Selected for the Panorama strand of the Berlinale, THE MIRACLE OF THE SARGASSO SEA is a twisted new drama from Greek director Syllas Tzomerkas of A BLAST (2014) and HOMELAND (2010). Elle Haywood caught up with Syllas at Berlinale to delve into the gritty details of the film and his vision.
Elle: Firstly, Congratulations for being selected for the Panorama strand, there’s been quite a bit of buzz surrounding the film and it’s been an immersive collection of films. How do you feel being selected for the festival?
Syllas: Thank you, it feels really fun and really exciting for us as its the ending of one part and the beginning of another – it’s very cool. The reception and premiere was great and very happy with the reception so far.
Elle: So to begin, the film is distorting, beautifully crafted and intense in its own right, plus having quite a unique storyline – what gave you the inspiration to start this project?
Syllas: Of course, the initial inspiration came from the eel story that is in the film. As it goes, when the eels reach sexual maturity they travel from the land and they transform into a sea creature, from a land and swamp creature, they turn into something new. Their whole body changes, they go all the way to the Sargasso Sea where they breed and they die. We found this story, and the idea of transformation and this idea of a call to change surroundings quite inspiring. Then we started to create this piece with two very intense women that would go through something like that as a process. This is where it all started.
Elle: Did you intend for the women to initially be so intense, and have such a tortured-soul aspect to them, or did this begin to develop more organically over the filming and writing process?
Syllas: I very much like having strong characters, and especially with these two women, we really wanted to have them 3D. For me it’s a different matter as sometimes the easiest thing to do is create these female characters that can be more easily sympathetic. We don’t care at all about that, we wanted to create women who can be aggressive, vulnerable, depressive. This for me gives me joy – by having this whole spectrum of emotion. Notably, these are also two very violent characters.
Elle: Obviously their relationship throughout the film is quite tumultuous, and become quit dismissive at times before finding this mutual bond as the film progresses, yet still not close. But does this form out of shared trauma more than finding solace?
Syllas: That’s the thing, the film constructs a dream space where the subconscious wades in and wades out as the film progresses, and this is a shared space also. This subconscious space moves from one female character to the other although they don’t know each other – which makes it quite a miraculous situation. This creates an instability within the film and within the characters. But I really wanted to have this kind of feeling that you are within a dream. So the idea was that we didn’t want the usual ‘we meet, we like, we help’ situation, that wasn’t want we wanted to do. We wanted to actually connect this to women through more abstract notions, almost psychic notions. These two women are both put down very violently, one in their community and the other within their profession in the beginning of the film, and they are also hurt by very patriarchal figures from the police chief to the terrible brother. And however they can, these two women will keep their inner strength from self-destruction, and then have a certain call to come and reclaim their lives.
“We wanted to actually connect this to women through more abstract notions, almost psychic notions.”
Elle: That’s a very positive way to put it. What I find so distorting is that their personal and professional lives are so dramatically intertwined with each other – there is no escape there.
Syllas: Yes, it’s very much like that, it’s a stuck environment, a swampy environment. With one working at the fish hatchery and after then cleaning at the church, and the other one is there left in the local police station where nothing ever happens. Also she has to put up with the stronger men in the local community.
Elle: I feel like you’ve constructed it in a way that you don’t necessarily feel sympathy for them in a a pitiful way, moreover you want them to keep going and fight back against their situation. This is quite an important notion in the film in the way that you portray these women in an empowering way.
Syllas: Thank you for saying that, because we had to struggle a lot there in that we were all on the same page in that we did not want to create this victimized portraits – it was the opposite. Even though terrible things happen to these women, we never wanted to play the victim card in the film and we make sure they don’t.
Elle: Did you intend to have the juxtaposition between the biblical references and the sinful elements of the film such as the drugs and group sex in terms of dynamic comparison or linking?
Syllas: Of course we intended on this dynamic, I definitely think the film plays on conflicting ideas of paradise, all characters have different images of paradise inside them. So there is a sexual paradise in the film and a religious paradise, then there is a paradise that comes from struggling for your freedom. But also sometimes simply nature, that gives a glimpse of paradise and then takes it away in a second which happens a lot in the film. In nature, escape is just like that. The idea is that we created this notion of sexuality and of faith, that come together to create this conflicting paradise. I think that one of the reasons violence occurs so much in the film is that some characters cannot put up with the fact that their paradise is lost. Because these things don’t last long in our lives. The other struggle is towards the future. They want to obtain a paradise that is very far away, they have to fight a lot.
I definitely think the film plays on conflicting ideas of paradise, all characters have different images of paradise inside them.
Elle: In terms of the fighting scene in the street and the scenes within the barn, those are very intense scenarios to film in terms of physicality and dialogue – how was that when working with the actors? Because that requires quite a lot of trust.
Syllas: I have tremendous collaborations with these actors, I know them from theatre, and of course we have worked in other films together. I think that this trust is definitely needed. You have to be on the same page if you need to take things a bit far. In this film, the dedication was unique from everyone involved, but that also makes it very fun to create. The film is a bit bleak, but this was a happy shooting, because we in nature a lot of the time which made it very adventurous. And the characters, all of the small community, were really going for it – to go further, to find something further – they were very bold.
Elle: So did this then require a lot of pre-planning and talk through so that you all aligned?
Syllas: Yes, very much so. Being an actor myself – that was also important in understanding the process. You have to create an environment where everyone feels safe, everyone feels like they can create – you need to also coordinate. Especially during violent sequences because the more realistic you want to be with stuff, then the more careful you have to be.
Elle: For you, how did this piece compare to your previous films, and what do you hope to do next?
Syllas: The differences were mainly that the other films were more drama, and more obviously political in a way – far more in your face. In this film, the political is a little more behind, its there but much more in the swamp perhaps! I love horror films and thriller films, and I could play a lot with this in twisting the genres and mixing them – it a very playful film stylistically. It’s not compact in a sense. For now, I’ll be following this film, but next I want to do my new film about men. This is a new thing for me as it’ll be the first film I do where I have male leads. I’ll approach it in the same manner, it’ll be interesting however. But more on that when the time comes!