Review By Greg Klymkiw
“You can spend the entire second half of your life recovering from the mistakes of the first half.” ― Saul Bellow, Seize the DayI'm truly blessed to have seen an exciting new film that not only moved me - at first, beyond words - but also inspired a flood of thoughts and memories, which all in some fashion are related to the picture itself, but like any great movie, reached out and touched me in ways that forced me to examine so many elements of my own life. I suspect it will do the same for many, many others who are lucky enough to see it.
When an artist delivers nuggets from their own experience, chances are good they will resonate with most of us. When the work is thematically tied to that of family, it's especially hard-hitting. The best of these works will hit us with a roundhouse blow to the gut.
In recent years, the one genre in film that has the power to do this in ways that most other films can only dream about is the personal documentary, but getting the films made and then, once they're made, getting them to an end-user is the real trick.
When it comes to trends, styles and types of stories told, the movie business can be very fickle. It's not the audiences that are mutable - it's the industry itself - and nowhere does this rear its ugly head more than in the world of documentary. Those who hold the purse strings, those who deliver the product to those who deliver the product to the masses crow on, from season to season about what kind of movie is hot and what's not.
What this really means is that many of these entities are unimaginative, lacking vision and/or just plain lazy.
If a movie is great, people will want to see it. That said, some movies need a bit more elbow grease than others. When I started in the business - particularly in the areas of exhibition, marketing and distribution - elbow grease was, more often than not, the norm. Even schmatta-salesman-styled broadcasters, distributors and exhibitors did what I, and others refer to as, uh, work. In fact, the more challenging a great film was, the more these same individuals attacked their calling with relish.
This past year during the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, I spoke with so many filmmakers who talked about the difficulties of getting personal documentaries made. And yes, getting any movie made is difficult, but the general air wafting from the posterior-scented jaw flaps of the powers-that-be to filmmakers with great stories to tell, was that the personal documentary was OUT - unless, of course it had some sort of easily identifiable hook of controversy. Even then, filmmakers who did have this sort of easily-exploitable approach found the financing road difficult due to the collective knee-jerk proclamations of entities bereft of vision.
For me, a documentary with a personal approach - where a filmmaker presents a story close to them, perhaps even about themselves, is filmmaking of both a brave and extremely identifiable order. Their stories often mirror our own - the details might be different, but below the surface, they hit us on emotional and intellectual levels.
The bottom line is that the filmmakers, and most importantly, the end-users, the audience, are the ones who get short shrift when those responsible at decision-making levels are purporting to know what people want. Half the time, they're ill-equipped to know what people want and are looking for easy ways to cover their smelly butts.
A good or great picture will find its audience.
One recent film that demands an audience is a personal documentary by Montreal filmmaker Tony Asimakopoulos. Along with another recent film I've seen (which I'm unable to discuss at this juncture), Fortunate Son is a movie that, for me, resonated on so many levels that I suspect I won't be the only one who is deeply moved by it. While watching, re-watching and thinking about it, I was reminded of so much that was close to me when I saw Asimakopoulos's film.
One thing his movie inspired, not just because of the backdrop of Greek culture, but because of the movie's focus upon the theme of family, is something I hadn't though about for a decade or two.
Specifically, it was this:
I wish I could remember the precise date I saw Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis in concert when he visited Winnipeg in the 1970s, but I think it was sometime between 1972 and 1973 because I went to see him conduct and perform live soon after seeing the 1972 Constantin Costa-Gavras film State of Siege (a movie I loved, with a score by Theodorakis that I loved even more). I also know it was before seeing Sidney Lumet's 1973 Serpico (a movie I loved that hasn't quite stood the test of time, though the Theodorakis score most certainly has).
I remember asking my parents to buy me a ticket to see Theodorakis at the Centennial Concert Hall - mostly because I owned the original vinyl soundtrack recordings to Zorba the Greek, Z and State of Siege. After all, what self-respecting 13-year-old movie geek living in the provincial backwater of Winnipeg would not want to see someone he considered a star. Yes, I had the movie bug so bad, that even as a kid, "stars" to me were not just those in front of the camera, but those behind it.
For some reason I clearly remember it being a Sunday afternoon when I saw Mikis Theodorakis. Live. In-the-flesh. The concert hall was packed to the rafters with Greek-Canadians. There were, however, two Ukrainians in the audience - me and, as I eventually noticed sitting a few rows down, my late Uncle Walter Klymkiw - a great choir master and scholar of Ukrainian Folk Music.
Uncle Walter was kind of a cultural touchstone for me within my ridiculously large extended family of Ukrainians. As a kid, I was always enamoured with his great love and knowledge of literature, theatre and yes, music. Whenever he took the time to engage me in some conversation about something I loved (usually Chekhov, Dickens and Mahler), I'd feel a strange warmth, probably because he was someone who didn't - at least during my childhood - think I was out of my mind for being passionate about something other than the commonplace. (In fairness, my Mom was especially accepting of my obsessions with all things artistic, even if she herself didn't quite get all the obsessions herself and Dad took me to every Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne picture.)
Uncle Walter was family - but not immediate.
This is, perhaps why I get so sentimental when I think about him.
That afternoon at the Centennial Concert Hall was gob-smackingly exhilarating. Theodorakis was not presenting his film scores, but music I'd never heard before - music that chilled me to the bone and perhaps even more so because the audience leapt to their feet after every piece. Electric. That's the only way I can describe it.
I flagged my Uncle down during the intermission. He asked me why I was there. I told him about my love of the Theodorakis movie music and then I asked why he was there. He explained that Theodorakis was a refugee, living in exile away from his beloved Greece where he fought strenuously against a repressive regime. He explained that, like our family - Ukrainians - Theodorakis was fighting for the freedom and culture of his people outside of his own country - Greece.
This definitely struck a chord with me. My own family had numerous founding members of a federation in Canada that was devoted to preserving Ukrainian culture outside of Ukraine as it was being repressed by the Russians after the revolution until the early 90s. (One might say, the repression from Russia is continuing in Ukraine due to the gangsterism of Putin, but that's another story.) In any event, Uncle Walter's revelation to me cast a new light on my appreciation of the second half of the concert and explained the audience reaction in the first half of the concert.
Beyond a new aesthetic appreciation for Theodorakis, I was, even at the time, reminded of the importance of family. A common bond of blood opened my eyes to something new.
Love is a powerful eye-opener and this is what's at the root of Fortunate Son. The above personal memory - a mere shard of my life - came flooding back to me after seeing Asimakopoulos's film, but most importantly, the notion that love and family are why we're all here on this Earth.
Another great thing Fortunate Son reminded me of was Elia Kazan's America America, his great dramatic rendering of his own Greek family's escape from repression in Turkey. This was a movie I'd seen on TV as a kid and I remember what a huge impression it made on me - so much so, that even when I see it now I'm easily able to repress the picture's occasional flaws.
The opening shot of Mount Ararat in Kazan's film seems almost identical to the opening shot in Fortunate Son of a mountain overlooking Azimakopoulos's own parents' Greek village.
In both films, this is an extremely powerful image. It represents an almost pastoral beauty - one that seems to exist in another time and place, but also conjures up thoughts about how far away and seemingly unattainable it is - unless, of course, one chooses the arduous task of climbing it.
For Asimakopoulos and Kazan, their films and the personal tales they tell are not unlike a mountain that must be climbed - to conquer that which seems too formidable, a dragon that must be slain, but requiring obsessive bravery and fortitude to deliver the ultimate blow.
From this opening shot, Asimakopoulos provides a haunting montage of immigrants on a boat, long-ago memories of happy couples celebrating life and love and then juxtaposed with a series of odd, evocative black and white images of a swarthy young goodfella - adorned in a sport coat and staring at himself in the mirror (not unlike that of Jake LaMotta near the end of Raging Bull). The soundtrack to this point has been dappled with its own montage of hollow, barley audible sounds of boats, water, clinking glasses, Greek folk music, laughter and then we get the first words of narration that spell out the journey we're about to take with Asimakopoulos in Fortunate Son.
"Am I a good son?" asks the haunted voice. "Am I a bad son?" And then, in an almost stylized goodfella-from-the-hood fashion: "I dunno."
This is the peak the filmmaker must ascend. We want to immediately to climb it with him. We want to know if he is a good or bad son. We want him to know if he is a good or bad son. And perhaps most indelibly, we're reminded of how all of us wonder the same thing. Are we good kids or bad kids? Are we good parents or bad parents? Are we good husbands and wives or bad husbands and wives?
Or is there no such thing?
Or more truthfully, is goodness found somewhere in the middle - in shades of grey?
The journey Asimakopoulos takes us on makes for a compulsive, sad, funny and profoundly moving experience. We hear about his parents' life in Greece, their immigration to Canada, their life in the New World. We become privy to the story of their roller coaster ride marriage, Tony's childhood, his troubled adolescence and eventual struggle with heroin addiction. We experience his current relationship with his Mom and Dad while also exploring life with his beloved fiance Natalie. We hear and see his parents' patterns of behaviour, both past and present - the laughter, love, tears and conflict. So too do we experience Tony's own love story - fraught with the same emotional challenges that his parents faced and his fear that he is merely repeating the patterns of his life before heroin addiction or worse, the sins (as it were) of his Mother and Father.
Asimakopoulos renders this tale with a skilfully edited blend of archival footage, old home movies, scenes from his student films, experimental work and his first feature film. We get up close and personal shots of his life and that of his parents - deftly interwoven with head-on interviews.
We see the hopes, dreams and lives of a family which, finally, remind us of our own experiences.
At one point Natalie talks about her own parents splitting up and asks Tony about his Mom and Dad. "Do you ever wonder why they stayed together?" she asks.
Without hesitation, Tony responds: "No. Not really."
And for some of us, his response makes perfect sense. Old World families and, to a large extent, previous generations with Old World values might have considered splitting up, but they almost never did. In a sense they're imbued with what I like to think of as the maturity of fortitude.
Yeah, yeah - so life doesn't always deal you the cards you want, but you keep playing the game because whatever losses you might suffer, the elation of the occasional win is too great to give up based upon the whims that so many with New World values and recent generations have inspired.
It's easy to give up, but as Asimakopoulos's film demonstrates, it takes courage, REAL courage to keep going, to keep fighting the good fight, to never say never. (Kind of like the aforementioned film industry decision makers - it's easier to say "No" than have the courage to say "Yes" when something seems difficult.)
This might be the genuine importance of Fortunate Son - it demonstrates the inescapable truth that love is not easy. For love to BE love, for love to really count, it takes work, courage and fortitude. It means giving up ephemeral happiness for that which really counts - the happiness of endurance, of perseverance, of never giving up.
This is ultimately, the importance of family. (Or, in the words of a character in Peckinpah's Ride The High Country: "I want to enter my house justified.")
And sure, Asimakopoulos details what many of us, and even in his own words, describe as "dysfunctional" families. Yeah? So what? All families are dysfunctional to one degree or another.
Again, all that matters is love and family.
Is Tony's Mom seen as over-protective, over-bearing and even judgemental?
At one point, his Mom talks about Tony's fiance and declares: "I prayed you would find a nice girl and we found her, didn't we?"
Some might see the use of "we" as taking a degree of empowerment away from her own son, but does, in fact, present the fact that "we" are all in this together and that for all the trials and tribulations, family reigns supreme.
When Tony talks about kicking his heroin habit, we hear his addiction counsellor well-meaningly talk about Tony's need to get away from the shackles of the family unit. "You needed to get unhooked," he says of Tony leaving his family and while this was a good band-aid solution, we see repeatedly how it's love and family that truly saves the day.
When Tony accompanies his parents to their hometown in Greece, we get glimpses of what life and family was like back in their early years. Family and just how needy family can be is a truth that's both funny and moving.
Tony's Dad (who left Greece in 1967 during the beginning of the junta that Theodorakis fought against) jokes about how every time he went back to Greece to visit his mother, she'd cry and declare how old she was getting and how this would be the "last time" he'd ever see her again. He and Tony laugh good-naturedly when he reveals she said the same thing repeatedly over numerous trips back to see her.
Tony's Mom, on the other hand, paints an entirely different portrait of her connection to Greece and family. At one point, she finds a stone on the ground and thinks it might be nice to take this piece of Greece back with her to Canada. She thinks on it, then places the stone back, saying: "The rock will cry if I take it away from its home."
She sounds like my grandmother.
When she visits her Mother's spartan bedroom - preserved almost like a shrine, she finds some sacred religious artifacts that belonged to her Mother. She firmly declares that she will not leave them behind. "It would be a sin to do so," she says.
Later on, Tony's Mom reveals that she wanted to go back home, but that it was marriage to Tony's Dad in Canada that dashed those dreams. She does not say this with bitterness or regret, but with the aforementioned maturity of fortitude. When she discusses her Mother in Saint-like terms - a single mother who worked herself to the bone to feed her family - she begins to tear-up. Thinking about how much her mother sacrificed for her and how she eventually got sick and died alone is almost too much for her to bear.
As it would be for anyone.
And often, as personal films can do, Fortunate Son takes a turn in the story of this family when his Dad is diagnosed with stomach cancer and we witness the family's terrible and brave struggle to deal with this. Even here, however, there's a mixture of sadness and humour (as typified by the title of Armenian-American William Saroyan's great book and film, "The Human Comedy"). Here's Dad - seriously ill with stomach cancer - and Mom is piling heaps of artery-clogging food on his plate (something Ukrainians understand all too well). Mom even complains she's screwed the food up and heaps salty slabs of cheese on it.
"Put on some Feta to make it taste better," she offers.
And yes, food is very important to this family. We see one scene after another round dinner tables - piled high with culinary delights that watered this Ukrainian's mouth like a geyser. Early in the movie, Tony's Dad is leaving to play cards at the local Greek community bar. Tony's Mom gives him the most delectable list of food to bring home from the grocery store. Towards the end of the film, fearing her husband might die, she reveals to Tony that "I want to die before your Father does. It's better that way." Then she adds: "Because he can take care of himself."
At this point (along with many others in the movie), tears erupted from my eyes.
All I could think about was this: "Who would bring groceries home for her if her husband died first?"
It's a question all of us would ask in similar situations. The details might be different, but the sentiment is the same.
Tony Asimakopoulos is one of Canadian cinema's great unsung talents. His early student films and experimental works and first feature are brimming with a voice that needs to be heard. His work has been charged with a unique underground flavour - a kind of Greek Scorsese boys in the hood quality of obsession with dapplings of George Kuchar melodrama and lurid high contrast visuals. He's taken this style and while not completely abandoning it, he has developed and matured into a fine cinematic storyteller.
Fortunate Son is, quite simply, a genuinely great film.
It's a movie that everyone must see.
And yeah, I can think of a few Greeks who might love it too.
"Fortunate Son" will play theatrically at Montreal’s Cinema ExCentris (3536 Blvd,St.Laurent) on June 1-3, 2012. The film is in English & Greek, with English & French subtitles. For showtimes check the Excentris website for screening times HERE. Additional playdates in Canada throughout the next few months can be accessed by visiting the EYESTEELFILM website HERE.