«There are the forgotten films. There are the lost films, the reels of which are found years later. And there are the unfinished films, which remain in limbo between fantasy and reality.» – from Letter to Theo
One of Greece’s most celebrated directors Theodoros Angelopoulos passed away in January 2012 before he could finish his film. He died on the set of what he planned to call The Other Sea, a fiction film that recounted the smuggling of migrants and their arrival at the Greek port of Piraeus, shortly before this fictitious scenario became the reality of Greece.
In Letter to Theo, which had its world premiere at this year’s DOK Leipzig, French director Élodie Lélu revisits Angelopoulos’ unfinished film, reminiscing on their collaborative work on the project that was in some ways prophetic of present-day Greece.
A diary film
Lélu’s film takes the form of a diary. In each diary entry, she addresses the late Theo, contemplating on his visions and tribulations as «the filmmaker of migration». Lélu engages with Angelopoulos’ oeuvre throughout her documentary. She tries not to abuse his words, at times letting Angelopoulos speak for himself through his films, the excerpts of which she deftly interlaces with her documentary footage.
«For thousands fleeing war and poverty, Greece has become «a huge waiting room.»
Faithful to Angelopoulos’ leitmotifs, Letter to Theo deals with themes that have recurred throughout much of his work – the notions of borders both external and internal, exile, and the search for a place one can call home.
Angelopoulos’ personal visions, which are pronounced in each of his films, inform the thematic choices and cinematic language of Letter to Theo. Lines, sometimes less static and more transient, are ever present in Lélu’s documentary. Truthful to Angelopoulos’ style, Lélu’s camera embarks on generous movements, allowing breath in each shot. Now and then, her camera follows man-made lines – be it overhead power lines that seem destined not to meet one another, or those that make up narrow hallways of a hotel turned refugee shelter in Athens.
When the camera arrives at the Office for Asylum and Refugees, it reveals an unremitting queue of migrants at the break of day. The camera moves from one character to another, showing the many faces of the crisis but denying us the chance to indulge in the personal stories of any. «This is the door to Europe, Theo,» Lélu says, «In a small white room, two experts, a typist and a microphone to tell their stories. The beginning of their stories are not all alike, but the end is always the same.»
Search for the Other Sea
Just like the Greek colonel who lifts his foot above the border line in Angelopoulos’ film The Suspended Step of the Stork, Lélu flirts with the question of border, probing the fragile line between here and ‘elsewhere,’ fantasy and reality. This venture brings her to (a now cleared) makeshift migrant camp that sprung up in the former Hellinikon airport near the Greek capital. For thousands fleeing war and poverty, Greece has become «a huge waiting room» with many refusing to believe that the abandoned airport could be that ‘elsewhere,’ the ultimate destination of their perilous journey.
Some of the refugees she films bear resemblance to Angelopoulos’ protagonists as well as the deceased auteur himself. There is Rahin, who too is dreaming of reaching ‘The Other Sea,’ and there is a lawyer from Aleppo, Izzet, who despite losing everything on his journey but his words, takes his exile as an opportunity to understand Greece, «the country of Iliad and the Odyssey».
Angelopoulos was a man who once believed that politics was a matter of creed – an ideal that disintegrated later in his life. The crisis was to become the crux of his last film. It was set to tell the tale of the Greek crisis, but also that of Europe, whose united political front now seems even further away. The theme of crisis, which Angelopoulos denounced, runs through Letter to Theo. However, there is also a hint of defiance in the documentary. The French director forgoes sharing Angelopoulos’ disenchantment with politics, bearing witness to elements of resistance palpable in today’s Greece that give hope that real politics is, in fact, not dead.