Behind the Haystacks

May 15, 2024
Dimitris Passas

Contemporary Greek filmmakers have always been fascinated with what happens behind the closed doors of the average family home, focusing on the complex dynamics that develop within the familial bubble. In a way this can be read as an attempt to explain and reflect the radical changes that swept the country during the last 15 years, more specifically since 2010 and the country's bankruptcy. The characters in the contemporary Greek productions suffer the ramifications of greater socio-political changes and they are transformed into entirely different persons, often acting bizarre and adnormal, having lost the fundamental traits that make them human. In her feature film debut, Asimina Proedrou, the director and sole screenwriter, visually narrates the dejected story of three people living near the Greek-North Macedonian border who are caught in the intricate web of a nefarious criminal scheme amid the refugee crisis of 2015. Even though Proedrou's directorial perspective is socially aware, it is evident from the beginning that those issues serve chiefly as the backdrop of the main storyline that revolves around the lives of three people, members of the same family.

The communal and the subjective are interconnected in a universe where the protagonists operate as symbols, diachronic and representative of the moral ambiguity which has marked human behavior since time immemorial. Witnessing the three sub-stories, the audience can understand something critical regarding the modern human condition. In an interview that she gave to Variety, Proedrou said: “The film is an exploration about where our modern societies are being led to and why, and about the way human relationships collapse within these societies. Behind the Haystacks is a family drama in three acts as Proedrou divides her narrative into three interdependent parts, each told through the viewpoint of each one of the main characters. This structural idiosyncrasy attributes a thriller-like quality to the film that recalls classic films such as Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. Each new chapter fills the blanks which have been left from the previous one and the plot runs a full cycle with the finale returning and colliding with the film's opening.

Stergios (Stathis Stamoulakatos) is the middle-aged, heavyset patriarch who is married to Maria (Eleni Ouzounidou, a woman of faith who has invested her hopes for better days in God and metaphysics. Stergios and Maria's daughter, Anastasia (Eugenia Lavda), is a rebellious spirit who feels suffocated in her hometown's dreariness and struggles to achieve some form of emancipation by chasing her dream to become a singer. Stergios is a fisherman who is working long hours to make ends meet and provide for his family. But things become more complicated when he is summoned by the financial police to provide an explanation concerning false invoices in his name. Desperate, Stergios asks his brother-in-law, Dimitris (Paschalis Tsarouchas), to help and the latter offers Stergios a job that would earn him some quick cash. He will be smuggling Syrian immigrants across the Doiran lake at nighttime. Forced by his predicament, Stergios agrees and seals his fate forever. An accident that claims the lives of several refugees will be added to the volatile mix of the protagonist's life, and the repercussions will leave nobody unscathed.

The story reveals its secrets gradually with Proedrou capitalizing on the film's multi-faceted format that allows ample room for small twists and each tiny piece of the overall jigsaw puzzle falls into place in the end. Stamoulakatos, a veteran thespian who made his silver screen debut in Yannis Economides's 2010 Knifer, delivers once again a spectacular performance in the difficult role of Stergios, a character who rides for a great fall, compelled by force majeure. The Greek actor knows how to portray a torn protagonist and his success earned him the Hellenic Film Academy award for Best Actor in 2023. Eleni Ouzounidou is equally impressive in her nuanced depiction of Maria, a woman carrying an enormous amount of guilt, chiefly derived from the knowledge that in reality she is not as good a Christian as she wants to believe. Young Eugenia Lavda leaves many promises for the future in her inaugural cinematic role of Anastasia. Her character balances precariously between the strict line that separates her lifeless everyday reality from her aspired one, that remains a secret never to be told to her parents.

Anastasia can be perceived as the most redeeming character in a story that is brimming with dimness and desolation until the finale which can be interpreted in various ways. Perhaps Proedrou is hinting at something akin to hope and trust in a better future for all the broken people out there. The collaboration between Proedrou and the cinematographer Simos Sakertzis proved to be exemplary and Sakertzis seems to have entirely grasped the director's intentions in terms of mood and tone, employing various distinctive shooting techniques, hand-held camera being one of them, while insisting on close-ups on the faces of the three main characters. Due to the cast's impeccable work, the audience can discern the protagonists' inner strife and suppressed emotions as the subtle nuances of the characterization shine through Proedrou's dramatic screenplay.

The dialogue is plausible and not even a word feels out of place. The film's creator exposes the ugly truth that we all know is right there, thinly concealed by a counterfeit facade. The truth lies behind appearances, that's the most important message that the film carries. People are often entangled in rigged games where the stronger hold all the cards and the weak stand to lose everything. Proedrou's approach is measured and mature and the lyrical undertones further embellish the rewarding watching experience. It should be noted that Behind the Haystacks won several prestigious awards such as the Thessaloniki Film Festival and with that outing, Proedrou asserted herself as a name to be remembered in the international cinematic cycles. However, the most precious accolade for the film was its submission for consideration as Best International Feature for the 96th Academy Awards. The movie is resistant to any genre categorization and will attract the interest of the arthouse film fans as well.

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