During the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic began spreading throughout Greece, the director of an elderly care home in the suburbs of Athens and his staff decided to seal the home from the outside world, in order to prevent the possibility of infections amongst his vulnerable residents.
When he heard the news, director Christos Barbas asked if he could join them. “I have always been fascinated by the idea of another confinement, the one that concerns the human mind that resides in an aging body—that is, what applies to most older people,” the director tells Variety.
Barbas and DoP Michalis Geranios spent three weeks inside the home, filming the daily life of residents who had been cut off from their loved ones. Barbas’ documentary, “Through the Glass, Three Acts,” premiered in the main competition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival this week. The director spoke to Variety about his experiences during lockdown.
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You spent three weeks inside the nursing home in Agios Stefanos. Was it difficult to convince the staff and residents to participate?
The decision to do the lockdown in the nursing home was taken jointly by [director] Dimitris Kampanaros and the staff. The guests as well as the relatives were informed and almost all of them accepted the prospect of our presence there. Those who did not want to, did not appear in the film. Before entering, we did the necessary tests and then we entered quarantine with the director of photography Michalis Geranios for three days.
When you weren’t filming, what was your daily life like while inside the home?
One of the primary goals we had for living there for three weeks was to be as discreet as possible in the flow of everyday life. I personally felt that I had entered a New World and was operating with the curiosity and excitement of a pioneer filmmaker, as if I were making an ethnographic record. The world of the nursing home is a world inhabited by some of the “exiles” of our society who are our elderly. They got there in need of professional care, but they are also the ones who are called upon to manage more loneliness than the rest of society.
I don’t remember if the cameras left our hands, maybe only when we were asleep. You are hyperactive when you experience something new and create at the same time. You also become part of everyday life and hope to become a member of the “tribe.” You may not film yourself, but you capture the disturbance you cause in this environment where you dropped like a paratrooper. The “tribe” of the elderly was very cautious at first; it was difficult to explain what we were doing. The cameras near our face were an eerie and phobic image especially for people with dementia. As the days passed, we let the elderly come to us. You are sensitive about the fragility of these people, and when I saw that after a week almost all of the ladies asked for a hair-dresser, I felt that something had been won.
Was it hard to be isolated for those three weeks?
No, surprisingly. What was difficult was that it took constant effort to regain the ground you thought you had conquered the day before, especially when the next morning you heard the question, “What are you doing here? Who are you?”
Many of the patients struggled with their circumstances inside the home—one woman commented that “we only have the past, we don’t have a present”—a fact that was only made worse by the pandemic, which isolated them even more from their families. Do you think most of them have managed to find peace there?
No, the contact of the elderly with their own people cannot be replaced. No modern medium, no technology will replace the deepest need for physical contact, to nullify the power of a caress. The elderly themselves say that what is missing the most is the sense of touch. They caressed and kissed the mobile phones on which they saw their children. They feel deeply imprisoned when they do not feel close to their own people, like prisoners whose future you hold in your hands. That is why during the confinement they turned their attention to the staff who took care of them, they felt like their children, their grandchildren. Even Michalis and I were teased by the ladies, which was sometimes disarming but pleasant.
Dr. Kampanaros talks about how we all need to think about how we want to grow old. Has your relationship to aging and old age changed as a result of making this film?
They talk to us about death, we try to understand it through medicine, through religious views or through philosophy, but old age is something we are not “educated” about in our lifetime. So we can go so far as to ignore it overtly. We do not want to part with the glow of our youth, no one wants to grow old, the idea is repulsive to us, it scares us. Modern society is governed by a lust for youth perhaps more than ever before. We are all confused, angry when the first signs of change appear. This explains why we seem willing to do incredible things, even to endure painful trials in our bodies, to slip into rivers of creams or to believe every myth in order to forget that we are getting older. Thanks to vanity it is easy to forget.