Dating back to her childhood in Greece, first-time director Janis Rafa has spent the better part of her life contemplating death. The title of her feature-length debut, “Kala Azar,” takes its name from the parasitic disease that swept through the country in the 1990s, ravaging the animal population. In Rafa’s childhood home, which included both domesticated animals and strays the family had taken in, her father served as an erstwhile gravedigger, burying pets that had been claimed by the disease, or accidents, or natural causes.

Echoes of that arresting memory resurface years later in “Kala Azar,” which centers on a young couple (played by Pinelopi Tsilika and Dimitris Lalos) living on the outskirts of an unnamed city in the south of Europe, collecting and cremating dead pets and returning the ashes to their owners. The fragile barrier between life and death is ever-present in the film, as is the task of caring for the remains of the dead, and making sense of their loss.

“The grave-digger father figure, similar to the rituals of burial or cremation, it’s an element which is part of the bigger world I’m attempting to make, both in ‘Kala Azar’ and in my other works,” the director told Variety. “Like part of this visual vocabulary I have built up. The dead animals, the living animals, the dead bodies, the abandoned bodies, the lonesome father, the lonesome man, the grave-digger—all these constant repetitions in the work. And ‘Kala Azar’ is borrowing part of that.”

“Kala Azar,” which world premiered in Rotterdam and screens this week at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, was produced by Digna Sinke of SNG Films (Netherlands) and co-produced by Konstantinos Kontovrakis and Giorgos Karnavas of Heretic (Greece). Heretic Outreach is handling world sales.

Variety caught up with Rafa during the Thessaloniki Film Festival, which runs Nov. 5-15, to discuss her first feature.

You’ve spent many years working as a visual artist and splitting your time between Athens and Amsterdam. At what point did you decide you wanted to make a feature film, and what unique challenges did that present to you as a first-time director?

I’m coming from the visual arts, but I have a long practice and interest in moving image. I work with the same cinematographer all these years, I return to the same locations, so it was kind of a steady connection that led me to “Kala Azar.” My work from 2013, from the moment I entered the Rijksakademie, which is an important European arts academy for professionals in Amsterdam, I started making works that were more and more medium-length. They had a narrative intension, but in a very free way. “Kala Azar” also isn’t trying to be too linear either.

The Netherlands Film Fund initiated a fund that is called De Verbeelding, it’s for visual artists making their first feature. And this is how it started. We applied for it, we got it with a Dutch producer, with SNG Film. Originally, the script of “Kala Azar” was more of a visual narrative, rather than a kind of storytelling narrative with characters. But after we got this fund, Heretic entered…and slowly it started being structured more and more script-wise, until it found its final form. All of my works have this sense of a bigger world than just a video art piece. If, like a puzzle, you put all the video art pieces I’ve done together, into one show, what is born out of it is “Kala Azar.”

“Kala Azar” has very strong roots in your own childhood, and being raised in a family where you were always surrounded by animal life. The boundaries between the “human” world and the “animal” world were blurred, it seems, especially when it comes to death and loss. Can you tell me a bit more about how that’s informed your work, or how that’s evolved over time?

Originally, my interest was coming from site-specific research—almost like a video-essayistic, experimental, documentary practice. That was seven years back, let’s say. So it had to do a lot with how we understand space, how we make a cartography of space, how we document and produce knowledge about a place that is not the knowledge we have as passersby, or by looking at the map. These kinds of processes of information that are more experiential. And “Kala Azar” has a little bit of that interest, but then it’s layered with another element, which comes from probably a personal, more autobiographical sense of understanding the world, and that has to do with looking, giving importance to what seems to be the insignificant—sometimes invisible, sometimes considered even voiceless. And that has to do a lot with the non-anthropocentric perception, or the non-human. So it has like a post-human understanding of how we observe the world, of how we use the land, how we behave within a place. And how we understand the history of a place, which is not one history, but many histories. Because it’s not about the human presence, but all these other presences that have equal importance, if you want to look at it this way.

Yes, I think it was the personal that allowed me to create this kind of sensibility—to look closely, to look lower, to find interest in what is considered mute, to the non-logocentric perception of the world, but also of narrating as well. Because “Kala Azar” has a strong interest in the image in the sense that every image attempts to create the story that negates dialogue, or negates to explain through dialogue. I would say it’s an autobiographical reference to these places. Bumping into roadkill, for example, when I was doing the research through the years for my video practice, in particular locations on the periphery of the city—the same locations as “Kala Azar.” And this was adding up through the years, this attempt to comprehend and order it. How can you put this in order when it’s so chaotic? Because, first of all, it’s Greece. But also the human presence is interrupting everything. So I see this landscape as a place that cannot contain animal life anymore. It cannot sustain it anymore, because we are part of it.

You’ve talked about being “haunted” by the sight of your father as a gravedigger in the garden of your house, burying the family’s pets and the strays you’d taken in. Did you get the sense that your father did this out of a sense of obligation? Or sympathy? Did he mourn these losses?

They were family members. It was mourning. It was certainly a big loss within the family environment. It had all these consequences of what happens when you lose somebody, and how you deal with the body. You know, we had to bury it in the garden. We had to go through this emotional thing. And I think that stayed with me. But it started appearing in my videos slowly. I made a work that was called “Gravediggers,” and my father [Tassos Rafailidis, who appears in “Kala Azar”] is acting there as well. There are two men burying animals, constantly finding and burying them. The more I would use this in the work, again and again, these kinds of rituals, the more I would understand that this was something that haunted me since a young age, to understand what it means—loss, or mourning. Or mourning the body of somebody that is so different from us, and that has to do very much with the idea of “Kala Azar.” What it means to observe someone mourning or taking care of a body, even more if it’s a dead body, that is so unlike ours. What it means to care for the other, something that is dissimilar to us. That can be an animal, but it also could have been another human body that is just different from how we look.

Your DoP, Thodoros Mihopoulos, was also the cinematographer on Minos Nikolakakis’ “Entwined,” a film that also has a very earthy, elemental feel. Can you talk about working with him to create this film’s unique visual style? Because the camera almost has this sort of animalistic quality of roving, of being very close to the earth.

Thodoros is a cinematographer that loves to work with the incidental, and I think that’s so important to emphasize, because in film we always try to arrange things, arranging and making everything as concrete as possible. And I think the special element about Thodoros is that he’s not afraid to deal with natural light, with weather conditions, with incidences, accidents. He takes all the problems that nature usually throws at you, and he makes something out of it. Something that is aesthetically and conceptually coherent with what the director of the film wants to do. I find this very special, but very inspiring also. Because that has to do also with having the ability to foresee things, like locations. Part of “Kala Azar” is the locations—the locations that don’t reveal a place. It’s a timeless and universal place, but at the same time it’s very Greek. And I think that’s an attribute that Thodoros has, to understand how locations are filtered in a certain way in the shots in order to create a universe that does not remind [the viewer of] something. He’s not interested to create stories that remind [you of] something. He’s trying to go with his sense completely.

With Thodoros, we worked together many years. All the works we do, but even more “Kala Azar,” is something that is born out of both of us. We are 50-50 in this film. Because it is a film that relies so much on the cinematography. The camera always drifts away from the actors, from the action. We create all the sets, and then the camera just drifts away from all of that. And that has to do with some kind of informal decision—an unspoken decision that we took together on the set. I think in a lot of Thodoros’ work, it’s not that he aims for a style, but it really comes out of him instinctively.

We’re living through a pandemic right now, something that I think has made all of us think about the fragility of our lives, our bodies—a feeling that really permeates your film. Have you found yourself wanting to respond to the pandemic in your work?

It’s funny, because “Kala Azar” somehow got synched with the pandemic—somehow the title, and all these fragilities, and how exposed we are to the world. It synchs with what is happening, but it definitely was not something I realized when I was making it. For “Kala Azar,” it was mentioned that it was a film that made people feel unease and disgust. Also because of the saliva, and all these elements that now are becoming so important, the way we observe them and behave towards them. But for me, it always looked like a place where I feel very safe, familiar, and at ease with it.

I don’t have something that I’m planning that is responding directly to what is happening now. I need time to filter it. I prefer this way. But there was a work that I got commissioned to make, a short film, by In Between Art Film, in Italy. There’s a theater, a foundation for moving-image works from artists and filmmakers, and it was a commission that was a response to the pandemic. It was a commission about domestic violence and gender violence, because of the increase during the lockdown. So it was a call to talk about this subject matter. We shot it the beginning of September, before things got harder. It was interesting, because it has all the aesthetic and artistic qualities that “Kala Azar” has, but it’s indoors. Again, many, many dogs. Blood. What happened was I took the female, not as a victim, but I turned it the other way around. I wanted to portray her as someone who takes power in her hands, and she takes her revenge. But again, it’s a work that is very open, very visual, you can interpret it the way you want.