What makes an artist? By Thodoris Giahoustidis

in 8th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Thodoris Giahoustidis

What makes an artist? Stelios Charalambopoulos addresses this simple but archetypal question in his documentary Yannis Moralis. Depicting one of the most important Greek painters, the director attempts to answer this crucial question which, when taken a bit further, provokes the more fundamental question: What is art?

Although the latter is almost impossible to answer, the documentary manages to provide a satisfactory answer to the artist question. In a very characteristic scene of this very well-made documentary we see Yannis Moralis walking around his paintings at some gallery exhibition of his work. He is accompanied by Marina Labraki-Plaka, director of the Greek National Gallery, who talks to him about his work using specialised language and terms incomprehensible to the average man. Moralis subtly answers back using a phrase from Moliere’s Would-be Gentleman (La Burgeois Gentilhomme), “Oh, you don’t say! And all this time I could never tell!” Through this short scene the documentary takes a clear position on the artist’s role. It doesn’t view art as something dead or high and obscure and the artist as someone distant from the people s/he addresses, that is the average every day man. The artist isn’t someone secluded from the world, an elitist, capricious, sui generis creator. On the contrary, the artist is a flesh-and-blood human being in direct relation to life distinguished from the rest of the world only in terms of his/her talent to sublimate life into art.

The director of this documentary is lucky to have as his object a very lively man, who could easily have hidden behind his reputation, fame and accomplishments. Quite the opposite! We see this reputable old man on screen chatting about the pleasures of life with great humbleness, simplicity and self-awareness. Being among the last of the great ’30s Generation, he exemplifies the lyrics of Dionisis Savopoulos’ song, that, “History is written by friends”. The documentary refers to all the Greek intelligentsia of the time: Elitis, Seferis, Hatzidakis, Koun, Tsarouhis, Moralis, all of them one group, all of them creating art but not as suppressed miserable people; on the contrary all of them were into hedonism.

Any documentary attempting to present the life and art of a person should make sure that its object attracts interest. Yannis Moralis is above all a very interesting man. The advantage of this documentary is that even if watched by someone who is totally ignorant of the artist’s existence and work it still manages to attract the spectator’s attention with Moralis’ personality and positivism. Furthermore, the documentary is structurally impeccable. Every little detail is catered for from editing to photography, and the film’s fine lyrical music by Nikos Kipourgos will leave no spectator indifferent.

Finally there is the question: Aren’t documentaries about recording facts as they happen, making widely known issues and events that afflict people’s lives? Why should a documentary which deals with one person’s life be awarded? The answer is rather simple: Because it was the best!