Animal's instincts

Sofia Exarchou on capitalism, identity and performance in her latest film

by Amber Wilkinson

Sofia Exarchou’s Animal considers the lives of entertainment “animateurs” at a Greek all-inclusive resort. Their job is to keep the holidaymakers happy with a mixture of singing, dancing and flirtation. It’s an environment that Kalia (Dimitra Vlagopoulou) is all too familiar with as she’s been working at the hotel for years. Eva (Flomaria Papadaki), meanwhile is new to the experience. Over the course of the summer the two women begin to form a bond as Kalia starts to question her life. Director Exarchou, questions the capitalist model that drives this sort of entertainment, while also interrogating the nature of performance in general.

Speaking about the film ahead of its premiere in Locarno, she says it was the product of years of research.

“The starting point was that after my previous film I wanted to make a movie about workers, about labour, about the working system in capitalism in Western Europe, but also in general. Pretty soon after this decision, I knew that the tourist industry would be the system that I wanted to explore. Because I'm Greek, I really know how it works and I also saw through the decades the explosion of this field here. It's the major income of our country. It made it more interesting when I decided that it will not just be employees in a hotel, but the animateurs because then I found a second subject I was really interested in exploring - what entertainment means today and how important entertainment is for the survival of capitalism and how it plays out and how it works. And, of course, because I'm also a director, I felt there were quite interesting connections between my work and the animateurs, and what performance means.”

As part of Exarchou’s research she went to hotels and watched the shows of animateurs, as well as watching many YouTube videos on the subject because she says she wanted “to have the realism in my mind”.

She adds: “It was interesting to present a universe that on the surface has something really glossy and in the mind of the majority of the viewers, it's something happy. It has fun and music and it is the moment that we enjoy when we go for holiday. I wanted to explore the other side of it so for me it was interesting to create this contradiction and confront the viewer with this idea.”

Sofia Exarchou on Greece: 'We're still so strongly attached to our past and that creates huge problems in our identity today'
Sofia Exarchou on Greece: 'We're still so strongly attached to our past and that creates huge problems in our identity today' Photo: Courtesy of Locaron
The film presents three key female characters. Old hand Kalia and newcomer Eva as well as a young girl, Mary. Although they are distinctive characters, they could also be viewed as three incarnations of the same character at different stages of their lives. Exarchou says that she was aiming for exactly that resonance when she wrote the script.

“From the very beginning I had the idea that I'm going to use three female characters in order to represent different points of view. But at the same time, to arrive at the end of the film, and maybe the viewer has this feeling that they watched the same story in three different moments in time. So in a way, Eva and Mary, serve as backstories of Kalia, as possible backstories of her life. At the same time, of course, I want you to have separate clear journeys, and also these journeys to be related. Kalia has been there forever so she almost cannot distinguish her real character from the character she's playing every night because she is so much into this world and she has to make the journey of realisation inside the film. The opposite is Eva, who has just arrived, she knows nothing, so she starts understanding thos universe and wants to be accepted, wants to integrate in the system.”

I note that the young girl has a tragic element to her story because she is growing up fully immersed in this world.

Exarchou says: “She’s an innocent character. So it can create a tranquility to see this innocence existing in this place, but at the same time, she was actually born inside this universe, so it’s the only world she knows, that’s already quite sad.”

When it comes to exploring capitalism, she adds that the no matter what happens to the animators they have to “keep the energy alive, the show must go on".

But she adds: “At the same time, any kind of work is, for me, somewhere you have to put a costume, have to deliver every day, I have to smile to the CEO or the manager. Apart from that, for the animators, it's actually real, they have to put on a costume, put on the make-up and they have to actually smile like a clown in order to make other people smile. But I think the structure of the working system has the same kind of rules.”

Exarchou also agrees that in both Animal and her first film Park, she shows an interest in isolation. She adds: “I think the difference between Park and Animal is that in Park, they were completely isolated all the time. Here, the difference is like day and night. All day, they're among people, among big crowds, and then in the evening, they are alone. So there is this constant contradiction of these two worlds and they have to constantly be in both of them.”

When it comes down to performance, it isn’t just Kalia and Eva who are putting on a show, even the tourists are playing a role of sorts. And at one point, it’s as though Kalia even tries to take a holiday from her own life.

Exarchou says: :”Everybody has to perform. One of my favorite line lines in the script, is this woman that goes to sing, Johanna, from Germany, as she goes up, she says, 'I want to sing the song for my husband, how much in love we are and for our dog' This is, again, the performance of trying to convince yourself of something.”

The film also offers a barbed commentary on Greece and its attachment to the past as we see a visit to some rundown statues of goddesses, a sort of Disneyfication of history for the tourists. As if the country of Greece itself is putting on a performance of sorts.

“For sure,” says Exarchou. “It's something I love to talk about, because I have huge problems with how modern Greek people are. We're still so strongly attached to our past and that creates huge problems in our identity today. The culture that we merchandise, it is part of what we have to do to exist. Specifically for Greece, it’s the issue of identity. All of this connection with our past doesn't allow us to deal with our present time, and to work on that.

Exarchou had worked previously with Vlagopoulou on Park and was also grateful that the actress was also a trained dancer. “I knew that I had to bring dancers and performers in the film, because I knew that the shows would have big demands. I also knew that the dancers will help the actors with the connection with the body and those aspects, and that the actors will help the dancers when we start doing the acting scenes. I knew also from the beginning that I wanted them to have the feeling of a modern circus. So meaning who is the funny one? Who is the strong one? Who is the sexy one? All of these different characters.”

The preparation for the film - which was shot on Crete - involved two months of improvisation with the cast. “I really believe that through time the relationship builds between them”.

In addition to the cast, music was also vital with Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie having a pivotal role in the film and it was something that Exarchou admits finding hard to tackle initially.

“When I was writing the script, I never wanted to deal with this question, because I was really afraid of it,” she admits. “I knew how important the song was and how, in a way it could be symbolic but also important for the actress to deliver the scene and stuff. So I always didn't want to face this question - what will be the song? And then at one point, the producer asked me to make a list of all the songs of the film. The main anxiety was always the song. So I was searching, searching a lot. When I ended up in Boogie, from the beginning, I had a strong intuition about it, because of its lines, the energy and it also had a female dynamic. I could imagine the character singing the song and actually being able to deliver on these emotions. But I had some other songs in mind, I ended up with five or six, I shared my songs with Dimitra. I said, ‘I want for you to be able to relate emotionally because you're going to sing it and sing it again’. She was also, from the very beginning, for Yes sir, I Can Boogie.

“What I didn’t expect was that this song would become the song of the whole crew. It was so many hours of shooting and so crazy. So yes, sir, I can Boogie became the song of the crew, that we can boogie on.”

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