Tonia Mishiali was born in Famagusta Cyprus. She graduated from The English School, Nicosia, a private English-speaking high school in Cyprus, and then moved to Oxford, UK, to study Hotel & Catering Management, only to find out that her true passion was Film. She therefore proceeded to achieving a BA in Media Production. After graduation, she moved back to Cyprus to start working as a director and producer and founded her own production company, Zipcode production&design. Tonia loves experimenting with different mediums. She has directed and produced for theatre, film and television in Cyprus and abroad. Her projects deal with a variety of subjects, but focus mostly on social and women’s issues. She has exhibited her work and participated in a number of national and international film and performance festivals. Tonia is one of the artistic directors of the Cyprus Film Days International Film Festival and has also served as vice president of the board of the Directors Guild of Cyprus.
Within the framework of the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film,” Tara Karajica talks to Tonia Mishiali about women in film and her striking debut feature, “Pause,” a blackly comedic drama about an overworked and repressed Cypriot housewife who, once she hits menopause, dreams of violent rebellion against her sexist husband.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Tonia Mishiali: I used to love films when I was a teenager, but never thought that I could study filmmaking and pursue it as a career. I come from a very small country and in the 90s, when I finished school, studying filmmaking was not common, or even an option. So I chose to study hotel and catering management, which I wanted to give up the minute I stepped my foot in the first class of University. But I didn’t. I stayed and finished the course, only I was taking filmmaking and photography classes during that whole time. That was my escape. It was then that I realized that the arts are more what express me as an individual. So I decided to study filmmaking. I was always very creative and a dreamer, so filmmaking helped me channel my creativity and my love for photography.
How did Pause come about?
T.M.: I have always been sensitive to women’s issues and equality, while I have been particularly interested in exploring the decadent relationships in marriage. I was inspired by images that were imprinted in my mind and events that I experienced growing up in Cyprus in a patriarchal society, watching the women around me living on the sidelines, with the main purpose of their lives of serving their spouse and children. I therefore wanted to make a film that is viewed through the prism of the complex and fascinating female nature, about the loss of one’s voice, the longing for love and unquenchable desires.
Can you talk about the title?
T.M.: PAUSE means a lot of things. Apart from the fact that it derives from MENOPAUSE, which is a crucial stage in my protagonist’s life, it is a word with many meanings for Elpida. Elpida needs a pause in her life. A pause will allow her to stop in time, to pause for a while and think. A pause will help her question things and give her a boost to start again. She might find the way to start again, maybe from the beginning, maybe from another path. But a pause is necessary so that she can question her being and try to make her life better.
Pause is an extremely raw, complex and realistic portrait of many Greek and Cypriot (decadent relationships) in marriages and families where patriarchy is still dominant. Why was it important to put your protagonist in this particular context?
T.M.: My protagonist was created from my need to show the position of many women in our society and how they deal with patriarchy. I believe, unfortunately, that women have been raised not to have much courage, inner strength and power to talk about how they feel and what they really want. They have been raised and taught how to please their families, be caretakers of the household and their children, but have the man be the head of the family and make all the important decisions. And this model has been going on for generations. Some countries have evolved but some have not evolved at all. This passivity by women is something that has been bothering me so much that I wanted to show the reality of the everyday lives of these women, and enter their true inner worlds. Elpida was inspired by women in my family, in my neighborhood, around me. She is my grandmother, my aunt, my mother, my cousin, my neighbor, my friend…
Your focus never shifts from the main character and the film is viewed through the prism of the complex and fascinating female nature against the loss of one’s voice, the longing for love and one’s desires. Can you elaborate on these particular choices?
T.M.: Having the focus always set on the main character was the only way, for me, to try and make the audience understand her. It was a very conscious decision to use a handheld camera so that it would move as an extension of the main character. The camera wouldn’t move unless the protagonist moved and “dragged” the camera behind her, or move with her. The audience would only see what she sees, and feel only what she feels. This way, I wanted to make the audience immerse themselves into her inner world and really get into her shoes. At a time when women in Cinema are misrepresented, I wanted this film to depict a female character that is very much real, with her insecurities and desires, and this was the way to do this.
Elpida finally finds the time to take care of herself when she goes to her gynecologist. What does this mean for her as a woman?
T.M.: It is very important for her and for all women out there to take care of themselves and their health. It’s important to make time for themselves, to do things that please them and make them happy.
How do you see Elpida? How did you construct her character?
T.M.: Elpida is so weak that she can only escape through her imagination. In her fantasy world she finds love, lust, passion, courage and strength, everything she cannot find in reality. And she lives these fantasies so intensely that she herself can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. She lost her sense of judgment and her feelings are in a state of limbo. Her character was constructed this way while I was trying to find a way for her to revolt while not actually doing so. It was crucial for me to show a character that was reflected from the real Elpidas in the world, who are not strong enough to change their lives.
Elpida means “hope” in Greek. Is it a message to all the women in her situation that there is hope and that things will get better in the end? That they can be the kinds of women they have always wanted to be?
T.M.: Elpida’s story is a cautionary tale. I just wish that she, as with all suppressed women in real life, would just open the door and leave, without having to go through all this. There is definitely hope that women can be who they always wanted to be, but a lot of effort, strength and self-confidence is required.
Your works focus on social and women’s issues. Why?
T.M.: My work deals with issues that bother me. Through my films, I express my sensitivity on the issues of patriarchy and the position of women in society. All the stories I deal with are very personal. This came about subconsciously. Once I have made the films, I realized that I have been doing self-therapy!
Pause offers the much needed voice that (too) many women yearn and fight for. What impact do you think it will have on women everywhere, but more specifically on the Greek and Cypriot societies?
T.M.: Elpida is passive and submissive, but still carries within her hope and freedom. I believe – and hope – that all suppressed women will see themselves in Elpida (or parts of Elpida) and realize that it is time to make their revolution. It is time to talk. They don’t have to use revenge or punish bad behaviors by their husbands as in the case of Elpida. For Elpida, because of the nature of her situation and because society has been enduring and accepting behaviors similar to that of Costas’, the violent fantasies was her only way out. Elpida’s story is not an example to follow. These women just need to search deep in themselves and find what they really want and then go for it. They need to find their voice, the strength and confidence to do what makes them feel happy.
In that sense, how important was it to release this particular film in the midst of the third wave of feminism that we are witnessing today and the fight for gender equality in film but also in general?
T.M.: I told the story I needed to tell when it felt right for me. It just happened that the film was released during the fight for gender equality in film. I don’t know if the timing was right because this subject, even though it is hot at the moment, is also scary for many people, both men and women. But it is very important for me that this female-centric story told from a completely female-centric POV is out there now. And it deals with a theme that is rarely seen on film, as it addresses issues of patriarchy from a woman’s perspective – both in front of and behind the camera.
Women in film worldwide, on both sides of the camera, have not been supported as much as men. The #metoo movement has made a start, but we still have a long way to go. This is just the beginning.
How do you think the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Women in Film” will impact your career, your visibility and the promotion of European female film talent in Australia?
T.M.: Sydney is a prestigious festival and I am thrilled to be part of it. The European Film Promotion is a great network and now I am part of the family. As the “Europe! Voices of Women in Film” program recognizes works by “Europe’s most exciting women directors,” this in itself is quite big. My work will hopefully be noticed by the press and Australia’s film industry, and you never know! Since I am always looking for good collaborators – scriptwriters, producers, crew – maybe something good might come out of this!
Talking about women in film, there has been a lot of talk about their situation for the past year and a half. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in Cyprus?
T.M.: Women in film worldwide, on both sides of the camera, have not been supported as much as men. The #metoo movement has made a start, but we still have a long way to go. This is just the beginning. In Cyprus, there are people, both men and women, who claim that such movements are degrading. I believe that these men would have felt differently if they felt what it is like being a woman in our society. As for the women, they are simply ignorant, scared or in denial.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
T.M.: I don’t like putting labels on myself or other people. If you are asking if I believe in equality, yes I do and I support it 100%. And it bothers me to see people treating other people unequally. And in my films, I deal with issues that bother me.
What was the best advice you were given?
T.M.: Trust your instinct – a piece of advice I give myself everyday.
How do you combine your career as a filmmaker with that of co-artistic director of the Cyprus Film Days International Festival? How do they complement each other?
T.M.: I like juggling between the two. Thankfully, I am co-artistic director with two others, so we split the work. But I love watching films, which is part of the job, and meeting other filmmakers and industry people. Plus, I travel a lot. All these benefit my work as a filmmaker too.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
T.M.: Hmmm… Oh my! I have a lot of favorites. I love Lynne Ramsay, Claire Denis, Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, Andrea Arnold, Sofia Coppola, Catherine Breillat and not necessarily in this order. Favorite film? Again – I have many… Lost in Translation, Fat Girl, Chocolat, Fish Tank and so many more….
What are your next projects?
T.M.: I am co-writing two features, which I hope to direct in the next few years. But, of course, I am open to working outside of Cyprus and directing scripts by other scriptwriters. I am also developing a TV series with my close collaborator Stelana Kliris.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: