Cinema Theory

Scratch: Cypriot short films, form and content

Zakarias Larsson –

This a new series of critiques concentrated on Cypriot short films. The aim is to draw connections from the short films, their form and content, to the society and politics. Additionally the aim is to bring out Cypriot short films and hopefully aid the short film scene to develop and grow.

The aim of the series is not to judge the films in terms of ratings of better and worse, nor I am interested in the technical aspects of the films, but to encourage new perspectives to these works that can tell a lot about the society we live in and to ignite critical dialogue. It is all written from a perspective and experience of an international filmmaker in the Cypriot society and thus is far from objective.

The first film in the series is Scratch from Paris Erotokritou.

The 15-minute Cypriot short film by Paris Erotokritou, Scratch, takes the viewer to a bleak and grey world, full of subtle and absurd human behaviour. At first glance the film appears almost as a series of paintings, connected by a loose narrative of lottery coupons being printed, distributed and scratched. It is a small promise of changing aesthetics of Cypriot cinema, where the usual rules of standard commercial cinema aesthetics are challenged by images that correspond more with the contemporary emotional experience.

These paintings have a clear aesthetic parallel to the Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, who, in his comedies paints the grey emotional landscapes behind the colourful, middle class welfare splendour of the Swedish society, or in other words behind the “advertising surface” of the society.

At first look, Scratch seems to do the same for Cyprus. It paints emotional landscapes of the society that are usually hidden, revealing new levels from underneath the surface of the care-free “Cyprus mentality”, happy holidays and colourful cocktails. In the grey landscapes of Scratch there is severe apathy, there is depression, there is numbness to violence, there is greed and opportunism.

To clear up the metaphor of the different levels of society, a brief explanation might be necessary. The perspective here is that in a society there are three general levels of experience. The first level is the superficial political and social one that is being advertised to the rest of the world about the particular society. In that level, each society looks surprisingly cute, emotionally healthy, and dignified. Then there is the second, the social superficial level that people living in the society autonomously keep up for themselves and for each other. That is usually governed by socially agreed norms, which differ in every society. It is the level of social appearances. Then thirdly, there is the emotional reality level of the people, which is usually very different form the socially constructed level that appears. And this is not the emotions and thoughts of a single person, but a more general, collective landscape of how people really feel.

Good example is Finland. On the first advertising level it is “the happiest people in the world”. On the second level, the people keep up some of these appearances, depending on the different social and geographic groups, but already the landscape is very different and far from the eternal shiny smile. The third level, the emotional reality landscape, can be seen from couple of perspectives for examples sake. One is medical. About half a million people out of five million of “the happiest people in the world” use anti-depression medicine. Another perspective is social, a more complex perspective that requires a poetic approach to reveal something truthful of it. That third level is very different and more diverse in all the scale of human experience as the first two levels.

And in a wonderful way Scratch paints one poetic perspective of this emotional landscape of Cyprus that aims to be more diverse and realistic than the usual social appearances. It suggest, through bleak humour, strong provocations about this society. For example the man whose job is to carry a pile of lottery coupons across a hall uses a scooter to avoid walking the 50 meters. The young man obsessively scratches lottery coupons to find salvation, an image of opportunism, apathy and desperation. The elderly women wait in line in the grey factory for the guts of the dead pig for their festive day, until one inexplicably receives the jackpot, the entire pig, assuming, because of unsaid family relations with the butcher. Foreign, cheap labour workers from Africa and Asia are working as lottery sellers in an empty city, where only cars pass by. All these landscapes draw a very different image of the Cypriot society than what we are used to and at the same time they connect directly to experiences or realities that anyone living in this society has witnessed. For example, a man in our village runs a kiosk and has 100-meter pedestrian path to it from his house. Instead of walking, he drives his giant truck around the village just to get there by car.

Already drawing these landscapes of a more realistic emotional state of the society is an important and critical act. This aspect already makes this film an important contribution to the society and the hopefully newly emerging critical cinema scene in Cyprus. However this is just one level in Scratch.

As the African lottery sales woman receives her daily tickets, the boss, handing them to her with a ambiguous, but a hostile gesture, recites the book of Job: “Though he slay me, yet I hope in him.”. This biblical reference, that later repeats in the film with its continuation: “Yet I will argue my ways on his face.”, provokes thoughts of a more archaic ethical consideration.

The book of Job, being a narrative of human’s confusion in the face of divine judgement, or more secularly expressed, the absurdity of who suffers and who is lucky on this earth. It seems to follow no logic nor known morals. The film perhaps suggests, guessing from the scene and how it was presented, that the global capitalism that is the organisational foundation of the Cypriot society, deals judgement in the same way as God in the book of Job. Namely, it seems that the poor, or the victims of an economical or social crisis, suffer absurdly, without anyone making those judgements, by merely incomprehensible chance.

But is it absurd logic or is there actually couple of “guys” there, whose logic is hidden in this apparent absurdity, as the biblical reference suggests? In the case of Job, as we know, those guys are God and Satan, who in the beginning of the tale, over something that could be a sort of a morning coffee chat, determined the logic behind Job’s suffering, by entertaining themselves in putting him in a test of will. He loses everything and suffers inexplicably. So regardless of the suffering appearing absurd to Job, actually everything was determined by a simple logic.

But for most of us, the ants of the terrarium of the global capitalism, portrayed also in Scratch, it easily feels like personal ethics are useless in the face of this seemingly absurd judgement and thus opportunism prevails, take-what-you-can mentality prevails, collective underlying depression prevails, inability to act reasonably in the face of it, prevails. However, as for Job, today there are also those couple of guys. And those couple of guys over their morning latte, determine structures that determine the societal conditions that for big part determine our emotional infrastructures and landscapes in the terrarium. They are the Gods and Satans of today’s societal structure, namely contemporary global capitalism.

This religious aspect of the interpretation is supported by the strongest image in the film of the festive sacrifice animal, the pig, being crucified on the cross of the barbecue. The crucified animal is eventually burned on the cross. The saviour, a messenger of ethics and a strong believer in personal responsibility over opportunism, was sacrificed again, metaphorically?

For me this image provokes thoughts of the ethical backbone of the film being deeply Christian. It seems to be, a rightfully bleak, but powerful alarm of the opportunism and apathy that an absurd sense of misfortune, brought on by a higher force, of an economical crisis in this case, can ignite in people. It does not seem like a film that criticises the effects of the economical crisis itself, or how people are the victims of it, which is the usual, politically correct critique, but portrays instead the effects of it in the emotional landscape and further criticises and warns the people themselves of the dangers that this situation poses on all of us.

The ending of the film is ambiguous, but rightfully uneasy. The opportunistic boy becomes more and more desperate as his obsessive scratching results in nothing. He eventually desperately looks for empathy from the African sales woman, to whose gesture of kindness, a hug, he responds to with sexual attempts. She leaves. He sits down to scratch the last ticket. It is left unclear if the boy eventually wins with it, like the title image in the beginning of the film has suggested. Regardless, the fire arrives behind his window. The assumption is that it is the same flame from the burning crucified sacrifice. This is left without confirmation, but certainly the flames provoke to act, instead of waiting for a saviour.