In the remote hamlet of Giromeri, a small village in the mountainous Epirus region of northern Greece close to the Albanian border, the declining population numbers close to 50 permanent residents. But every year the villagers gather during the Easter holidays to preserve their time-honored customs, celebrate life, and commemorate the dead, rituals that play out to an indelible soundtrack of wailing clarinets.
In his lyrical documentary “Memento,” director Nikos Ziogas offers an elegy to a way of life that is fading away in his native Epirus, as well as a testament to the powerful rites that survive. It is a love song for those who stayed, for those who migrated, for its musicians and the physical character of one of Greece’s most evocative and forbidding regions.
“Memento” is produced by Angelo Venetis of Boo Productions, with associate producers Iraklis Mavroides, Nikos Smpiliris, Antigoni Gavriatopoulou, and Aris Dagios. The film is co-written by Mimis Chrysomallis and Ziogas, who also worked as DoP.
Ziogas spoke to Variety ahead of the film’s world premiere in the Film Forward Competition section of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, to discuss his attempt to keep the analog memory of the Greek countryside alive in an era of relentless digitization.
You dedicated this movie to your grandfather. Was he the starting point for “Memento”?
I’ve always been thinking about death as concept and fact; what it symbolizes, what kind of fears it awakens, and how we can face it. My relationship with my grandfather was special, characterized by a love that was, so to speak, “cellular.” The moment he passed away was always in my mind, troubling me. The same was true about the film; I knew I would make it, but I was probably afraid of getting too close to this subject.
In 2017 I met Mimis Chrysomallis, who co-wrote the script with me. I told him I had this idea about a documentary film, and he did nothing less than encourage me to begin with the shooting. I kept postponing it until one afternoon in 2019, when he called me and said: “Nikos, we have to make the film.” My reply was positive and the same day we met to discuss the details. After this initial meeting I came back home. The next time my phone rang, I was told my grandfather had passed away. Maybe everything happens for a reason. It was through this process that I came closer to death, both spiritually and creatively.
What sort of personal relationship do you have to Giromeri?
I had no personal relationship whatsoever to Giromeri, neither had I visited the place before going there for the shooting (12 days in total). I am related, however, to Epirus, as my family has roots there. Epirus has always been familiar to me through black and white family photos, its customs, people, and music. During the shooting I experienced all those things I had previously imagined in my mind. Now I feel I am carrying a piece of the village with me.
You utilize a lot of archival footage. Can you talk about how you got access to that footage? Have many images and videos from Giromeri been preserved through the years?
Cinema is magic. And making a film is something magical. So, in a magical way, after we started shooting, we came across this material. While doing research for the film, we found out that Menelaos Meletzis (nephew of Greek photographer Spyros Meletzis) had made a film in 1975 about this same custom in Giromeri. Afterwards, we discovered that the Benaki Museum in Athens also had archival footage shot by Greek photographer Costas Balafas. Finally, a resident of the village came to us with five VHS tapes with amateur footage shot by himself and allowed us to use it for our film. When I watched all this material, I got very excited, as it changed the pattern and texture of the documentary. It was as if the past came forward, claiming its share from the present.
Along with directing “Memento,” you did your own cinematography. Did having the camera as an “intermediary” between you and the villagers in any way make it easier, or perhaps more difficult, to interview them for the film? Do you always prefer to do your own camera work?
I believe that when sitting before a camera, we all think about ourselves and discover a piece of our own self. Thinking about what to say or how we appear, it is as if we are looking at our own selves through the reflection of the lens. I like it when people can overcome the obstacle posed by a camera and express their inner truth. I look for spontaneity, trying to bring us closer with the camera, this sometimes “scary” item that intervenes in our private lives! I try to make the camera a piece of myself so that people see me in it, and this is why I decided to do the cinematography myself. In “Memento” I think we managed to do this better than we thought we could. The close bond within the crew and the trust felt by the residents made spontaneity possible in a very short time.
“We are all passersby” is a refrain that we hear often throughout the film, and the villagers are especially preoccupied with the process of remembering—through communal rites, through personal memories. Do you see yourself playing a similar role as a documentary filmmaker?
Filmmaking has always been a communal rite. We filmmakers are certainly passersby. Still, I hope our films can leave a trace of memory hovering in the chaos of “forever.” After my experience with “Memento,” I notice in every film I watch the need of filmmakers to deal with memory. They are preoccupied with this abstract journey into the roots, the origin and the destination—two words inextricably linked. Often, when we try to forget something we haven’t dealt with, it ends up in our way. Maybe this film is one more attempt to purge from oblivion.