On set of The Harvesters (die Stropers), the Free State, 2017. Etienne Kallos with local extras in a small Free State farming community
‘What does it mean to come from places that no longer exist?’ – an interview with Etienne Kallos
As someone who exists within a state of intergenerational displacement, filmmaker Etienne Kallos delves into the cinematic forms of ‘unbelonging’. ‘I’m queer, ethnically Greek, a South African from America and now in Europe. It’s not clear how it all adds up. I try to work through these fractures in my work.’
The title of your PhD project is ‘Towards a Cinema of Unbelonging: Rites of Passage for the Diasporic Era’. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I want to start with the word ‘unbelonging’. What do you mean? How did you decide to use this term?
‘“Unbelonging” is a state. It’s not belonging, but it’s not necessarily the opposite. It could involve being a refugee or existing in a state of exile, or it might refer to a different kind of diasporic entanglement. I think the term “unbelonging” was first coined by feminist writer Germaine Greer when talking about the ambiguity related to the Australasian experience. As I hit middle age, I’ve realized that I too exist within a state of intergenerational displacement. I grew up a first-generation Greek in Apartheid South Africa and moved to the United States after adolescence. My Greek parents were born in different parts of Africa that don’t exist anymore, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the Belgian Congo (which became Zaire and is now the DRC). The parts of Greece my family dispersed from also don’t exist anymore. Izmir (then Smyrna) on my mother’s side and the Pogon region of southern Albania on my father’s.
My work builds from this premise: what does it mean to come from — and continue to exist in relation to — places that no longer exist? What does it mean to exist in relation to the unofficial histories or “stories” that comprise one’s familial identity or lore, stories that are not acknowledged in any official political narrative? These questions have become interesting for me, as I realize I don’t belong anywhere yet I am not a total outsider either. This state of in-betweenness is a generative place to conduct research and create work from.’
In your films Firstborn (2009) and The Harvesters (2018) you emphasize the coming of age of young men. ‘Rites of passage’, which demarcate coming of age, is also part of your research. Why is it important to you?
‘To successfully tread the line from childhood into adulthood, we need a stable, culturally specific ideal of adulthood shaped by clear notions of right and wrong. But in the postcolonial, post-communist world we inhabit today, what adulthood should look like has become ambiguous. As I move through my own forty’s, I’m unsure what kind of adulthood I’ve attained, nor how new generations might resolve this quandary for themselves, with the guidelines so obfuscated. I’m queer, ethnically Greek, a South African from America and now in Europe. It’s not clear how it all adds up. I try to work through these fractures in my work.’
‘I realize I don’t belong anywhere yet I am not a total outsider either. This state of in-betweenness is a generative place to conduct research and create work from’
To what extent is your research autoethnographic?
[answer Etienne Kallos] ‘To conduct artistic research means I am never sure how much of the research is coming from me, the researcher, and how much of it is the subject I’ve chosen to encounter. That line between subject and object is always shifting. It is a volatile transaction between every person I meet and every place I travel to. In this respect, everything I do is in some way autoethnographic, from my field notes to the films I produce, yet all my work is relational and generated through encounters with others.’
Research through filmmaking
You are investigating and articulating ‘intergenerational diasporic entanglements through the discovery of cinematic forms’. What kind of cinematic forms are you referring to?
‘Cinema can hold and transmit a kind of human knowledge and experience that can’t be expressed verbally or consciously. I absolutely believe in this magical, chemical process of expression. It began with a love of working with the performer. My grandmother was an operetta singer, a Greek immigrant who grew up in Southern Rhodesia. She was obsessed with English musicals, which gave her so much joy and shaped our familial experiences. Yet her chosen form of expression was essentially colonial and did not acknowledge her unique familial history as a Greek exile, nor her African identity. This was my introduction to the strange relationship between diasporic entanglements and performative forms.
With cinematic forms, I am also talking about the research process. After making nonfiction work around Africa and the Middle East and then a fiction film, Firstborn in post-Apartheid South Africa, I started to understand how encounters and attunement can shape a research methodology. I became more conscious of this process when I made The Harvesters. Researching and producing this film allowed me to understand the effects of the Apartheid legacy on its own post-Apartheid descendants and where the Afrikaner people are today.’
You mention ‘encounter’ often in your research. What do you mean by that?
‘The encounter is for me an empirical, physical process: I have to go to the places I research, in order to be confronted by both the geological landscape and its conflicting histories. I choose places that have been forgotten in some way, places that exist outside of the official narratives that serve host nations and how they seek to portray their own stability. If you exist between these political narratives, it’s because your existence somehow threatens ideas of national stability. The only way I can make work is through encounters and collaborations with people I meet in the field and who want to share their stories, memories and experiences with me. I seek out three groups of people in relation to unbelonging. The first are migrants who move to distant lands, such as my family of Greek exiles and the Afrikaners in Africa. The second are indigenous peoples who’ve been culturally disrupted due to the arrival of migrant communities, such as the Nama peoples in South Africa. The third are peoples ‘left behind’ in their ancestral lands (such as my ancestors in southern Albania) when family members migrate away. Right now, I’m writing a screenplay about the Greek-Albanian ethnic-minority experience of southern Albania based on field research. It’s called ‘Ameriki’ and is inspired by stories of people who came of age midst the cultural disruption of the Albanian communist era.’
‘The only way I can make work is through encounters and collaborations with people I meet in the field and who want to share their stories, memories and experiences with me’
You also talk about ‘attunement’. Can you give an example of this?
‘Over several years, I met with younger Afrikaners in the Free State when I conducted research for The Harvesters. On farms, in high schools and orphanages. They spoke mostly in Afrikaans and I tried to understand what I could. I speak some Afrikaans but there were a lot of misunderstandings. Because the youths were not old enough to sign releases, I didn’t want to record conversations. All I could do, really, was sit nearby and listen, hold on to what I felt when they spoke. I couldn’t take or use their stories verbatim. I needed to translate the essence of their experiences into the narrative by inventing new narrative specificities. In this way I learned to work through a process of attunement — to actively or deeply listen — not necessarily to what’s being spoken, but what’s being said in other nonverbal ways.’
What is the significance of language in your research?
‘I only speak English, which is a colonial language. My entire research process is through a system of translation. It has become part of the research methodology. To work through translation means something is always missing or misunderstood. How can I negotiate with that unavoidable shortfall without it becoming a negation? When I work in southern Albania, I have a translator from the region who speaks both Greek and Albanian but doesn’t speak fluent English. For every twenty minutes of an interview conversation, the translator gives me two minutes of translation. Even though I can record these conversations and then transcribe them later, I try to pay attention to the impact of what is said. Sometimes I remember intuitively feeling something really important in the conversation, but when I read the transcription (often months later), it didn’t seem that important in the text. So I have to try and reconcile the essence of what was initially felt in the field with the written recordings. It’s akin to threading a needle.’
‘I only speak English, which is a colonial language. My entire research process is through a system of translation. It has become part of the research methodology’
Theories and Theorizing
How did theory come into your films?
‘It took a year or two for the experience of making The Harvesters to settle. I realized theoretical research needed to be a part of my trajectory as an artist. Until then, I had been going on instinct. So, I started to think about the best format and structure to explore and inter-relate different people’s theories with my work. That’s when I discovered there was such a thing as an artistic research doctoral program and applied to the PhDArts program at Leiden University, which I started in 2021. It’s been fantastic to find myself supported as part of a research community in the Netherlands.’
What kind of theories do you find the most interesting now?
‘I go through a process of finding theories and building on them in ways that work for me, which, in turn, reshape how I conduct my field work and filmmaking. Currently, I’m reading the ethno-musicologist Eckehard Pistrick, who has developed a fascinating theory around migration and “performative absence” from his time working in southern Albania. I read how the women and children “left behind” find ways to remember fathers and husbands who are perpetually laboring “elsewhere”. I want to inter-relate Pistrick’s theories and my own discoveries in the field through Gilles Deleuze’s notions on time and his theory for a cinema of the body shaped by what he calls a failure of representation.’
‘Through encounters with different people who exist within diasporic entanglements, I want to shed light on how these entanglements could become part of a cinematic discourse on global migration’
How are you theorizing ‘a cinema of unbelonging’?
‘Through encounters with different people who exist within diasporic entanglements, I want to shed light on how these entanglements could become part of a cinematic discourse on global migration. One of my initial questions was: How is the cinema of unbelonging different from a cinema that encapsulates the refugee or the exile experience? I’ve realized lately that if you exist within unbelonging, you are first going to try to be a citizen of your host-nation — to belong to the place you know — despite understanding that your family and history comes from “outside”. I think I’ve spent much of my life attempting to adopt the traditions and points of view of host cultures, only to realize that I exist partially beyond those paradigms. I love American high school cinema. Why? Because even though I’m never going to actually exist within that kind of “placeness”, I can experience or inhabit it through cinema. The cinema of unbelonging must thus acknowledge this desire to belong through a mixture of languages formed out of displacement, placeness and belonging.’
You mention that through your research, classical Western storytelling ‘that champion colonial notions of exceptionalism, agency and objectification’ are problematized. Can you expand on that?
‘I cherish traditional storytelling elements but not as a totality. It’s not about throwing out the experience of classical storytelling. Rather, it’s about making visible that these storytelling and temporal forms are born out of the displacement or othering of people: I was born into the Apartheid South African regime. I have to deal with a sense of being the fruit of a poisonous tree, knowing that my and my family’s very presence in South Africa was part of what contributed to a system of intergenerational inequity. I was also a non-fiction filmmaker for many years, where I worked on commissioned projects and traveled to different parts of the world. I realized just how extractive these relationships in the field can be. I’m going around as an American-educated white man, and there can easily be disparities between me and the people I meet. How can these transactional relationships become more equitable? How can we slowly transform postcolonial inter-cultural relationships through a process of encounter and attunement as we go forward? I’m still trying to figure it out.’
Jue Yangis a writer and filmmaker