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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 4 June 2016
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 4 JUNE 2016 15 Saving memories in film Filmmaker and archivist Michael Karris has dedicated his life to the preservation of the collective memories of the Greek migrants to Australia NIKOS FOTAKIS "My teacher in primary school used to tell us how a wild flower might be transplanted to a garden in the suburbs, but that does not mean that it can grow there." Michael Karris (Karaoglanidis) has always related to this story, identifying himself with the wild flower. As a five-year-old boy, he himself was transplanted from his village of Vathylakkos in Kozani to Melbourne. "It was quite a shocking experience for me," he remembers, the images of his trip, crossing the ocean on the Patris, coming to mind. "My parents were trying to escape poverty, but I was very happy in the village, it was a very vivid place. And then I came to this city, with the big roads and the modern schools. How can a village boy cope with that?" This question has remained with him throughout his life. Torn between two countries, he found a coping mechanism in film. For Michael Karris is the first Greek Australian filmmaker to make a film about the experience of the people in his community, the migrants who were ‘transplanted’ from Greece to the new country, trying to deal with a broad range of challenges. It is this body of work that has made Michael Karris a rarity among his colleagues at the National Film and Sound Archive − being someone who both works for the organisation (he is a video production officer in the collection reference team) and who has his own material as part of the collection. The material in question comprises a few short films, shot in 1976 and 1979, that form part of his filmography. Most prominent among them is A Face of Greekness, a 12-minute silent movie shot in black and white that can be seen online (on the NFSA page dedicated to Karris), but will also feature in the public program planned around the large Martin Scorsese retrospective that is currently taking place in Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). It’s part of a special program, curated by Australian Mediatheque, called ‘Misfits and Misdemeanours’. The program celebrates Scorsese with a series of works paying homage to the themes and characters in his films. Despite the vast difference in their careers, the two filmmakers have something in common. They were both influenced by Elia Kazan, whose film America, America Karris states as inspiration for A Face of Greekness. Karris was practically an amateur when he shot the film. At the age of 19 he admits being "too young and underdeveloped", but also very much inspired by Melbourne and the Greek community. At the time, the idea of a multicultural Australia was starting to grow and both the Victorian Film Corporation and the State Film Centre had taken notice and offered support to the creation of films that chronicled the migrant experience. Encouraged by Paul Cox, who had just filmed his seminal Kostas, a well-received film narrating the story of a Greek taxi driver in Melbourne and starring Takis Emmanuel, Karris shot the film with hired equipment and with the help of the people around him - many of the ‘actors’ are, in fact, his relatives. As for his decision to do a silent film (with haunting music by Savvas Christodoulou), it was born out of necessity. "I had no sound recorder, nor the required skills to use this equipment," he remembers. "It was easier to do a silent film." This adds greatly to the overall atmosphere of the film, making for an intense viewing experience that has allowed the film to stand the test of time. It was even screened at the Thessaloniki Film Festival at the time, although Karris was unable to attend, but, more importantly, it became Karris' entry ticket for the acclaimed (and hard to get into) Australian Film and Television School. Again transplanted from Melbourne to Sydney, Karris, as the flower in his teacher's story, struggled to flourish. "In Sydney, I lost the enthusiasm," he remembers. "Melbourne was the place to make films at the time." Although he never gave up filming, producing a number of short and medium length fiction and documentary films, he eventually found himself in the transfer suite of Film Australia, digitising its vast collection, moving to the NFSA, when the two organisations merged. "At first, I thought that it wouldn't be very interesting," he says of his line of work, admitting that he grew a fascination. His job is to digitise film and video footage - newsreels mostly - and make it accessible to anyone interested: schools, filmmakers and so on. It is a daunting task. "There is so much material coming through everyday that it will take centuries to digitise it all," he says, explaining that videotapes are prioritised, being more vulnerable than film. It is also a job that puts him in a privileged position. "I'm always on the lookout for any Greek-related material," he says. "There's a lot of material on the life of early Greek migrants in Australia waiting to be discovered: churches, Greek shops, scenes of life in Melbourne." It is this kind of material that he wants to use for the project that still exists in the back of his mind as a semi-retired filmmaker. "I'm thinking of putting something together using archival footage", he says, admitting that it will probably be something relating to his own experience: the arrival of Greek migrants to Australia. He is also working on another project, a documentary on the elder Paisios, the late Greek monk who is still regarded as a modern-day prophet by his many followers (they are constantly putting pressure to the Greek Orthodox Church to have him canonised). As it happens, Paisios visited Australia in the late '70s and Michael Karris is very keen in talking to people who met thim. In the end, it is all about memories - and that is what is common between filmmaking and archiving. "The NFSA is indeed a memory depository," he says. "We can put together a story with all these memories, from the vaults containing all the fragments of film from the past." The very word ‘memory’ has him immersed in thought. "What is memory?" he asks, rhetorically. "What is the etymology of this word in Greek? Anamnisi? Ano-mnisi? We lift up our minds to something, somewhere? I don't know. The word mnimosino is also related to it? “This week is my father's memorial - mnimosino. I guess it's no coincidence that this interview happened now, during this time when I am remembering my father," he says, having already planned a film on his father using "all the films I shot from my early years to the present, both here and in Greece". Because deep down inside, Michael Karris is still the five-year-old boy on the deck of the Patris, holding his father's hand and feeling nostalgic for his village. "I have a photographic memory, so when I went back, I knew exactly where to go, but everything I remembered had changed." The Martin Scorsese Exhibition in ACMI is on until 18 September. A Face of Greekness will be available to view at the Australian Mediatheque (ACMI, Federation Square) and also through Michael Karris' page on the National Film and Sound Archive website www.nfsa.gov.au/blog/2016/05/03/ introducing-michael-karris The photo on the left shows Michael Karris filming at the Acropolis. PHOTO: EFFY ALEXAKIS. Karris standing next to a projection of a photo showing his father, on board the Patris,1961, during the family’s voyage to Australia in 1961. Karris is the child on the right, his younger brother on the left. PHOTO: EFFY ALEXAKIS.
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