Greek-born artist Evangelia Kranioti is already the stuff of legend, taking to the high seas to create her multi-award winning documentary film Exotica, Erotica, Etc.: 450 hours of footage condensed into an intimate 73-minute portrait of sailors and prostitutes, ports and seas. Kim Laidlaw spoke to her to learn more about her epic voyages, the call of the ocean and the ephemeral yet eternal notions of love and desire.
KIM LAIDLAW: Watching Exotica, Erotica, Etc., I couldn’t help thinking of the legend of Turner being strapped to a mast during a storm so that he could paint the moment from life. Can you tell us more about travelling on these boats, and being amongst the crew—presumably as the only woman—to record these images? Have you continued to work in such an immersive way on subsequent projects?
EVANGELIA KRANIOTI: In all my projects immersion is necessary, so movement was definitely inherent to this one. After interviewing old seamen across the Mediterranean for years, it became clear to me that I should start following contemporary seafarers across the world, in order to understand better their fragmented lives. Exotica, Erotica, Etc. arose from the twelve journeys I made aboard tankers, cargo ships and containers. Travelling from the Magellan Straits to Asia via the North Pole, and from the Panama Canal to the borders of the Black Sea, I visited 20 countries, shot 450 hours of footage and an important photographic series. I think of Exotica, Erotica, Etc. as a whole. Being the only woman on board was a significant human experience, but my experience in the ports was equally strong—and there I was only a woman among many. However, I’d say that the toughest part was the project’s post-production and especially the editing. That was the next most immersive experience compared to the trips and by far the one that challenged me the most.
KL: I know you have previously cited The Odyssey when talking about this work. Can you tell us more about your influences and inspirations?
EK: The references that instruct my work are anchored in my Greek origins as much in a stateless mythology of my own. Exotica, Erotica, Etc. hails from the desire to film a world I’ve read about and dreamt of. More than painting or cinema, my main influences came from poetry, literature and anonymous story telling; I used to spend hours listening to stories as a child, in a meditative-like state. Among them, sailor stories were bathing in a cinematographic sfumato; high seas, insalubrious ports in clammy cities, cabins and sad bedrooms, just like in the poems of Nikos Kavvadias. In reality, the appeal of the ocean is deeply monotonous, but when filtered by memory and the grace of narration, it becomes a fascinating fiction. This is how myths are born; from the raw potential for magic, inherent in people and places, to which I neither wish to add nor subtract.
KL: Where does this interest in the sea and sailors come from?
EK: Ever since I can remember, the sea is what I have always considered as my vision on my motherland, generating a series of concepts strongly linked to the themes of wandering and desire. Thus in 2006, in an attempt to reconstruct my relationship with my own origins, I decided to carry out an artistic and anthropological research exploring the notion of displacement through the lives of sailors and the way it involves the experience of new forms of Otherness.
KL: The sailor and the prostitute: two of the oldest professions in the world, and archetypal roles for man and woman. How much are these roles metaphors for the role of man and woman—and their relationship to each other—in society?
EK: Exotica, Erotica, Etc. is a love note to the forgotten, hidden and ignored men and women whose long travels and bouts of loneliness are paradoxically essential for the very existence of our societies. In the terra incognita of the ports, sailors mingle with others, driven by a carnal desire to feel alive. These brief yet intense moments when all ideological, cultural, political, ethical and social barriers disappear, and two human beings face each other in their own nakedness, ignited my interest in the prostitutes encountered in these ports. Sailors and prostitutes form a stereotypical couple, providing an exciting metaphor for man’s relationship with the Other. Yet this metaphor is not about men leaving and women being left behind. It is about all things being ephemeral and eternal at the same time. It is about desire seen as a Danaides’ barrel that one desperately attempts to fill and that never ceases to drain away.
KL: The title of this work is intriguing—particularly the “Etc.” part, which is slightly at odds with the sexually charged words that precede it. Furthermore, the tone of the documentary is that of an observer—sexuality is just an everyday, human need. Where does eroticism come into your work?
EK: My creative process is based upon a certain kind of seduction, and my work itself evolves around the question of desire: the more unsatisfied, the more beautiful. Solitude becomes interesting when it contains the experience of displacement, a headlong rush towards another; albeit awkward, albeit paid for. All of this is but a very humble and timid form of exchange, as once observed fellow director Léandre Bernard-Brunel. Indeed, I wanted Exotica, Erotica, Etc. to draw a map of love and trade between men and women with lucidity, devoid of cynicism. Life and its triviality, the time that passes by, all this is resumed in the three letters of the title, “Etc.”: a bittersweet balance to all exotic, erotic and other great expectations.
KL: You show very intimate moments in the lives of these sailors and prostitutes. How did you manage to gain their trust to capture such private moments?
EK: Making a film today is not necessarily bound to the usual constraints of the cinema industry. I filmed Exotica, Erotica, Etc. by myself, without a crew, thanks to digital cameras that provided me with a certain degree of technical independence. At any given moment, my thoughts would become a visual flow, in a perfectly organic way. I understand filming as a question of complicity, trust and seduction. When I film, I fade into the background. I prefer to be forgotten by those I’m observing because that’s when they start to open up to you, when the camera quietly floats around their private space, unnoticed, leaving no trace. It’s almost a liquid feeling, similar to being at sea. Filming feels like sailing. People tend to confide more readily in strangers, during encounters that have no future. Men and women opened up to me in this way, driven by selflessness and, at times, by an innate sense of despair which I never questioned. At the end of the day, these spontaneous, sincere encounters echo the relationships between sailors and prostitutes, the intensity of which is inversely proportional to their fleeting duration.
KL: There is this idea of the sea as this “other” place—it holds secrets and breaks spells, it’s spiritual and powerful. The boat and the ocean seem to be protagonists in a way. What place do they have in this work?
EK: The sea can become an absolute, spiritual experience; like the desert. But for many contemporary seamen, it remains a source of alienation, full of contradictions. The first time I went on board was at night. I experienced it as the extension of a familiar room in the dark. The more unknown the crew, the more unknown the destination, the more unknown the ship, the better; this is how I felt. Boats inspire me with confidence. My relationship to these iron cathedrals was not functional, but aesthetic, thus I’d connect with them as if they were sculptures and this liberated my gaze. Ships are extreme places to live. And at the same time, they are common, mere vehicles of globalisation. But dream vehicles; much more than any car or plane could ever be. Scenes for profound stories, not insignificant ones. Though, oddly enough, they can become very monotonous. But nothing in life is one-dimensional, is it?
KL: Your next film project is Obscuro Barroco. Can you tell us more about this?
EK: Obscuro Barroco is a tale about illusion and transformation, set in Rio de Janeiro. A documentary fiction, it explores gender and urban rituals in the hedonist realm of the cidade maravilhosa. Across spiritualism and transsexuality issues, from the Sambodromo bacchanal to the favela carnival, two creatures—a wandering clown and the carioca transvestites’ queen—tell the story of bodies in endless metamorphosis.
KL: And then what’s next for you?
EK: While finishing the post-production of Obscuro Barroco, I am working on the script of my first fiction, pursuing various photographic series and preparing a book on the life of the protagonist of Exotica, Erotica, Etc.