Two girls see something they think they shouldn’t in a working-class neighbourhood in Athens. Automatic, shot in flowing long takes, tracks this paranoia with expert precision, creating a fascinating commentary on the ways one can misinterpret their surroundings. We talk to director Emma Doxiadi about the style of the film, creating room for interpretation, the influence of Michael Haneke and the double-standards of gentrification. 

Tell me about the starting point of the film.

The starting point occurred when a friend told me of an incident that happened to her in Athens, a city that I’ve grown up in and lived with for twenty years. The incident involved my friend Anna and her friend Daphne who accidentally photographed a hidden rifle. Anna persuaded herself that this man nearby was somehow linked to the rifle. Even though her friend, in the beginning, thinks it’s ridiculous, she gradually believes through the course of the day that her friend’s fear is legitimate. It’s kind of like a snapshot of implicit prejudice and how it can influence one’s moral compass and judgement and how contagious it can be at the same time.

What is interesting to me are the different interpretations I’ve heard.

I found it to be an exploration of the kind of paranoia that exists in people that gentrify neighbourhoods. There’s a very telling comment at the start when she boasts about her cheap rent!

I’ve noticed that in many cities in Europe that are melting-pot, cosmopolitan places, that there are a lot of younger people who tend to be artists who are very keen on moving into and gentrifying neighbourhoods because of the rent. I think they make a lot of assumptions about the character of these neighbourhoods and the people who live there. I thought there was an interesting paradox about how the girl moves here and wants to flaunt her confidence about how well she knows the neighbourhood, but she has this paranoia that reflects how little she knows and how many things she still has to learn.

The content of the movie can’t be extricated from its style, which has a surveillance-like vibe with its wide shots and medium takes. Why did you choose to shoot the film in this way?

I think that long takes and static shots induce the feeling of events unfolding in real time. In the exterior shots we are mostly observing the two women from afar and I think that allows us to shed light on all their complexities, both as individuals, as well as the complexity of their dynamic. I think that being distant from the women while the tension between them and their outside environment exists, allows us not to judge them but just observe them and enables the viewer to make their own assumptions. Then once they’re in the apartment and the attention shifts to their interpersonal relationships, we focus more on what is going on in their faces. There was an urge that made me want to get closer to them and approach them in medium-to-close-up shots.

The work of Michael Haneke comes to mind here, especially Caché, as well as the deadpan comedy of Yorgos Lanthimos. Were they an inspiration at all?

Definitely, both of them. Caché was a really big influence, due to the way Haneke provokes and demands the active engagement of the viewer where they can observe actions and situations unfold in real time and make their own judgements. Lanthimos does that too. I think that the connecting point is how they interact and their environment becomes more obvious, and even an eye that is a viewer’s eye that is eager for a quick progression in terms of plot and story notices things after a while that are seemingly unimportant.

It’s kind of like a snapshot of implicit prejudice and how it can influence one’s moral compass and judgement.

I don’t know if there’s a lot of comedy going on. What is interesting to me are the different interpretations I’ve heard. Some people find it funny and ridiculous while others find it tense and nerve-racking. So I think long takes allow for a more open-ended observation of individuals and their environment.

Haneke is especially good at playing with expectation. I found it quite tense until the final shot when I burst out laughing. Did you want to play with audience expectations yourself?

This was a deliberate choice. I’m very happy to know there are different readings in terms of how quickly an audience member can realise what is going on in tandem with the characters. It allows us to side with them, but in the end when the rug is pulled from under our feet, the actual twist can hit us as both funny or embarrassing, or whatever one might feel. I wanted the audience to understand why they might have felt this way, and what might have led them to go down this rabbit hole.

Long takes allow for a more open-ended observation of individuals and their environment.

There seems to be a racial element to their fear. Did you also want to explore this kind of prejudice?

The film is shot in a neighbourhood that has an immigrant majority but has also become a place that’s very trendy for artists to live. Real immigrant men played the roles of these men, and one of the actresses used to live in this neighbourhood. It’s a very diverse, multicultural environment of artists and immigrants. I find that these two social groups interact every day but don’t seem to fully comprehend each other. Their ignorance just reflects on how many levels they are prejudiced and quick to jump to automatic thoughts about social groups that are unfamiliar to them. 

You were in the Berlinale Talents lab. Tell me about the experience?

Berlinale Talents was a wonderful experience in that it’s a very diverse group of very talented filmmakers from all over the world with all sorts of different experiences in many different aspects of film. It was definitely a formative experience in that it was great to be around people who had very different ways of approaching stories and making them happen. I made a lot of friends there actually who I ended up collaborating with later so it was a big endorsement for me and created a really great creative support network.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

I’m preparing to shoot a short film this fall in Athens and I’m developing a feature length script. I’m just working on these two things at the moment.

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