Interview: Konstantina Kotzamani, director of Electric Swan

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GSFF speaks to greek-born director Konstantina Kotzamani about the magic-realist spectacle of her filmmaking practice, buildings with motion sickness and professional mermaid schools. Kotzamani’s contribution to the Bill Douglas Award selection Electric Swan is a hyper-surrealist nightmare of colour, flawless symmetry and high-rise class division. Her still, portrait-like framing emphasises space in Electric Swan as the big feathery elephant in the room, where Kotzamani’s characters are able to connect through their disconnection with social reality. 

Your magic-realist style of filmmaking makes for complex and compelling cinema. Do your films hold specific underlying meanings or are they purposefully ambiguous to encourage multiple readings?

I think the sensation of multiple meanings derives from the fact that the realism in my films is closely related with the oneiric function and I am not referring to the ability to sleep or dream. While dreaming is meaningful in itself, the oneiric function produces infinite, intelligible and immediately comprehensible images. This function precedes causality and produces meaning or an opening of meaning beyond words that permits multiple readings, unexpected replacements and connotations; A playful decoding of the narrative puzzle.

Could you elaborate on that specifically with Electric Swan?

Electric Swan is a film about a building that dreams. Through its pipes that leak and its walls that shiver its dream spreads and enters to its residents and to Carlos, the concierge that lives in the basement.

How do you feel the dream-like form of Electric Swan helped in the telling of its story? 

I can’t think of a story without its dreamlike quality. It is the only way I know how to tell stories. All of them are connected in a way with archetypical themes such as love, loneliness, mystery and surrealism. And of course a lot of misunderstandings that tingle the narration and force it forwards. 

You use a utilisation of space and theme to explore class structure in the film. What interested you about the subject matter and why did you choose to approach it in this way?

Buenos Aires is a huge colonial city. Coming from Greece, with a totally different background, I was really impressed by how the class pyramid is reflected on the architectural structure. The different social classes rule the geometry of the city. The architecture resonates with the emotional map of its residents. And the film indeed plays a lot with this allegory. 

Tall buildings are very unstable structures and they do move. That’s why they are made by elastic materials in order not to break when there is a quake or a sudden strong wind. People used to take Dramamines in skyscrapers to overcome motion sickness. Also, social class hierarchy is an unstable system on its own, the pyramid of classes is trembling in every slight change. When you are at the top you have the fear of falling down. When you are on base you have the fear of getting stuck. I thought using a bourgeois building suffering from motion sickness would be a playful visualization of this social struggle.

The inspiration for Electric Swan came from your first day in Buenos Aires, can you tell me about that experience and how you applied it to your filmmaking?

Well, the idea of Electric Swan started quite magically! I first moved to Buenos Aires in 2016. During my very first day in Buenos Aires, I had a long walk at the park where this film’s tropical swan lake lays. While I was resting on a bench, a Chinese tourist family was staring at a swan floating quietly on the water. It was really hot and the swan was floating in stillness. The father turned and asked me if the swan was electric or not. As I seemed quite shocked by his question, he explained that in their hometown park they have electric miniature animals that move with batteries.

Finally I ended up staying in Buenos Aires for two and a half years as I was overwhelmed by the city. Still, the phrase of the Chinese tourist ‘electric swan’ echoed inside me for a long time. Reality can be diffracted on crystals by different emotions and cultural associations and instantly change its route. How do I perceive the new, how can I get a deeper understanding of a culture I didn’t grow up in? So this is how Electric Swan was born; trying to captivate and imagine the surreal micro-portrait of a city that I loved so much. 

Your next project Titanic Ocean is currently in development – can you tell me a bit more about that?

It all began when I stumbled across a photo in an article during my morning coffee – five teenage Japanese girls wearing mermaid costumes in an indoor pool. My first impression was that the photo was fake. But, as it turned out a real mermaid training class was actually taking place. I soon discovered that not only do professional mermaid schools exist, but that they are an ever-growing trend.
So Titanic Ocean is a film set in a professional mermaid school in Japan, where teenage girls go to follow their dream of becoming professional mermaids. A very special boarding school genre. Dreams, struggles, breath holding tests, shark watching and siren songs. Titanic Ocean is a blend of harsh realism and magical surrealism. A coming of age story that crosses human boundaries. A tender and dark film about girl power.

Interview by Heather Bradshaw. Electric Swan screens in Bill Douglas Award 5: Top Heavy.