Interview with Janis Rafa, director of ‘Kala Azar’

Janis Rafailidou is a Greek artist based in Amsterdam and Athens. Her debut feature film “Kala Azar” was shown in Dutch cinema’s this summer.

LA RIOT member Luca Deutinger spoke with her about this film.

  • Until now, you have been working as a video artist / sculpturer. What inspired you to make a feature film?

“I went to the Rijksakademie in 2013/2014 and I think it was really at that point that my work started to become more cinematographic, with more rhythm and visual quality. The style of the work I was making had the tendency of going more into a cinematic language, also due to my long-term collaboration with DoP Thodoros Mihopoulos that started in 2012. And into a more durational approach, with a narrative feel to it. My work is never fully linear anyhow. So, it had these three different elements, that were making me more and more interested in what kind of language I can produce in cinematic terms. During 2015, I was able to apply with my producer SNG Film (Digna Sinke) for the De Verbeelding award design for artists making their first feature, supported by the Netherlands Film Fonds and Mondrian Fonds. The fund offers a substantial amount of money for the production of a low-budget feature film. They select two artist every year and you have to apply with a full script and so on. I felt that this was a next step in my practice at that point. Not for making a feature film that could be played in cinemas, but to expand in scale and in rhythm and in sets. It was because of this opportunity that I was then able to embark on something much bigger than a video art piece.”

  • The name of the film is Kala Azar. Could you give a clue what the name stands for?

“The name has more of a personal reasoning, which progressively lost its importance while making the film. But today, because of the pandemic, the title Kala Azar has become something that people tend to discuss. Kala Azar is an endemic disease that is spread through a parasite, and contaminates the canine population. It is spread from the blood of one dog to another through the bite of a sandfly. It contaminates the animal and is the kind of endemic disease that can very easily be spread in Mediterranean countries with a certain climate. But now, due to the climate change, it is spreading in new regions. But in the 90s, this disease was not so easily curable and not well known. It found dog owners like my parents totally unprepared. It was this moment in the 90s that started to lose a lot the one dog after the other in our family. This event was one of the first to confront me with this thin line between life and death, especially within the familial context. In addition, the deathliness of the outdoors with the numerous roadkills, as yet another pandemic in the Mediterranean landscape is a repetition that inevitable stuck with me. Hunting and animal consumption can be understood in that way too. It’s a hidden layer in the film that attempt to discuss the ways we relate to a landscape, to a land and the animal world, while living in the urban. This is what Kala Azar stands for. Overall Kala Azar attempts to propose that the parasite, the ones spreading the disease, are humans. Where humans exist, is inevitable not to contaminate the landscape they inhabit.”

  • Do you think that experience of animal death is especially visible in countries such as Greece and maybe less in, for example, the Netherlands?

“The difference on visibility amongst such countries doesn’t corresponds only to animals. Certainly, it is the most vivid experience you can describe of the deathliness of a landscape or how contaminated a landscape is. But in general, if you compare Greece to the Netherlands, there is a different chaotic understanding and use of the landscape that you could never find in the Netherlands. The grey zones of the city, in Athens and in the periphery of the big cities. It’s this that allows all these incidents, accidents and invisible inhabitants either dead or alive to be revealed and acknowledged. It is a layered context that deals with notions of visibility and invisibility and how you access such zones. The Greek landscape allowed me through the years, not only for Kala Azar, but in all the pre-research leading to Kala Azar, to discover how you experience a landscape, how you document it, how you reveal it and describe it. What it means to give value to the insignificant, to that which usually stays invisible. 

  • The film felt very natural to me, especially the dialogue. How much was written down in a script, or was it mainly improvised?

“I tend to resist language a lot! I think because I spend a lot of time with animals. Although resistant with anything spoken, I had to slowly attach some dialogue to a small number of scenes.  It was mainly during shooting or even during editing that we felt that this dialogue could maybe survive. However all dialogues are OFF screen in the film if you notice. During shooting I was always resisting against dialogue. All actors improvisations were physical. The camera had no interest to follow characters and speech either. The purpose of every scene is in the visuals, the dialogues never described anything, even if it is there..”

  • How would describe filming with the dogs?

“I was already familiar with this, because I have made a lot of video works that involve dogs. So, I knew what to expect and how it could work. In general, the approach I have is to set a scene with certain expectations from the dogs, but when we are actually going to shoot it, something completely different occurs. Animality and the incidents and instincts that reveals are always grater than any scripted idea. We never force the animals to do an act, we prefer to wait for them to do it the way they want, with mistakes or through extremely long durations.”

  • The scene in the chicken coop stayed with me, where the band plays a piece of music for the slaughter chickens. Could you elaborate your ideas behind this scene?

“Through the years and the works that I make, they have a ritualistic tendency of either being requiems or farewells to either something or someone; such as animals, the landscape, trees, a shipwreck, a truck transporting pigs etc. I have been making the requiem series since 2014 –Requiem to a Shipwreck (2014), Requiem to a Fatal Incident (2015). They are short video pieces. These works attempt to pay tribute to something, and music is used to enforce that feeling. The idea of the requiem scene in Kala Azar with the chickens, was the starting point of the film. In a way it stands apart from the rest of the narrative, but it is also the heart of Kala Azar. In general, I try to avoid using music and the emotional enforcement of sound in such a way, but this is the only instance, because it serves this purpose of paying a tribute. The whole of Kala Azar tries to do that.” 

  • To conclude, how was this experience for you? Are you planning on making more feature films?

“Yes, it is a continuous process! I like returning to smaller video works or sculptures, I’m working with video more than sculptures anyways and now I’m in the process of making a commissioned video piece for In Between Art Film in Italy. At the same time I am working on the script of my next feature, with the support of the Netherland Film Funds. The knowledge I gained from making Kala Azar is not something I want to abandon. I still have a strong interest in finding my own format for a feature film. For me, that is mainly the purpose: not to make a feature that is going to ‘work’, for cinema or audiences. But is rather about finding a structure that works for me and compliments all these other works I’ve been doing. It doesn’t scare me to return to feature, that’s for sure, but also, I don’t want to follow a formula.”

Janis lives and works between Netherlands and Greece. She currently participates in the project ‘Mascarilla 19 – Codes of Domestic Violence’ commissioned by In Between Art Film. The project will premier at MAXXI Rome in 14th October and will travel in several major venues in the coming months (http://inbetweenartfilm.com/mascarilla-19/)

Check out her website for all her work, including Requiem to a Shipwreck and Requiem to a Fatal Incident https://www.janisrafailidou.co.uk/

LA RIOT also published a review of the film in Dutch, which you can read here: https://lariot.nl/2020/09/21/kala-azar/

lucadeutinger

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