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Bearer of Gifts: Eleni Bertes

Eleni Bertes in Athens

The 17th Greek Film Festival is currently on in Melbourne, and one of the best films in the program is the vibrant civil war drama Psyhi Vathia (With Heart & Soul).  Directed by Pantelis Voulgaris, the film is produced by Pantelis Voulgaris, Yiannis Iakovidis and Eleni Bertes.


Eleni Bertes.  For many of you in the Greek community in Melbourne, it is a known name.  And indeed, this Greek Film Festival would probably not exist today if it weren’t for her vision and dedication back in 1993.  And being the designated “Director” of the festival until the 10th one, in 2002.


As I sit with her in a groovy café in Exarchia in Athens, she is clearly in her element here in Greece: a long-time advocate of Greek cinema, she is now directly involved in its actual production, and she is loving it.


But back in 1993, in Melbourne, she felt a lack, an absence, and that something needed to be done about it.  She joined together with Costas Markos and Costas Karamarkos, and they decided to stage the 1st Greek Film Festival.


“All three of us had a passion to re-define the notion of Greek culture and to move away from the ‘traditional’ expressions of culture then promoted by the community organisations including the Antipodes Festival. Cinema was one way we felt we could communicate and present a more accurate reflection of contemporary Greek culture.”


In those early years of the festival, it had funding by the Antipodes Festival, but Bertes and her co-organisers worked voluntarily.  “We invested both time and money as we believed passionately in the significance of an annual film festival.”


As the ‘90s progressed, the festival started growing and establishing itself as a permanent and anticipated fixture of the Melbourne film scene.  “What touched me the most”, Bertes reflects, “was how various individuals over the years became true patrons of the film festival. Essentially I watched the festival find its audience.”


And I myself was very pleased at the time.  As a film lover, I was hungry to see some contemporary Greek films, as the Melbourne International Film Festival and other events would not screen any.  So seeing edgy new films from directors such as Constantine Giannaris and Sotiris Goritsas was very rewarding for me.


Not so for some punters at the festival however!  “Many people reacted to the images of a ‘Greece’ presented in the films we screened that did not correspond with the images (and values) that they held dear, that they remembered, that were familiar to them. That can only be confronting.”


Of course, one can understand this response, from older people who left Greece in the ‘60s, migrating to Australia.  But the festival was a success.  “Many people embraced the festival, applauded it”, Bertes says.  And clearly 2nd Generation Greek-Australians were attending the festival also.


When the 10th Greek Film Festival was over, in late 2002, Bertes realised that it would be her last.  “I have always thought of the film festival as a ‘child’. As a parent it's important to nurture, provide for, encourage, but there comes a time when you need to let go and let a child stand on its own two feet.”


That the festival is still going strong now, in its 17th year, pleases Bertes.  “I am delighted. I feel proud. The film festival is very dear to me.”


In Melbourne, at the same time as running the festival, Bertes worked for Film Victoria and then Cinemedia, in the legal and business affairs departments, focusing on contractual matters for various film and TV productions.  So behind the scenes, she had a big presence in the realisation of many Australian films.


In 2003, a new chapter in her life began:  she started living and working in Greece.  Various jobs ensued:  general consultancy to the film industry;  the researching and delivering of a report on establishing a Greek Film Commission;  and working as an entertainment law consultant for the legal firm Avramopoulos and Partners.


But it was her work as Executive Producer on Pantelis Voulgaris’ Psyhi Vathia that excited her the most:  “Working with Pantelis was, and is, in itself an incredibly rewarding experience … but the film took 4 years to make and there were some really tough moments.  It was all shot on location, with children and hundreds of extras.”


And the film had an extraordinary reaction in Greece: “People would approach Pantelis in tears, thanking him for the film.  But the critics, journalists, historians, political parties all reacted very ‘loudly’, almost violently.”


Bertes is now fully in “film producer” mode – apart from launching her own film production consultancy company, she is developing a number of feature film projects with young directors, and she is forward-looking.  “It is a hopeful time because there is a New Wave of Greek cinema, a new ‘breed’ of filmmakers that have a polemic and a voice very different from anything else we know about Greek film to date.”


So look out for her films in the next few years, at the upcoming Greek Film Festivals!

© Bill Mousoulis Nov 2010.

This article first appeared in Neos Kosmos, 5 Nov, 2010. reference