Marianna Economou studied Anthropology, Photojournalism and Film Production in London. She has been directing and producing feature documentaries and documentary series for Greek Television since 2000. Her films have screened at many international festivals. “The School,” “My Place in the Dance,” “Please Listen to Me,” “Bells, Threads and Miracles,” “Sfaktirias Street” and “Food for Love” all received awards as well as “The Longest Run” that was also nominated for the European Film Award in 2016.
Within the framework of the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film,” Tara Karajica talks to Marianna Economou about women in film and her latest film, the engaging and funny documentary, “When Tomatoes Met Wagner,” about a community trying to survive austerity and revive commerce in their tiny Greek village, by marketing their organic tomato goods as trendy delicacies.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Marianna Economou: It was a combination of different things. My love for photography from a very young age, my strong curiosity and interest in people and different ways of life, my travels and my studies in Anthropology. Documentary filmmaking is, for me, a means to discover, experience and question the world.
How did When Tomatoes Met Wagner come about?
M.E.: I went to the village and met Alexander and the women about ten years ago when I was looking for a local story on food production for a Greek TV documentary. The documentary was completed, but I couldn’t stop going back. I felt there was something very special and unexpected about this place and these people that touched upon the personal and the universal. It was extraordinary how in a dying farming village in central Greece, two cousins and five elderly women, decide to “meet” the international food markets, and how, with some help from Richard Wagner, Christopher Columbus and the local nymphs, actually manage to conquer the world with their handmade tomato recipes! I was attracted to their personalities, their passion, their humor and their ability to accommodate in their harsh daily life a poetic view of the world. Their story was real and surreal and at the same time exposed the alarming situation of agriculture and small farming communities on a global level. Once I realized that this was a multilayered story with such charismatic characters, When Tomatoes Met Wagner was born.
Can you talk about the title?
M.E.: One day, I was shooting Alexander and his cousin Christos walking along the fields, when Christos totally unexpectedly said that they should play Wagner to the tomatoes in order to increase the yield. The camera almost dropped out of my hands from the surreal statement and, of course, that scene provided a title on a plate.
When Tomatoes Met Wagner is a film about rural revitalization, the reinvention of oneself in difficult times, living in harmony and the power of human relationships, especially in this trans-generational team. How did you find all these subjects in this particularly idiosyncratic topic? How did you glue them together?
M.E.: From the very beginning, I knew I didn’t want to make a film about the production of an organic tomato in a Greek village only. What had inspired me and made me go back again and again was their special view of the world, their unique way of doing things, their strong relationships and their daring. They provided a remarkable example of how important it is to be open to the challenges of life and to be ready to reinvent oneself in order to find solutions. The gluing took place during the editing process which was lengthy, creative and at times painful.
Your film also tackles the economic and social aspect of organic horticulture and the fact that it cannot compete with mass production due to cost-effectiveness. Can you elaborate on that?
M.E.: This is the global issue addressed in the film. How can small agrarian communities and organic productions that use local seeds, survive and compete with the large scale industrialized food productions and markets? Small organic productions are labor intensive, which means that the cost is high. Also, it is very difficult for local farmers to create a bridge with the international food markets, as they don’t have the know how or enough produce. What I found hopeful, though, through the making of this film, is that consumer interest in local organic foods is rising. More and more people, especially in northern Europe, want to know where their food comes from and what methods have been used for its cultivation. What I also found interesting is that, as the small team in Ilias is using stories and myths in order to give meaning and importance to their lives and their products, in a similar way, international food markets also need stories in order to market their products. In that sense, storytelling could easily become the key meeting point between the two ends of the food chain!
You manage to honestly portray your protagonists. What was your method?
M.E.: I spent lots of time with them, I listened to their stories and their concerns, I participated in their everyday routines, we laughed and shared things, we trusted each other and soon, the camera was not a problem any more. I tried to be there when things were happening.
You also succeed in finding a balance between the personal and the general, between the local and the universal in your film. Can you talk about that?
M.E.: I am always interested in this dialogue in my films and, for me, it is a great challenge how a small local story can have universal relevance and address global issues. I deeply believe that we all share a common basis that unites us as people and constitutes the springboard from which we can start to accept and incorporate our differences. In this film, for example, what is universal is the role of myths in our lives and the power of human relationships. I use personal stories in order to talk about universal issues, because I believe that people need to feel some kind of empathy, an emotional engagement, in order to open up to new information and ideas or be able to question things.
You are one of the cinematographers on the film. Can you talk about this choice that gives an even more personal touch to the film?
M.E.: It is essential for me to also be the cinematographer in my films because this helps me build more direct personal relationships with the protagonists. I make films because I want to get close to people, to feel them, and understand them. I spend long hours listening and observing them. I need to be discreet, flexible and mobile. When I feel I have established trust and confidence, I may bring in another cinematographer as well.
The women portrayed in your film are very interesting characters, almost your typical grandmother who cooks and exchanges recipes with her friends, but also very courageous, open and resilient women. I am curious to know how you see them?
M.E.: I admire them greatly. They are women who have not been given any chance in their lives, who have always worked very hard and have been assigned a specific role in society and yet they are not bitter; they have tremendous sense of humor, wisdom and a special attitude to life that allows them – more than men – to look beyond the narrow confines of their plain. Through Alexandros, they came into contact with different people and nationalities, they listened to new ideas and they felt that their work is worthy. They are strong, grounded to the earth and the cycle of nature, but also ready to take off and explore the world at any time!
I believe that the misrepresentation of women in film and the gender injustices are part of a multifaceted issue that regards the whole of society and has to do with traditional attitudes, cultural norms, religion, education…
What was the best advice you were given?
M.E.: From my parents, to listen to my heart and not get discouraged by difficulties. From my editor, to be able to lose in order to gain. From Alexander, the protagonist of the film, to not be afraid to transcend inner and outer boundaries.
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?
M.E.: I can’t really tell. I feel greatly honored to be selected by the European Film Promotion and I am looking forward to meeting the other filmmakers, sharing experiences and opening up to new collaborations.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in Film for the past year and a half. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in Greece?
M.E.: I remember three years ago, at DocLeipzig, the jury’s statement about my awarded film, The Longest Run: “Yes, there are women, indeed, who shoot long documentaries – and masterly as well. We have found one of them.…”. I was really astonished. I couldn’t understand why make such a point about the fact that I am a woman. I have always felt that whatever I gain – financial support or awards or participation in festivals, etc. – is based on the quality of my work and not because I am a woman. I have never experienced discrimination based on my gender. However, I do recognize that there is an issue especially regarding the representation of women in decision-making positions in film. I believe that the misrepresentation of women in film and the gender injustices are part of a multifaceted issue that regards the whole of society and has to do with traditional attitudes, cultural norms, religion, education… Historically, the feminist movement has achieved major breakthroughs towards gender equality, but I feel somewhat uneasy when movements create more separations and sects in society in order to make a point. I strongly believe that in the discussion about women in film, men should also be included in order to find solutions jointly. The fact that a discussion has started is very positive and many festivals have already adopted a 50/50 policy. Saying that, though, I would never want a film of mine to be selected because of my gender. Greek society is more traditional in its definition of gender roles compared to Northern Europe and still the vast majority of decision-making positions – selection committees, board of directors, etc. – are held by men. However, the situation is changing and the number of women who get into decision-making positions is increasing. I would say that this is not the result of a structural reform, but rather that it reflects a general trend in a society that is influenced by global changes regarding the position of women. In recent years, more and more young Greek women directors and producers get into film and women are gaining ground fast especially in production positions. And this is encouraging!
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
M.E.: I wouldn’t call myself a feminist. I have never thought of myself in terms of my gender alone, nor have I ever consciously made a feminist film. Many times, I have addressed issues that focus on the female existence and experience, and surely the way I perceive and relate to the world has a female look, but I have never thought of making a feminist film as such.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
M.E.: Pirjo Honkasalo’s The Three Rooms of Melancholia made a very deep impression on me when I saw it in 2005 and it has been a strong source of inspiration on different levels ever since. Ηer exquisite cinematography, her poetic and yet direct approach to a very difficult subject that concerns war and children, her sense of rhythm, her ability to give substance to silences and her masterly storytelling technique make for a memorable documentary. Another filmmaker’s work that has touched me deeply is Kim Longinotto’s. Her sensitivity and close relationships that she builds with her characters – sometimes without even sharing a common language –, her observational method of shooting and her ability to document “difficult” social issues from within, make her films have special soul and boldness. Both filmmakers have the ability to get deep into the psychological state of their characters and produce beautiful cinematography.
What are your next projects?
M.E.: I am currently working on a documentary series about every day life in ancient Greece, for a Greek TV channel. I am also working on an unusual story related to the environment.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: