Jun 9, 2013

Be watchful

My personal story of walking blindly into the darkness

Written by Chris Vlahonasios
Edited by Kyriaki Fuss

When you visit my blog many of you will read my profile because I am a stranger. You have no idea who I am or my agenda. You want insight into what kind of person I am and what I think. I can assure you whatever I post, it’s done in complete honesty and openness. I’m fully accountable for what I post and its effect on both you and the world.

Understanding someone’s character is vitally important. In life you’ll have to rely on people: family, friends and strangers. Sometimes they’ll support you, sometimes they’ll surprise you and sometimes they’ll fail you. My spiritual father told me to expect this.

The story begins
For several years I was involved in the Melbourne indie filmmaking scene. It was a passion I always had, but didn’t realise it until my future year 12 English teacher, ‘Mr A[1]’, opened my eyes. He too was a film lover and understood the importance of making a young man realise his potential. It was during the ‘work experience week’ in year 11 where students would go experience the workforce. For those who didn’t take up that opportunity, including myself, we had ‘cultural week’ – a week of excursions and cultural experiences. This was life changing.

When it was Mr A’s session, he wanted to create an intimate cinematic atmosphere in a small, rarely used old hall room. For the next two hours he screened his favourite cinematic moments. He explained the effectiveness and impact of the lighting, scenery, music and narrative. As I sat in that hall, enveloped in the darkness, it all made sense. This was real power – stirring real, genuine human emotions. Although I would be pursing a different path at university – a degree in law – but the love of cinema never left me.

I’m not going to go through the next several years of my filmmaking experience as it distracts from my story. In short, I learnt about filmmaking whilst studying at university and got involved wherever I could. I then got to a stage where responsibilities took over and I had not made a short film for nearly 2 years. So I did what any filmmaker does when their film career hits the brakes and their opportunities are few – start a film festival! So, the Queen St Film Festival was born.

It was a great experience. I got to be involved in the film scene yet not have to stress over the difficulties associated with the filmmaking process on shoestring budgets. I managed to balance my studies, which by then became a double-degree, along with working part-time. This surprised both my family and myself as we were certain it would affect my academia. I think I enjoyed the pressure. The sense of time constraints and sponsor expectations didn’t bother me – I loved all the little, tiny details that would creep up and throw a spanner in the works. Despite the funding issues, technical hic-cups and 3,000 word essays, I still obtained great enjoyment from deciding which finger foods to serve at the pre-screening refreshments and ticketing layout! But this was all going to change.

By the fourth year (2008) I was in a difficult situation. I had the opportunity to graduate with honours which would add more value to my degree. This involved writing a high quality thesis of 10,000 words whilst maintain an overall subject-grade average of Distinction or better. I was on a tightrope. I realised these pressures at the beginning of the year; my family encouraged me to consider dropping the Festival. But my male pride told me this was not an option. Only someone ‘weak’ would back away from his responsibilities; a kind of ‘life’s tough, get use to it’ mentality. So, I accepted the challenge.

At the start everything was fine, I managed to stay on top of my readings and began researching my paper. The Festival was always in the back of my mind, figuring out marketing strategies and event logistics. However, I was beginning to feel the pressure. This year was not as fun as previous years. I had less time and a lot to lose. I didn’t want the Festival to fail because then I would be a failure. As it was still several months away I thought of dropping it while I was still ahead. The sponsors understood it was my final year, but I couldn’t do it. This Festival was my ‘baby’ and I couldn’t neglect it. I couldn’t let it go. I had to find another solution.

The chief reason why the Festival was becoming increasingly hard to organise was because I, foolishly, took sole responsibility. This was for several reasons: the University was not big on the media scene and they relied on my film experience to put the Festival together as they had never done anything like it before. I also didn’t want anyone else to get the credit because it was me who established it, organised it and I never asked for payment despite all the time and effort I put into it. I also wanted to only screen films which I thought morally acceptable according to an Orthodox mindset. Although the Festival gave me a buzz, it always came with the added responsibility of making it bigger and better each year. As I was considering whether to pull the plug, I made a decision that would, in no small way, change my life. But we have to rewind back to late-2007.

I was at a small screening run by one of the media classes at my university. At these sorts of events, I would always network because you never knew who you would find. And it was there I met Dan[2]. He was a year or so younger than me and an indie filmmaker hoping to become a big filmmaker. He knew several of the guys at the screening who had also submitted films to my Festival. That year’s submissions had already closed but he was looking forward to submitting next year. Dan also told me about a feature film he was slowly working on; an action/thriller about soldiers in the bush. This interested me as it showed he was ambitious and through him I could somehow get to be a part of this feature. I sensed he was switched-on to the film scene and possibly presented many new opportunities for me. We exchanged numbers and said to stay in touch. I also mentioned if he ever needed some legal ‘advice’, stressing I was not yet a lawyer, he could always give me a call. Over the course of several weeks we would talk on the phone about his current projects and any legal issues. I provided him advice based on what I knew. I was very interested in Intellectual Property law and hoped to practice in that field. Any experience, no matter how small, would help. He told me about a possible issue arising from using images of a popular music band. Dan promised to give me a copy when it was finished.

It was also during this time of getting to know Dan that I felt comfortable enough to introduce him to other filmmakers. The one such filmmaker was Vince[3] an ambitious indie filmmaker who I met through my Festival. I had worked on one of Vince’s films which dealt with isolation, despair and hope – it was a positive short film. As part of filmmakers’ comradery, and self-interest, I screened several of his films in return. We also helped promote each other’s festivals via our email lists. Dan was only too happy to be introduced to Vince; Dan valued any experience he could get. I suppose I did what I did because I was in a position where I could possibly make a difference for somebody.

Now we move forward to 2008. Dan and I seemed to be getting along really well. Dan was a lot like me: studying a different course, hoping to be a filmmaker and working a job to survive. On one Friday night we went out for drinks at a swanky bar in the city. As the night grew old our discussion on film ran dry so we started on travel where Dan started to tell me about a trip to Thailand he took with his brother. On this holiday he mentioned how cheap certain ‘services’ were and how frequently both his brother and myself used these services. I felt a little embarrassed and just sat there drinking my beer. This was something I didn’t expect from him. Was it going to be an issue for me? When I thought about it the arts industry consisted of people with different opinions, attitudes and varying degrees of morality. Dan never revealed the extent of his spirituality. But I couldn’t judge him as I was just as sinful as anyone. I figured Dan made up for it in other ways. At the end of the night Dan gave me a DVD copy of the film he promised, entitled After[4].

The next day or so I sat down to watch his film. It was about a girl who committed suicide and was accompanied by a Goth-looking ‘angel’ through bushland. The film was set in an alternative underworld based on her earthy state of mind which was steeped in depression. I found the film un-Orthodox in so many ways: its conception of Heaven and its fascination with death, suicide, darkness and weird creatures. I compared it to other films and Dan’s was not as unsettling. I asked my brother to watch the film, as an Orthodox Christian, for his opinion. He did not see the film as dark as I saw it and argued that artists try to gain attention by making something weirder than others. I then discussed the film with Dan and he told me he was experimenting with different styles. This put me at ease. Taking into account all the various pros and cons I learnt of Dan I felt his keenness and enthusiasm for film outweighed his personal issues. It was then that I decided to offer him the position of Festival co-director. Dan gladly accepted. I was rapt. I could now relieve some of the pressure onto someone else and focus on my studies. However, I was still concerned about how to limit the negative influences of his personality from affecting the integrity of the Festival.

When it came time to allocate responsibilities, I maintained, as Founder, I would get to decide which films would be selected. Dan would be in charge of editing, web design and logistics. As a sign of appreciation I promised to select one or two of his films to screen in the Festival. This was all put into a social contract which I got Dan to sign. I told him it was to avoid any disagreements regarding responsibilities and disputes over credit. After he signed I then informed the sponsors of Dan so they could work with him. The contract was a sort of assurance to maintain some kind of Orthodox mindset over film selection. A few years previously I asked my spiritual father how to be an Orthodox Christian filmmaker. The main rule was to ask myself:

If I make this film, will I be proud of it in the future and would I want to associate myself with it?

With this advice in mind I believed the contract would give me the ultimate authority in safeguarding my spiritual wellbeing and that of the audience, Orthodox or not.

So we began working together. The first thing Dan did was upgrade the Festival’s online presence with a website instead of a blog. He never consulted me about this or even the outlay. When I first saw it there was something about it that bothered me. The site’s background was black with red writing and red ‘blood drips’ on the sides. My initial impression: anger, violence and death. At first I wondered if I was over thinking it and instead should be grateful Dan was working so efficiently. However, in marketing colours and patterns are not chosen by accident, they are designed to spark a reaction. As a method of human communication, colour schemes generate identity and create mood in order to relate with a group of people or convey a particular message. Dan also added web links of filmmakers I never authorised him to do. This was not due to any ‘power-trip’ I had as the Festival Director, but because these filmmakers appeared to make films of a dark nature. I began to realise Dan had to be closely monitored.

Then he wanted me to see another one of his films called Choice[5]. It was about a young couple deciding whether to save the live of their unborn child or the mother’s. Although it was a touchy subject, it turned out to be a well-articulated and balanced film about morality. After seeing it we discussed it over the phone. Dan said he wanted to try his hand at drama and planned to have a go at every genre in order to build up his experience. I found that quite encouraging as it meant he might move away from dark films. However, he then revealed something which challenged my perception of him.

As part of his ‘film career’ Dan was thinking about adult movies. At first I thought he was joking. He then told me about a company in Melbourne where he was thinking of auditioning. I felt this was something I couldn’t stay quiet about. I challenged Dan to explain how he believed this would help his career. He said it would add more screen credits to his resume. I told him that no reputable studio or media company would want to use someone who’s been involved in such activities as it would tarnish the company’s reputation. I then asked how many famous actors or directors did he know publicly admitted to starring in porn? In fact, studios do their best to cover it up. I then questioned him about the health risks, such as STDs and AIDS, and the emotional repercussions? Dan went quiet for a moment. He said he was just thinking about it. Although I did not hold his set of values it made me uncomfortable that I was working with someone who approved of such things an ordinary person, religious or not, would avoid. However, there was more to come.

It was one month out and the deadline for entries had just closed. I viewed all entries and made my selection. Dan asked if he could view the entries as well; I said no as I wanted to go through them in my own time. He was a little annoyed, but I had my reasons. Despite the contract Dan was becoming more insisted on key decisions to go his way. If we watched the films together he would pressure me to choose films he liked which might be morally questionable. I then gave him the short listed films so he could start editing. Things seemed to be on track. If I was ever going to work in any industry, film or other, I would have to deal with such people. So I tried not to stress out.

A week later I asked Dan to come to the venue to discuss logistics and check the projector. This is when he brought a new short film to show me. I was not aware of this one. He loaded it into the player, turned off the lights and we sat together in the dark to watch the premiere of Desire[6]. Even today I still have trouble discussing this film. The footage was dark and grainy with the colour purple overexposed. It was about the ‘love’ for another and their frustration. What really surprised me was the nudity (although not full on) of the main character played by one of Dan’s friends. I’m still not sure til this day but the sex/rape scene looked quiet real. As I watched I felt as if a trap door opened beneath my heart, plummeting down a deep, dark abyss. I say this truthfully, I was scared sitting next to Dan. In the corner of my eye I saw his expression as he watched; he was pleased with his work! It was then at the savage torture/murder scene I abruptly got up and walked out of the theatre. I couldn’t take it anymore. I nearly threw up in the middle of the quad. But I had to quickly leave in case Dan came after me. I was scared. I switched off my phone so he couldn’t call me. To think this was born from his mind, his ideas, and his vision. This ‘film’ was not made by an underground snuff filmmaker, but a young man from the outer suburbs. I also felt ill because I had given him a leg-up by introducing him to Vince, another avenue for him to pass off his scripts and ideas. As I went up to the library to hide I kept asking myself: how can I be associated with him? How can I work with him? How can I even look at him?

Later that night he called me.

“Why did you leave half-way?”
“I didn’t want to watch anymore. Your film made me sick.”
“Well, I think it was rude that you left and didn’t say anything.”

Our relationship, both personal and professional, was officially over. And now he had all the films in his possession. He had me over a barrel. In our conversation he asked me, “Will you let me put my films in?” I told him it couldn’t be all of them in which he replied “I don’t think that’s your decision.” My stomach sank. I felt completely powerless. Dan was now dictating things his way. Even our ‘social’ contract was meaningless: in law, a normal contract involves the paying of consideration between parties (ie. money). Our contract was only friendly in nature and in reality, worthless. Although I did promise Dan the screening of some of his films as a type of ‘consideration’ I don’t think that really mattered. But all that aside, what was I going to do?

The next few days I was numb. My studies didn’t matter and I couldn’t think straight regarding my honours paper. This situation was the only thing preoccupying. It stressed me out like nothing else in my life. I didn’t actually sleep for one whole night, tossing and turning in a panicked state. I was sick to my gut. You might think this a gross overreaction to something I couldn’t control, but the fact is I allowed it to happen, based on indifference and carelessness. Then I did the only thing that would help – prayer. For several days I asked God to help take this responsibility away and somehow for Dan to change his mind and leave. However, I realised that I couldn’t be making ‘requests’ or ‘wishes’ to God. Instead I asked for strength, guidance and a clear mind. It was then I called my spiritual father, Fr Andrew.[7]

I had been seeing Fr Andrew several years for confession. A young priest I found him to be very knowledgeable and a great guide in the spiritual life. Although the father confessor at my local parish was very experienced, I chose Fr Andrew because he previously worked in the media before becoming a priest. I didn’t seek his advice earlier for several ill-conceived practical reasons: his church was on the other side of town, choosing a co-director was like any other regular work-based decision, he was a very busy priest and I thought I figured out Dan’s character.

So I called Fr Andrew and told him my predicament. I even recorded the conversation so I could re-listen to it afterward in case I misunderstood something. In summary this is what I obtained from our discussion:
·        I was responsible for the Festival and its content;
·        from an Orthodox perspective, everything we do is a reflection of our Faith and values. By allowing certain content to be screened, or supporting such people, I too will be associated with their behaviour as if I endorse it;
·        whatever we do as Orthodox Christians, whether with other Orthodox or non-believers, affects the people we deal with and the rest of the world;
·        whatever I do or allow to happen (that which is within my control) I’m responsible before God; and
·        although I am not responsible for Dan’s actions; however, I am responsible for allowing them to occur. Dan had certain ideas and behaviour which sought an audience. Through the Festival he could expose more people to his way of thinking and in return influence other filmmakers.

I felt Fr Andrew’s advice was very helpful. Although I was not sinning directly, I was allowing these sinful ideas to reach a large audience. It was like a politician who legislates to legalise immoral behaviour making it acceptable to society, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Although you may not be participating in the activity directly you are allowing the evil to penetrate and fester within the community. It’s like that old saying: all that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.[8] I then asked Father Andrew what was I going to do regarding Dan’s possession of the finalist DVDs. Fr Andrew said I was the Festival Director and I should enforce my position. I could still work with Dan, but Dan had to realise he couldn’t do whatever he wanted.

That night I called Dan. I was nervous but I took onboard everything Father said. It was not long into the conversation when I got serious. I told Dan that I didn’t think we could work together anymore. I remember his voice becoming aggressive when he asked me the dreaded question,
“Why?”
I told him I didn’t feel he was working as a team.
“Is this to do with my films?”

I told him it wasn’t, because he could use this as evidence of unfair treatment by me. I insisted it was because he was not sticking to his responsibilities and did things without my permission, such as the website or choosing finalists. I said I would still be happy to work together but he had to respect my role in the Festival as the Founder and Director. He asked if I was going to screen his films. I said Choice could be screened. I felt it was his least controversial film and it was my way of keeping my promise and avoiding any hard feelings. He told me that he didn’t think I had the authority to make such decisions but I told him I was the one who started the Festival and the University left me responsible so I had the final say. It was on this he hanged up. Funny enough, although I had no idea what was going to happen next, I actually felt somewhat relieved. That night I prayed for a good resolution.

The next night Dan called. I braced myself.
“Chris, I quit. I quit, I quit, I quit.”

A great sense of relief poured over me.
“So when do you want me to give back the DVDs?”

I knew I had classes the next day, the sooner the better. He agreed and we finished up our conversation. However, I then worried if he would do something to sabotage me as it was only a few weeks til the Festival. He could ‘misplace’ some of the entries or damage them just to make my life difficult. We met the next day and Dan handed me the same box I gave him with all the finalists. Dan was remarkably calm. I thanked him for his help and wished him all the best. After we parted I quickly went to a stairwell and checked the box. All the entries were there. Dan was noble in his final dealings.

Straight away I emailed the University to inform them Dan was no longer working for the Festival. I then called the editor who had done the Festival’s previous screening compilations to see if she could put it together at last minute’s notice. Thank God she was available. I remember catching the train to pick up the final cut at her home after school. It was out of my way, not as convenient as getting Dan to do it. But as I travelled home on that crowed train in the darkness, I remember seeing my reflection in the window, holding the box. I smiled. My conscience was at ease.

The night of the Festival came quickly. Despite all the mishaps with Dan I managed to organise everything in time and work on my paper. I kept my word and included Dan’s Choice as a sort of olive branch plus as a means of showing approval for some of his work. However, I was very anxious that night. I was concerned Dan might come to the Festival to make a scene or speak badly of me to the sponsors and filmmakers. It was for these reasons I did not invite my closest friends so they wouldn’t have to witness anything unpleasant. However, Dan did not make an appearance and since that day he handed back the box I haven’t seen him in person.

It wasn’t til two years later at a large film festival that I stumbled across Dan. Vince, the filmmaker I introduced Dan to, made a film which was screening. Dan was credited as runner and assistant to the director. The film was something similar to Dan’s style: an unsettling and dark film with a comical twist. Although not like Desire it felt as if some of Dan’s influence maybe rubbed off onto Vince, despite being a more seasoned filmmaker. However, perhaps it was a coincidence as Vince did make short films with a bit of dark humour. I have not heard or seen any of his work and don’t know if Dan is still pursuing film. If he is I hope he’s making films which can inspire people in a positive and inspiring way.

It is no exaggeration that this experience was one of the most difficult in my life so far. It was ugly, soul-crushing and draining. However, it was also one of the most liberating, self-defining and insightful experiences. I discovered courage I never knew I had. And despite all the traumas and heartaches, I passed all my exams and graduated with Honours in Law. The Festival was also a huge success and I even continued it for one more year in 2009 despite graduating. This experience opened my eyes and made me rethink some big decisions which have changed my life.

It was this experience that inspired me to start up the Orthodox Filmmakers and Artists blog in late 2008. There was a need for a site that could provide support, encouragement and guidance to like-minded Orthodox. It turns out this struggle / cross was a blessing in disguise.

Life afterwards
At that stage in my life I was debating whether to work in law, building or film. In the end, I chose building.

I didn’t pursue film for two chief reasons: although it’s very hard work it gives me a sense of ‘spiritual protection’ – an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work – something I could be proud of. And despite the heat, bruises, sweat, cuts and dusty conditions of construction I would not trade it for working on a film which is contrary to my beliefs and sense of decency, even if in Hollywood. And if you’re wondering why I didn’t stick with law, especially Intellectual Property, it was due to the few opportunities and same moral dilemmas where you would have to support artists who’s work may be morally unpleasant.

My dealings with Dan made me realise if I was going to be an Orthodox Christian and a filmmaker I would have to deal with such people all the time. Factoring in that the Australian industry is small and opportunities few it puts enormous pressure on artists to set their spiritual values aside for experience and screen credits. The industry provides two paths to success: remain Orthodox and struggle; or abandon your Faith and do anything and everything to ‘succeed’.

However, I would like to make it very clear that I’m not suggesting talented Orthodox Christians cannot work in the media. Why should we be denied the right to express ourselves and to entertain others? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to inject our influence into the media? Why should non-Christian artists be the only ones to brainwash the public with evil ideas, such as materialism, hatred, cynicism and hedonism? But how we deal with the industry is what matters.

When in a position of authority and influence we should use it to incorporate our spiritual values, yet exercise fair and just decisions over others. This same principle applies to other industries as well. One needs to monitor when something may become spiritually damaging. We must carefully choose our jobs and projects to avoid such problems.

Take the time to understand an artist’s character. Try to discern what kind of person they are, what values they hold and whether those values and personality conflict with our Faith.

However, I can only blame myself for the mess I got myself into. There were warnings and I sugar-coated things. Maybe because I was afraid of losing opportunities, but it wasn’t worth it! Everyone who works in the media is responsible for the effect our influence and ideas have on audiences.

With my story, the most important thing I learnt was to stand up for myself. There’s nothing wrong in defending yourself, especially concerning moral issues, because sometimes we have to fight for what’s right. It’s only through tough challenges we grow and develop as individuals. It’s also where we potentially make some of the biggest decisions to other peoples’ lives through our actions or inactions. Through these trials God speaks to us because it’s during these times we pray for Him to give us strength. Sometimes we’re so convinced we need other people to push us up the ladder – in truth, when dealing with people with questionable values, we have to rely on ourselves and most importantly God and his saints. By putting our foot down and saying ‘no’ it can act as a deterrent for the artist to stop making art which people in authority don’t like. We may end up helping them.

My final words to Orthodox Christian artists: stick with it and remain strong. Don’t back down, but be reasonable in your decisions with others. Whatever difficulties you come across (even in general life) prayer and spiritual counsel are your only options. Working in the arts doesn’t mean you have to ‘settle’ with whatever – pick who you want to work with because it saves so much heartache.

Be strong, faithful and resilient til the end and if God believes there’s some good in the situation He will take care of it but we must play our part because He allows us to make our own decisions as well.

Lord have Mercy!


[1] Name has been changed.
[2] Dan is not the real name of the person mentioned in this article. This person’s identity, film titles and storylines have been altered.
[3] Name has been changed.
[4] Title of film has been changed.
[5] Title of film has been changed.
[6] Title of film has been changed.
[7] Name has been changed.
[8] Edmund Burke

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Reading your personal story was unique, suspenseful, and extremely fascinating. I read paragraph by paragraph with great curiosity. Your descriptive power of the events, conditions you found yourself in, as well as the critical decisions you had to make, was impressive and brilliant. I appreciated your Orthodox based critical thinking. It actually acted as your compass. Thank you for sharing!!!! - N.K

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with the comment above. Thanks for sharing and I'd like to say that I'm happy you started this blog due to your reasons because I think there are a lot of like-minded Orthodox who feel the same way and are searching for a way to be able to express their faith creatively, rather than feel pressured to hide their faith while being creative. God bless! - E.A