things can be really unbureaucratic and straightforward. When I approached the late mayor of Tilos, Tasos Aliferis, about support for THE ISLAND BUS, it took him about twenty seconds of thinking. 'You need an office with internet access? Why don't we just put a table for you into the KEP?', and so the local council supported the project in-kind. His successor, Maria Aliferi-Kamma, reacted in a similar way. Things aren't made more complicated than they need to be if there is a handy solution. At first, I had qualms about approaching some of the film's contributors, thinking they might be shy of the camera. Not so! As soon as I came forward, people wanted to help and enjoyed the project. Things started to happen that I hadn't thought possible when I first had the idea for the film, and because everyone knows how to be resourceful, maybe this was the best place to start a project like that.

What does the driver of the island bus think about the film?

Pavlos has always thought it was an excellent idea that I made THE ISLAND BUS. He wasnt too fond of being interviewed, but was more than happy to have me filming what was going on in his little kingdom time after time. He was happy to share all of his daily routine and at first thought it amusing that I took such an interest.
After a while we developed this collaboration where he would start co-directing. Just as much as I learned to know the bus timetable by heart, Pavlos started to make sure the radio was turned off when I wanted to record sound, drive slowly if he noticed we were filming out the window, initiate conversations with passengers and even stop by my office to tell me I should be on a specific trip for there would be so-and-so who I had wanted to film.
He loved the idea that he would turn up every so often in the film, like a recurring theme. At some stage I realized that he was going to be somewhere in the background in almost every scene, a bit like Hitchcock who always made a surprise appearance in his own films. After I told him that, we called each other Hitchcock for about 6 months.
Pavlos also appreciated Saeed becoming the main character of the film and he appreciated that I wanted to show the story of how this island community functions and absorbs someone new like Saeed into its network of people.
I have shown scenes of the film and the trailers while we were still filming and Pavlos usually laughed hardest at those scenes where he has a fit of anger about inconsiderate customers. When I had a screening of the finished film for all the main characters last winter, Pavloss only complaint was that I had cut the scene where he tosses a bag of bread two stories up to Sofia at the kafenion in Megalo Chorio. Seeing that I had made him delay that action for about 45 seconds until I was rolling camera, I guess he had a point.

When can we see it?

THE ISLAND BUS will be part of the Krakow Film Market screenings (26-30 May). The film has also been invited to another documentary festival and there will be a festival premiere this year (I cant give any more details at this point, but you can get timely updates about all screening events on THE ISLAND BUS blog (http://islandbus.wordpress.com) or our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Island-Bus/164216330266023?ref=br_rs), and we are planning more screenings at festivals and a Greek premiere at the Goethe Institute Athens in summer 2014. Visitors to Tilos will get the chance to watch it in an open-air cinema set up for the occasion on the island this summer and autumn.