Asimina Proedrou on Threading the Needle in “Behind the Haystacks”

Asimina Proedrou could imagine a different life for herself as she started down the path of making “Behind the Haystacks” over the better part of a decade ago, studying film while working full-time for an international mining company in accounting, sales and marketing. Like most independent filmmakers, one career couldn’t exist without the other, but on the other hand, to complete a feature would require her full attention.

“I didn’t want to take the risk [of quitting the day job] until I was in the middle of the editing of the film,” recalls Proedrou of the career she spent 15 years in. “Of course I got the sabbatical to make the film because you cannot have a daily job [at the same time], but when I felt that, ‘Okay, the film was there, I can make this choice,’ I decided to leave.”

Upon seeing “Behind the Haystacks,” it’s understandable where Proedrou’s confidence came from as she makes a sophisticated debut set in a small village in Greece just across the border from Macedonia where a family threatens to be pulled apart by changes in the world around them. The writer/director shows their divide quite starkly in breaking up the film into three distinct chapters, with each section taking on a particular point of view of its central trio — patriarch Stergios (Stathis Stamoulakatos), a fisherman and farmer who has been taking increasingly desperate measures to stay afloat, his wife Maria (Elena Ouzounidou), who busies herself raising money for the restoration of the local church and their daughter Anastasia (Evgenia Lavda), whose night shifts training to be a nurse at a hospital in Macedonia expose her to the world in ways she might not under her father’s thumb, both able to sneak out to clubs after work to blow off steam and witness the ongoing tragedy of refugees that have risked life and limb to make it to their shores when arriving on gurneys during her day job.

Living on Dorian Lake has long isolated the family from the rest of the world where not much was needed for sustainability, but as migrants find the waterway as a potential port of asylum, it exposes fissures between Stergios, Maria and Anastasia in what they see as their responsibility to them and to each other, particularly when Anastasia hardly feels loved as she celebrates a birthday where her parents gift her a humble set of earrings while her uncle Dmitris (Paschalis Tsarouhas) can lavish her with a fistful of Euros to spend how she’d like. Proedrou ably shows the temptation of carrying on as they always have, paying little mind to what’s going on along their shores but when a tragedy occurs that could have direct implications, the cost of looking away for so long becomes clear, just as long unexamined issues in their personal relationships rise to the surface. Using a shallow depth of field throughout, one can feel a consciousness seeping into the frame quite viscerally as the camera stays close to the characters and Proedrou, who has had to smile at descriptions of the drama as a “modern Greek tragedy,” has made something to put the entire world on notice.

“Behind the Haystacks” has been playing festivals around the globe since fall of last year and now has the potential to take its most prominent international bow to date as Greece’s official entry to this year’s Oscars and Proedrou recently spoke about having to overcome so much to bring her feature debut to the screen and how a film that transcends borders had so much trouble crossing them during production.

What were the first seeds of this?

I wanted to make something related to [how] decent people become cogs in a corrupt system, and at some point, a friend of mine talked to me about Dorian Lake, which is on the border between Greece and North Macedonia, so it belongs [in part] to both [countries]. This lake is wild and beautiful, and this was back in 2015 and I thought it was the best landscape for the film because I also wanted to [a microcosm of] society of the larger [society], but one that’s quite far away from Athens. This is about six hours from Athens and I went there and the first night we stayed at the hotel next to the lake where 15 migrants [had set up camp], so then the refugee crisis started to be part of the story.

You’re never sure how the story is finally shaped because there are small, different things that motivate you [but at] the center, I had this idea of telling this story through three different perspectives and there are cultural contrasts, the foreign and the local, and these different generations and the members of this family that are different. There’s the father who is 50 years old, a fisherman and a farmer who starts smuggling mangroves and wants to avoid going to jail, then his wife, a mother who is very devoted to the priest and she has a position in the local church and then their daughter who wants to become a pop singer in an oppressive environment. The most important thing for me was to have these three different people who are trapped in the system [with] similar moral dilemmas although they make different choices finally.

Is it true Evgenia Lavda, the actress who played Anastasia, had no prior experience?

Yes, it was her first film ever after school. I was so lucky I found her. I knew she was not very experienced, so I had to take a risk and there was something with the truth in her eyes and some kind of pain that I felt that she’s the one. This was during the first lockdown, so we were rehearsing through a Zoom and she worked a lot. I was so happy she made all this progress and she could give what she gave in the film.

It was fascinating how you engage with the actors with the camera, both in terms of moving with them, but also really staying attuned to them with a shallow depth of field. How did you come up with that style?

I had a really, really great collaboration with Simos Sarketzis, a lovely DOP and at some point I called him and I said, “Simos, everything will be closeups,” and he was like, “Oh my God, are you sure?” And I said, “It will be a little bit close,” but I explained it’s not too much because you have the POV shots, which are wide shots, so you see the whole environment anyway. So when I made this decision. I was terrified, but I made the choreography of the actors and then I decided roughly on the choreography of the camera, and the whole feeling comes from my DOP [on the day of filming] because he was very synchronized with the actors. It was really, really impressive what he gave to the film because my hands were not in the camera, it was his hands, so the really great chemistry we had had an impact on the film.

You’ve said you were making this film under some difficult circumstances that led to more creative solutions. Was there anything you could get really excited about after perhaps being disappointed about what you couldn’t do to find out what you could?

Yeah, the circumstances were very difficult and they determined the style of the film. Of course you can see that the weather was very bad and the budget constraints were something that made us make creative decisions. One of the reasons I ended up choosing to have a lot of closeups was because it was good for the narrative of the film, but I also knew that we couldn’t have many extras. And we also shot during the second lockdown in three different places in Greece, so we couldn’t move from one city to the other. When we had to shoot in North Macedonia, the border was closed due to the second COVID lockdown, and we needed permissions for everything to move from one place to the other.

It was very difficult, but we were so excited to make this film and all these difficulties made us think about different creative things. For example, the three small dreamlike sequences we did in 10 minutes. The production said, “Oh, you can’t have all the sequences,” but the whole crew said, “No, we will do it.” And then [the producers] said, “Okay, you have half an hour for the whole thing, but the actress can stay in the water only 10 minutes because it was like minus 10 degrees.” I [thought], “Ah, it’s not possible,” but everybody was so excited to make this happen that each department was trying to find solutions and the input of all them was amazing. They put their souls in the film and that’s why we managed to make this film the way we made it.

The final product looks effortless, even though it couldn’t have been. What has the past year been like to watch this film travel?

When you watch the film, you shouldn’t feel the effort. Otherwise, the film wouldn’t work, but in the promotion stage and festivals and distribution, it’s not effortless. We’re very lucky. The film opened in 40 cinemas in Greece, which for the Greek population is big. We’re not distributing “Avatar,” and when they told me, I said “What are you talking about? 40 [theaters]?” And it did very well [with] the Greek audiences and stayed in the cinemas for eight months, but you have to work a lot. It’s not automatic. But I’m very excited because it’s my first film.

“Behind the Haystacks” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next screen at the Palm Springs Film Festival on January 5th at noon at Regal Cinemas and January 8th at 10:30 am at Mary Pickford is D’Place.

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