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IFFR 2020 Tiger Competition

Janis Rafa • Director of Kala azar

“Humans infect everything around them”


- Cineuropa caught up with Greek video artist-turned-director Janis Rafa, who is back at IFFR with her feature debut, Kala azar, following her short Requiem to a Shipwreck

Janis Rafa  • Director of Kala azar
(© David van Dartel)

In her debut feature, Kala azar [+see also:
film review
interview: Janis Rafa
film profile
, just about to screen at International Film Festival Rotterdam, Janis Rafa shows a couple working in a pet crematorium, driving around a deserted landscape – save for some dead animals that they encounter along the way. In the process, she proves that instead of fearing infectious diseases, humans should first take a closer look at themselves.

Cineuropa: When did the idea for the pet crematorium come up? Especially given that people’s reaction to animals on screen is usually much stronger than to all the violence we see.
Janis Rafa:
Approaching the subject of animals through a familial perspective, like household pets, opens up some questions about co-existence. It’s a collision of different bodies in one space – bodies that don’t necessarily belong together. But it’s also about mourning the loss of someone that’s very different from us. The way animals are usually represented in fiction has a certain “cuteness” to it, which is not something we were interested in. The act of collecting roadkill or bodies abandoned in that landscape was the starting point of the film. I used to travel through the same areas, and with time, I began to stop and photograph these dead creatures. Roadkill says something about those that just pass it by.

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Most of these indifferent people usually have animals at home. Why are they more important than the ones lying by the side of the road?
Take a piece of meat, lying on the table. How does it differ from your dog, sitting under it? I feel like we stopped asking ourselves these questions, also on a visual level. How do we create these hierarchies within our space?

There aren’t many dialogues in the film, and not much is explained, which kind of brings it more in line with this animal perspective as well.
Originally, we had even less! My work has a tendency to resist the spoken word, and a lot of scenes are usually left unresolved. It creates a sense of mystery and confusion, and it takes more effort to connect the dots. I wanted to build up a physical, textural and sensual world: it’s all about how one body leads you to the next one. Sometimes it belongs to an animal and sometimes to a human. The camera’s interest drifts away from the narrative, adopting a perspective that’s less anthropocentric. It often adds a new layer to the way the story is told.

The world you are showing is realistic, but because of the emptiness, there is a science-fiction vibe to it. It’s hard to pinpoint when the story actually takes place.
It’s a very lonesome universe. That’s also how I saw these characters: as disconnected from the surrounding world. The connections among the groups of people appearing in the film are not really there – they seem isolated and abandoned within their own space. These places, the grey zones on the periphery of the city, are timeless, in a way. You can find them almost everywhere, certainly in Greece, and you’re unsure if they belong to the past or the present.

Were Penelope and Dimitris [played by Penelope Tsilika and Dimitris Lalos] always supposed to be in a romantic relationship? There is something odd about this couple, as there is some distance there.
That’s the thing we discussed the most, especially Penelope’s character and who she is. We meet them at the moment that’s neither the end nor the beginning of their relationship, and what is happening around them has already infected them, in a sense. Also, time is not linear in the film, so these events could be taking place over a month or just three days. As you noticed before, nothing is fully explained here.

Coming from the art world [Rafa has exhibited her work at the Centraal Museum Utrecht, Manifesta 12 and Rijksakademie] and getting to know the cinematic language through art, I never felt the necessity to tell stories in a linear, clear way. In Kala azar, there is this scene of a band playing a requiem for the chickens, which could easily be a piece of video art. Instead, it became one of the forces driving me to make this film. I had to build up a narrative in order to accommodate it.

When you refer to the couple as “infected”, it brings us to that titular parasitic disease. But while it feels that this world has already experienced some kind of disaster, the situation isn’t necessarily getting better, is it?
I think it’s just the way I see the world [laughs]. I might be slightly pessimistic, but when we were working on the script, we used the word “post-apocalyptic” in order to describe this feel. When I finally stopped paying attention to human beings, this dominant force, every landscape started appearing very hostile and ruined. It’s a matter of perspective. It’s all about this neglected space, abandoned after some disaster. It’s one that doesn’t belong to anyone but can’t be reclaimed again; it can’t free itself from a human presence. It does feel like we are coming out of something dreadful or heading towards it – something that will destroy any kind of balance that’s left. I think this film shows that wherever humans show up, they immediately infect everything around them. It’s not the mosquitoes or other insects – it’s us.

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