“When business in brothels is slow, that means the economy is on the ropes.” Those words, uttered by the indelible madame at the heart of director Eva Stefani’s “Days and Nights of Demetra K.,” offers a fitting introduction to the way in which the ups and downs in the life of a single sex worker mirror the larger political and economic uncertainties rattling post-crisis Greece.
Stefani’s feature-length debut, which has its premiere in the main competition at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, centers on the life of the titular Demetra K., who runs one of the oldest brothels in Athens. The film follows her throughout a turbulent period when the Greek economy is on the verge of collapse and a contentious law on prostitution threatens the world’s oldest profession in the cradle of Western civilization. Pic is produced by Amanda Livanou, of Neda Film, in co-production with Faliro House Productions and Greek public broadcaster ERT.
Stefani’s work as a filmmaker and video artist has screened in several film festivals including IDFA, Cinéma du Réel, and DocLisboa, as well as art exhibitions such as Documenta. She spoke to Variety ahead of the world premiere of “Days and Nights of Demetra K.” about a journey 12 years in the making. “It took a long time for her to let me in—in her place, and in her heart,” she said. “It was just meeting her that I was interested in, and trying to understand her—and through her, myself.”
What was the starting point for this film?
I was interested in shooting a film about Athens at night, but I had a vague idea about what I wanted to do. And I had a friend, Sofia Michaelidou, who used to be responsible for the film program at Goethe Institute. And she suggested, “Why don’t you meet Demetra?” And when I met Demetra, I was seduced. So I forgot about Athens at night, this broader theme, and I just wanted to meet Demetra and get to know her more.
In the beginning, I think I was more interested in an issue-based film. “Okay, I’m going to do something about sex workers in Athens.” But the more I got to know Demetra, I didn’t want to make an issue-based film. And the more Demetra wouldn’t fit into one. That was what was extraordinary about her.
This movie was made over the course of 12 years. Did you have any idea at the outset that it would take up so much of your life?
I had no idea. First of all, it took a long time until Demetra would let me in, until she would want me to be there, even without a camera. Because she’s very private, and she doesn’t like journalists that go there and just want to see what it’s all about. I think she wanted to be convinced that there was something else I wanted to explore rather than what’s the everyday life in a brothel. I think she believed that I was generally interested in her. Which I was.
And what was it like, once Demetra finally let you in? Because she’s very brash, she’s outspoken, she’s funny, she’s opinionated, she’s charismatic. She’s certainly not someone who’s going to be shy in front of the camera.
In the beginning, she’s still kind of playing the role. She’s performing. She’s less vulnerable than she becomes. Gradually, we both expose ourselves. I also became more vulnerable. It goes both ways. That’s what’s wonderful about documentary. It’s a real relationship. If you just want to grab from the other, then it won’t develop. There’s a lot of things I have shared with Demetra that I haven’t with very close friends.
There’s always this conflict between us, that she calls me a prude. Which I am. [Laughs]
I didn’t know if I should move to a more self-reflexive documentary, and talk about my own sexuality, but I just didn’t know how I’d do it. And then I thought, “Demetra is too big; why should I go in this [film]?” I just felt like it’s a recipe, to put myself in, talking about [sexuality]. It’s very confessional. And I find it quite boring, to be honest. I have this totem, this Demetra. What am I going to say?
Along the way, “Days and Nights” becomes a story as much about the political and economic fortunes of Greece over the past decade as it is a portrait of a single sex worker. Did you expect it to take on such depth and dimensions from the start?
I thought that would be the subtext, but I didn’t want it to be upfront. I always think that if it’s a portrait, it’s always more complicated. Everything is more complicated, and there’s always an existential issue that’s more important. Or they go together with politics, or the social milieu. I didn’t want to stress it, because at one point I had included a lot of material about this very awful law about prostitution in Greece. Half of the film was about this. I spent a lot of time in the editing trying to avoid that. Because it became a very polemical documentary, but Demetra was overshadowed by that. Finally, I tried to keep a balance between her, and try to show how the sex workers are influenced by economics and politics in Greece, but not talk directly about the issue. Because I think documentaries shouldn’t talk but show and feel.
Demetra is very much an iconoclast in contemporary Greece, and she’s also an activist. We see the scene of the assembly meeting, which is the first we learn that she’s the head of the sex workers union.
That was amazing. These are pseudo-feminists, because they represent the feminists of the left. But they hadn’t even invited sex workers to a meeting about prostitution. It was such hypocrisy.
She tells stories about the violence and abuse she’s faced, the sex workers who have been killed. And in some uncomfortable and disquieting ways, it really felt like she was speaking to a larger conversation in Greece right now, issues of violence against women, workplace harassment, and so on. Did that aspect of the storyline come more to the forefront for you during editing and post?
I wanted it to be political, but I don’t want these things to be literal in the film. I want them to be conveyed in a cinematic way, and not be said. I had many parts of Demetra talking about the law, that it’s not right, and it was like an interview. That wasn’t very cinematic in my view. It was like she was addressing the issue. That wasn’t like watching a film. I like what [Frederick] Wiseman said [paraphrasing Samuel Goldwyn]: “If you want to send me a message, send me a telegram. You don’t want me to make a film about it.”
You’ve made dozens of short films and “visual poems,” as you describe them, as well as working in other disciplines. What was the experience of making a feature-length film like for you?
Difficult. I think I’m better at doing little things and taking myself less seriously. There’s a phrase from Flaubert that I like: “I think the best things are the ones you do à pantoufles,” in your slippers. Like you have the main thing, and then there’s something you do on the side, to heal yourself. I think I take myself too seriously when I do something like [a feature film]. If I write something, or I make a short film, I really give it the importance it needs. It has to be taken a bit lightly. Otherwise, it’s too heavy for me.