Greek Helmer Kotzamani Explores Class Structure in Venice Drama ‘Electric Swan’

A high-rise in Buenos Aires mysteriously begins to move, afflicting its inhabitants with a strange nausea. The building’s insides are corroded, the cracks in its walls threatening to grow. While the residents on the highest floors live in constant fear of falling, those who live below are afraid to drown — a magical realism-infused allegory for a city riven by class divisions.

Electric Swan” is the latest from Konstantina Kotzamani, a Greek filmmaker whose hypnotic, fable-like short films have screened in Cannes (“Limbo”), Locarno (“Yellow Fieber”) and Berlin (“Washingtonia”). A co-production between Ecce Films (France), Homemade Films (Greece) and UN PUMA (Argentina), the film had its world premiere with a special screening out-of-competition at the Venice Film Festival.

Kotzamani drew inspiration for “Electric Swan” from an experience on her first day in Buenos Aires, where she spent two years as a fellow for the Onassis Foundation. While enjoying the afternoon in a city park, she encountered a family of Chinese tourists who asked if the swan floating in the nearby lake was like the battery-powered creatures that inhabited the parks in their hometown.

“This question echoed inside me and made me think how someone can interpret what they are seeing through their own reality, emotions and cultural associations,” she said. “As a newcomer in Buenos Aires, every time I was coming across something that stimulated me or made me wonder, I asked myself the same question, if the swan is electric or not — meaning how do I perceive the new, how can I get a deeper understanding of a culture I didn’t grow up in?”

From that encounter, Kotzamani began to create a mental sketch of a city whose past was embedded in its very blueprint. “Buenos Aires is a huge colonial city. Coming from Greece, with a totally different background, I was really impressed by how the class pyramid is reflected in the architectural structure,” she said. In “Electric Swan,” class anxiety interrupts the reveries of the building’s residents in unexpected ways. “Magic realism finds cracks on the walls and intrudes in everyday life, connecting different floors and different people,” said Kotzamani.

The surreal, dreamlike quality of “Electric Swan” is something the director has returned to throughout her career. “Dreams are full of hypnotic misunderstandings,” she said, “misinterpretations that we are called to decode in order to get answers, in order to be healed.”

Another influence for the film was “Swan Lake,” a ballet that enraptured Kotzamani during her childhood.

“Even as a child, I was enchanted and repelled at the same time by [the white swan],” she said. “Princess Odette was condemned and imprisoned in a foreign body. She wanted to escape the spell. She wanted to become free. Somehow I feel that this is the core area within which the film moves. Is there any space for human freedom where beauty and ugliness reign together? Where wealth and poverty occupy the same building?”

Kotzamani is currently developing “Titanic Ocean,” a coming-of-age story about a professional mermaid school, real-life examples of which exist in Japan, where the film will be shot. It follows a group of teenage girls pursuing their dreams of becoming professional mermaids, centering on the hopes, loves and struggles that define their relationships. Co-production partners in Europe and Japan are already attached to the project, while Kotzamani searches for further co-production and distribution partners.

“‘Titanic Ocean’ is a blend of harsh realism and magical surrealism,” she said. “A coming-of-age story that crosses human boundaries. A tender and dark film about girl power.”

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