Michel Demopoulos: Citizen of the Cinema

Time is turning back… Dive into the pages of “Contemporary Cinema” magazine, from where the reader catches a name that seems to share the sacred mysteries of the great festivals and infuse us with experiences from the modernism of the 70s: Michel Demopoulos. Really, why the foreign name? 

Out of an origin or a desire to connect with what the French culture of the time carried in film criticism around the world: psychoanalysis, structuralism, mainly semiology? Mixed meanings and words, Michel simplifies them. Reading the “Contemporary” gospel and an introduction to a writing style different from the prosaic nature of newspapers, even if there one finds more and more moments of enlightened perception and writing. From the central figures of the pioneering magazine, Michel seems to live in the paradise of images, leading an enviable life.

Once this life ended.

He had managed, however, to set up in the country, before our eyes, such a cinematic celebration, the same as those that lived in our imaginations through the texts of the lucky few, who passed them on to us. Stories from the festivals of the world were like sailors’ stories from voyages on the big screen. And now, at the beginning of the 90s, the story was coming true; Michel was a worthy captain, who found a dying schooner in the middle of nowhere and undertook to guide it safely to the port of Thessaloniki. The Film Festival, with celebrated navigation for thirty -then- years in the domestic seas, had seen in its last days, a deathbed descending from the heights of the second theatre balcony (B’Exostis), a harbinger of double death. The merchandise (the Greek films) was rotting in the holds and its once glorious carrier was sinking with it.

To build the boat, it took a lot of hard work, but more of a change of sail. How could one manage it, when the unionists were jumping around him, the second theatre balcony demanding a central position, with the rights of field protests, suspicion on all sides abounding, money not easily overcoming zero visibility?

Michel knew pictures and faces. He could sing, like a depraved Dionisis Savvopoulos, “to see the auteurs I caught up…” and he carried them, even as physical presences, many of these directors-auteurs, along with their cinematic prowess, here in our parts. Initially, he had only one ally, the critics of the seventh art. He had spearheaded their merger into a union (the Panhellenic Union of Cinema Critics – PEKK), where many of these individual carvers of another cinematic discourse, inspired by the materials of European criticism, would meet. The most basic of all is cinematography. A system of references drawn from the mood of cinema’s annunciation on a life axis. Movies are not just there to be seen; they permeate us, circulate in our veins, illuminate our loneliness, our drama, our elevation.

Until his last days, Michel breathed with the oxygen given to him by the light beam of the cinema hall. As befits any mystery of this light, he gave opportunity to its prevalence, filling the Festival with such cinema halls and images. In the harbour he set up small shrines, the faithful began to flock, hesitantly at first, then fanatically.

At the same time, a stale, almost musty city began to breathe life which, after some time, was reliving its cosmopolitan identity. Once great, for centuries, recently fallen noblewoman, morbid devotee of “past greatness”. Conservation has always been its most dangerous compass of disorientation, magnetised by a central authority which, as a dictator, deprived it of any creative initiative. Even now, thirty years later, nothing blooms in the scorched earth of its letters and arts and there is only one Film Festival left to remind of the possibility of its connection with the corners of the planet which some days a year, they also live with the material that dreams are made of. Recently, on a visit to the Kurdish and unknown Duhok, where a correspondingly ambitious film festival has been set up, I heard them say that they want to be like Thessaloniki: to enter the map through the road of the seventh art. 

It was then, perhaps for the first time, that I realised that the use of the French name “Michel” (instead of the Greek “Mihalis”) was just an identity element of an unrepentant citizen of the cinema.

Vassilis Kechagias
Edited by Rita Di Santo