Animal: Sofia Exarchou’s cinematic journey of individuality and dehumanisation | Sunday Observer

Animal: Sofia Exarchou’s cinematic journey of individuality and dehumanisation

10 September, 2023

During the recently concluded 76th Locarno Film Festival, I had the opportunity to watch the remarkable Greek film “Animal” directed by Sofia Exarchou. This thought-provoking film explores the complex interplay between individual identity and the dehumanising forces of a consumeristic society. In a Zoom interview with the Sunday Observer, Exarchou provides valuable insights into her cinematic journey and the thematic underpinnings of the film.

The film centres on the character Kaila – the main dancer of a dancing troop, portrayed brilliantly by Dimitra Vlagopoulou, who earned the Best Performance award at the 76th Locarno Film Festival for her outstanding depiction of Kaila. The character Kaila confronts a profound realisation about her existence within a seemingly idyllic yet starkly barren tourist beach resort in Greece.

Vlagopoulou’s remarkable acting skills brought Kaila’s internal struggle and journey of self-realisation to life, leaving a profound impact on the audience. Her ability to convey the complexities of the character, from the initial detachment to the eventual realisation and desire for change, was a pivotal element in the film’s success. The award not only recognises Vlagopoulou’s talent but also underscores the film’s ability to engage and resonate with viewers on a deeply emotional level.

Anima - l

Sofia Exarchou

In her interview, Sofia Exarchou shed light on the intriguing choice of title for her film, “Animal.” As she explained her creative vision led her to explore the nuanced relationship between humanity and the relentless mechanisms of a capitalistic society through this enigmatic title. She said that the origin of the title stems from the Latin word “anima,” signifying ‘soul’ and ‘animators,’ the individuals responsible for breathing life and spirit into audiences.

This linguistic connection served as a foundation for Exarchou’s wordplay, as she added an ‘L’ to ‘anima,’ transforming it into ‘animal.’ This transformation, where the ‘L’ subtly fades away, in the title card of the film at the beginning, mirrors the film’s narrative journey. It symbolises the gradual dissolution of individuality and humanity within the unforgiving confines of the capitalist system, giving rise to the intense and aggressive struggle depicted within the movie. Sofia’s choice of title, therefore, serves as a clever and thought-provoking introduction to the themes explored within the film, offering viewers a tantalising glimpse into the complex dynamics at play.

Pale and desolate visuals

Sofia’s depiction of the pale and desolate visual atmosphere in the film challenges viewers’ preconceived notions of Greece as an idyllic tourist destination, revealing the harsh realities hidden beneath its glossy surface.

One of the film’s strengths lies in its ability to highlight the contrast between the image of leisure and entertainment associated with vacation spots and the hidden struggles of the dancers behind the scenes. Exarchou’s intention is to unmask the dancers who toil tirelessly to create a facade of happiness and relaxation for tourists. This contrast serves as a poignant commentary on the duality of our perception of such environments, where reality often diverges from the idealised imagery.

Sofia said, “Through my main character, who has been working in a resort as a dancer, I wanted to depict how she copes with her emotions by gradually detaching herself from her experiences, whether at work or with the people around her. This emotional detachment becomes a survival mechanism for her, allowing her to hide her true feelings even from herself.

However, as the film unfolds, certain events force her to confront the emotions and truths she has been concealing. This process of dehumanisation and detachment, while initially a coping strategy, ultimately becomes a central theme of the story, shedding light on the toll it takes on individuals within the system,”

No way out

The interview with Sofia sheds light on the film’s overarching message: the difficulty of escaping from a dehumanising system, symbolised by the capitalist machine. The director said that, much like Kaila, individuals often find themselves trapped within this system, forced to wear metaphorical masks and maintain façades in their daily lives. This theme is universal, transcending geographical boundaries and resonating with viewers who have experienced moments of personal realisation and the desire for change.

“Escaping from this system is a utopia; it’s simply impossible. You are trapped one way or another. The machinery of this system is vast, and above it all looms the ultimate machinery of capitalism. No matter what you do, you can’t break free. The system will persist, unyielding, whether people attempt to escape or succumb, whether they collapse or resist – it remains immense,” Sofia said.

“In my storytelling approach, I deliberately avoided depicting a singular villain, such as a bad manager or a ruthless CEO, because my aim was for viewers to feel the enormity of the antagonist. It’s not an individual; it’s the system itself that’s fundamentally flawed and gargantuan, beyond our full comprehension,” Sofia added.

“Animal” challenges the viewer to confront their own understanding of the world and the systems that govern it. Sofia ‘s decision to portray the antagonist as the system itself, rather than an individual, underscores the film’s central message about the horror and pervasiveness of dehumanisation in modern society.

Fate of Kaila

In response to a question about the fate of the character Kaila at the end of the film, Sofia offers a profound perspective. As she explained through her storytelling, she aims to engage viewers in a more reflective and experiential manner. She said that the film portrays Kaila’s challenging journey of self-realisation, a path fraught with difficulties where this journey encompasses not only her struggles within the confines of her work but also her broader struggle with life itself.

“My filmmaking approach is not about providing all the answers, but rather immersing the audience in the experience. Kaila’s journey in the film is a challenging one, extending beyond her work struggles to encompass broader life challenges. It’s a universal moment of realisation when one recognises that things aren’t going well, and change is difficult. My intention is to make viewers connect with this realisation, a desire for change amid discomfort, and emotional turmoil. I want them to identify with the film on an existential level, leaving them with profound questions about their own lives,” Sofia said.

“Animal” is a thought-provoking cinematic exploration of the tension between individuality and conformity within a consumeristic society. Sofia Exarchou’s film challenges viewers to question their perceptions of reality, making it a compelling and socially relevant work that leaves a lasting impact.

Cinematic journey

Sofia’s cinematic journey, as described in the interview, reflects her passion for shedding light on the often-unseen aspects of society through the medium of film. Her educational journey initially led her to pursue electrical engineering at the Polytechnic School, but she quickly realised her lack of enthusiasm for the field.

Simultaneously, her growing passion for cinema prompted her to take a daring step into the world of filmmaking, despite the uncertainty of where it might lead. She embarked on parallel paths, dedicating her time to both studying cinema and continuing her electrical engineering studies.

Sofia’s determination paid off when she started working as an assistant director and script supervisor while also seeking funding for her short films. This two-decade-long journey has been marked by her dedication as an assistant and her efforts in creating short films. Over the past ten years, Sofia has been fortunate to seize the opportunity to direct her first two feature films.