Interview by Sotiris Bekas
A musical instrument emerging from the depths of a very ancient musical tradition. A journey that seemed to have been forgotten. Its traces erased. “The Journey of Askavlos” by Yorgos Arvanitis unveils the history of a musical instrument whose melodic thread stretches into the depths of the ages and is shrouded in mystery. However, in another dimension, it contributes to the revival of circular dances and turns the research spotlight onto its contemporary resurgence, even in urban environments. “Askavlos” is a captivating journey through the spacetime of Greek history, and its creator, Yorgos Arvanitis, explains the process.
What was the motivation and journey of “Askavlos”?
When I started this documentary, I was looking for a project for my cinematic debut. In film school, I drew inspiration from various personalities like John Cassavetes, who was a pioneer of independent cinema in America. He worked with handheld cameras and friends who were actors, even mortgaging his own house to make the films he believed in. Similarly, I was inspired by documentary filmmakers such as Albert Maysles, Don A. Pennebaker, and Werner Herzog. What fascinated me about documentaries is that you suddenly find yourself in a different corner of the world, with the opportunity to discover something new. A culture, a community, or an entirely new topic. That’s how this world, the story of “Askavlos,” was revealed to me (introduced to me by my good friend and musician, Giannis Pantazis). It was an unknown story unfolding before me, something about Greece that I had never seen. The tsambouna, as an instrument, is not very widespread in Greece, only in local areas. I was impressed by the instrument’s primitive nature, so similar to what it was thousands of years ago. It could be the same instrument mentioned by Aristophanes as “Phisalis.” The ancient nature of the instrument, the fact that tsambouna players still play it in a similar way as thousands of years ago, the Dionysian nature of the festivities with circular dances, the communication between the tsambouna players and those dancing, or those composing a mantinada (a traditional poetic form) – all of this was a tremendous motivation for me. It was perhaps even destiny for me to be there; I felt it as a duty to document and pass on this cultural heritage. We also have a responsibility to future generations to record and preserve. I believe this is the role of documentary filmmakers – to record what is happening in their time and pass it on.
What do you consider the main findings of the film?
First and foremost, I had the privilege of meeting enchanting and authentic individuals. I attribute this to fortunate circumstances. Having the opportunity to record and get to know these elderly tsambouna players who came from the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, and every corner of Greece where this instrument is played, whether it’s called tsambouna or gaida. Also, getting to know this tradition, which was unknown to me. The fact that the islands are connected through these songs, and the uniqueness of each island in how the tsambouna is played, the festivities, and how they evolve. I feel lucky to have experienced this tradition. I’m grateful for the journeys I undertook, to places like Naxos and its mountainous areas, Santorini, which still holds many corners with a mystical atmosphere. There, the tradition still exists, but it’s buried under the tourist veil. Like in Ikaria, with its incredible tradition and people. The entire Aegean, from one end to the other, feels like an endless celebration on a ship, just like in the film.
Also, during the 10-year filming period, we had the opportunity to capture moments that were magical, which we later referred to in the editing process as “divine influence.” For instance, in Naxos, while we were recording an ancient temple of Dimitra, which was a rural monument, a storm with thunder and lightning began on the horizon. According to mythology, Naxos is the island where Zeus sought refuge during his childhood to protect himself from the Titans. So, there’s this atmosphere of mystery. In one of the early scenes of the film, when Giannis (Pantazis) was playing the tsambouna before we entered the cave of Zas, a cloud gradually covered the scene and cast a shadow over everything. It was a very emotionally charged moment for Giannis, who seemed dizzy after finishing his improvisation. When we saw it in the editing, we thought that it might be Zeus himself (Zas) coming out to see who was playing, considering we were in front of his cave. We encountered many such incidents with a metaphysical touch, like signs. We tried to use these details as small but decisive touches. We didn’t want to overemphasize references to ancient times to avoid becoming too clichéd, but they exist discreetly within the documentary.
What were the most significant challenges that arose during filming?
The difficulties were related to funding. I am very proud that this documentary was completed. In the beginning, I was an idealist, as it was my first feature-length film with a unique theme, and I believed someone would definitely fund it. I underestimated the process of finding financial resources, the timeline, the editing process, and where the film would ultimately go. All I had in mind was how to start the film, and I did it all by myself, influenced by Cassavetes. This specific documentary was made with a very low budget because it was funded from my own resources. When it was completed, it was submitted and supported by the Greek Film Center in its integrated film program. Of course, our role was also to preserve a tradition. That’s what I wanted to do, not just simple documentation. That’s why I took it a step further, especially regarding how this tradition permeates the modern music scene. I would like to mention that I was not the only one responsible for completing the film, but also other collaborators, especially Chronis Theoharis, who is a very experienced film editor, passionate about Greek documentaries, and has made a significant contribution to the new wave of filmmakers. Without him, I couldn’t have made the film. Recordings alone are not enough; the story matters too. I learned a lot from Chronis, and I consider him one of my mentors, especially regarding creative editing. After discussions and his suggestions, I did additional shooting, especially in connection with the contemporary music scene and in the end with the gathering of all the musicians at Philopappou, where we see how the revival has taken place, and all the young people are playing music and dancing in an urban environment.
Will Askavlos’s journey continue?
I believe that the journey never ends. It started from ancient times and continues to our days. It continues because this is a sound color that should not disappear from Greek tradition, as it has been preserved for a very long time. I believe it now connects with the contemporary music scene and inspires young people to use it. I see great enthusiasm for the tsambouna. The journey definitely continues!
What was the most personal motivation for this work?
What motivated me to make this film was a personal passion to highlight this revival effort, but also the passion that exists in the characters of the documentary themselves, how much they wanted this revival. They embraced me as their family, and I couldn’t disappoint them. That’s why I want to continue, to explore my own limits as a person and as a filmmaker. That’s why I’m interested in human stories with a universal meaning.
Yorgos Arvanitis was born in 1978. After studying Business Administration in Larissa, he attended seminars by Wim Wenders and Fatih Akin at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg. He gained valuable experience during his internship in directing alongside Fatih Akin in the film “Head On.” He has worked as an assistant director in short films and has written, directed, and produced short films and documentaries. “The Journey of Askavlos” is his first feature-length documentary. This independent production took ten years to complete and was entirely self-financed.
“The Journey of Askavlos” On Vimeo
Director: Yorgos Arvanitis
Screenplay: Yorgos Arvanitis
Cinematography: Zoi Dalaina, Markus Haaser
Editing: Chronis Theocharis
Sound: Söhnke Strohhark, Thodoris Babouris, Vasilis Athanassas, Anastasios Karadedos
Producers: Yorgos Arvanitis
Production Country: Greece
Production Year: 2020
Contact: qoppa film productions, Yorgos Arvanitis