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Daily Bruin profile of directing alumna Alethea Avramis

Greek-American filmmaker builds bridges between cultures

Bruin photo by Valeria Castillo-Mendoza

Posted on January 23rd 2013 in Announcement

TFT alumna Alethea Avramis ’07, MFA ’12, whose crowd-funded thesis film “The Foreigner” traveled to Cannes and won a First Place grant at the Caucus Foundation Awards last year, was the subject of a thoughtful profile by reporter Jenna Maffucci in “The Daily Bruin” on January 23rd.

“I think that there’s something about Greek people,” Avramis says, “but also about Greek storytellers over time, that understands human nature in a way you don’t find in other places and in other cultures. I want to make films that reflect that.”

…as a history undergraduate at UCLA, her passion for film began to emerge as she often found herself walking the halls of Melnitz and developing a taste for a connection between Greek and American film, largely due to the influence of her dual-citizenship.

As an undergraduate senior, Avramis presented a thesis about the massacre at Kalavryta in 1943, later receiving the Carey McWilliams Award for Best Honors Thesis. This led to the making of her first film in 2006, “The Last Widow,” which centered around a Kalavryta massacre survivor. Avramis shot the documentary in Greece, opening up her interests in making future films in her ancestral country.

“I’ve always been drawn to that raw emotion that Greek people don’t shy away from,” Avramis said. “I love capturing the way that plays out, I think it’s a beautiful thing.”

In 2011, Avramis filmed “The Foreigner,” continuing to present a rare perspective by tying her American filmmaking to her Greek background. The light comedy, shot in Mani, Greece, focuses on a town that is at risk of losing their status because of a population shortage. When a traveling foreigner accidentally comes across the area, the mayor and other characters strive to keep him there for the sake of the town.

“When I made ‘The Foreigner,’ as an American director I was an outsider to the people I was working with; I was the foreigner,” Avramis said. “That was interesting for the film because in a way it gave it an outsider’s perspective.”

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Feature Stories

VIDEO – TFT Commencement 2011

Dean Schwartz celebrates our graduates with Boxer, Burnett and Hargitay

TFT commencement video

United States Senator Barbara Boxer delivered a memorable address at the TFT commencement ceremony on June 10 — even breaking into song at one point, to delighted applause from assembled faculty members, graduating students and their family and friends. Boxer deftly wove into her remarks a discussion of the importance of the work done by storytellers to the well-being of society.

Dean Teri Schwartz presented Distinguished Alumni Awards to Emmy and Golden Globe winner Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU), for theater, and writer/director Charles Burnett ’69, MFA ’77 (“Killer of Sheep”) for film.

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Barbara Boxer was first elected to the United States Senate in January 1993, after 10 years of service in the House of Representatives. She made history in 2004 when she was elected to a third term with more than 6.9 million votes – the highest number ever for any a U.S. Senate candidate.

A champion of public education, Boxer is known for her strong advocacy on issues related to families, children, consumers, women and medical research. She chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, becoming the first woman to hold this office. Her awards are numerous, ranging from environmental causes to leadership awards.

PHOTOS: Above, Mariska Hargitay, TFT Dean Teri Schwartz and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer; right, Scott Waugh, UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost; and alumni honoree Charles Burnett. Photos by Juan Tallo.

The Dean’s welcome:

The Dean introduces U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer:

Senator Barbara Boxer’s Commencement Address:

Emmy, Sundance and Independent Spirit Award winner Charles Burnett is one of the most distinguished African-American cinematic in film. He has endeavored to bring to the screen a personal, realistic portrayal of contemporary African-American life not often seen in mainstream feature films. Critically acclaimed for all of his work for both feature films and television, Burnett is best known for his films “Killer of Sheep,” “To Sleep with Anger” and “The Glass Shield.” Burnett received a major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in April 2011.

The Dean introduces alumni honoree Charles Burnett:

Charles Burnett’s acceptance speech:

Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner Mariska Hargitay stars as the committed and emotionally driven Detective Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: SVU,” now in its 12th season on NBC. Inspired by her role, Hargitay founded in 2004 the Joyful Heart Foundation, whose mission is to heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and to shed light into the darkness surrounding these issues.

The Dean introduces alumni honoree Mariska Hargitay:

Mariska Hargitay’s acceptance speech:

Feature Stories

Marina Goldovskaya on a lost friend, her fatherland, her films

At 70, adding a powerful new work to a lifetime of achievementaaaaaaaaaaaa

TFT

The powerful new personal documentary by TFT faculty member Marina Goldovskaya, head of TFT’s documentary program, is an intimate portrait of an assassinated Russian journalist who was also a close friend.

The new film, “A Bitter Taste of Freedom,” was the centerpiece of a sweeping career retrospective of the filmmaker’s work at the 16th annual edition of the international documentary festival “It’s All True,” which ran from March 31 to April 10, 2001, in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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The retrospective at “It’s All True 2011 – 16th International Documentary Film Festival” celebrated the work of “the principal Russian documentary filmmaker,” a director whose classics of the post-Glasnost era, such as “Solovky Power” (1988) and “The House on Arbat Street” (1994), recorded all the major historical events of a period of momentous change in her homeland, from Glasnost and Perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev to the dashing of hopes for democracy under current strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Goldovskaya’s heartbreaking new film “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” (2011) is a chronicle of an occurrence that exemplified the disillusionment of many in Russia: the murder in 2006 of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose reporting on the atrocities committed by Russian troops against refugees from the conflict in Chechnya painted a grim picture of the rebirth of political repression in the former Communist nation.

“A Bitter Taste of Freedom” is also a personal portrait and celebration of the life of a close friend: Politkovskaya met her future husband when he was studying with Professor Goldovskaya at Moscow State University in the 1970s. In footage of the writer and her family from an earlier film, “A Taste of Freedom” (1991), Politkovskaya comes vibrantly to life as she is interviewed by an admired teacher, and in the process her loss becomes a personal matter for the audience as well, meeting her for the first time.

“It is an incredible honor to salute Marina Goldovskaya’s 70th birthday with the first large festival retrospective of her work,” says critic Amir Labaki, director of “It’s All True” and curator of the retrospective. “In her unique recordings between the personal and the social, no one has better documented the turbulent period of the end of the USSR and the beginnings of the new Russia. It’s not by chance that her memoir is called ‘A Woman with a Movie Camera.'”

Marina Goldovskaya on “A Bitter Taste of Freedom”:

Anna and her husband Sasha were my students at Moscow State University. Later, as both their careers as journalists took off, we became close friends. In 1991, I made “Taste of Freedom,” a documentary about them. I wanted to describe how the changes introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika>/i>, affected life in the USSR using as an example the Politkovsky family.

It so happened that making this film prompted me to undertake a long-term project of chronicling Russia’s transition from totalitarianism to democracy. Perestroika came about unexpectedly and brought beautiful, euphoric feelings of hope for a better future. At that time, of course, I couldn’t imagine how difficult and dramatic this transition would turn out to be for Russia and for the Russian people.

This ongoing project has resulted so far in 10 documentary portraits of my country of origin at different stages of its development, including “Shattered Mirror” (1992), “Lucky to Be Born in Russia” and (1993), “House on Arbat Street” (1994). “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” (2011) is the latest installment in my continuous observation of the last two decades of Russian history. This film returns us to the Politkovsky family 20 years later.

The children grew up. Sasha Politkovsky, famous and talented, left not only the profession of journalism but also his family. In contrast, Anna became a well-known investigative journalist for the Moscow liberal newspaper “Novaya Gazeta.”

Anna was writing about the atrocities of the infamous Chechen war, often the only spokesperson for the innocent victims. She was a fearless woman and an uncompromising critic of the Russian authorities. Her activities went far beyond journalistic reporting: she was a true human rights activist defending civilians whose lives were being destroyed by the dirty and criminal Chechen war.

In spite of numerous threats she continued to do her job. She was assassinated on October 7, 2006.

Anna and I were friends. We trusted each other and always had a lot of things to share and discuss. When we met, we couldn’t stop talking, and I could not stop filming. We spoke not only about her work but about everything.

Since her assassination, Anna has become a symbol for the struggle against tyranny and corruption, an iron lady. As time passes, she is becoming more and more a myth. Our film “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” shows Anna as who she was: a normal woman, tender with her friends, loving with her children, and uncompromising with those who abuse the human rights of simple people whoever they were: Chechens, Russians or anyone else.

I feel very strongly that a film about somebody like Anna is especially important now, when the world is so full of cynicism and corruption, when we so desperately need more people with her level of courage and integrity and commitment.

Films in the “It’s All True” Retrospective

“A Peasant from Archangelsky” (60 min, 1986). The story of Nikolai Semenovich Sivkov, the first to oppose the system of rural collectivization imposed by Joseph Stalin.

“Solovky Power” (93 min, 1988). This is the first film about the “gulags,” denouncing the history of the forced labor camp Solovky, which existed between 1923 and 1939.

“A Taste of Freedom” (46 min, 1991). The era of hope of Perestroika of the 1980s/1990s is examined through Sasha Politkovsky, TV journalist, his wife Anna Politkovskaya, and their children.

“The Shattered Mirror” (58 min, 1992). The great changes that shook the old USSR are analyzed through the director’s deeply personal gaze.

“The House on Arbat Street” (59 min, 1993). This is a synthesis of Russian history in the 20th Century that comes from the memories of residents and archival material about a house that went from an aristocratic home to collective housing after the Revolution of 1917.

“Lucky to Be Born in Russia” (58 min, 1994). The film is a human insight about the happenings of the Russian Federation in 1993, when ethnic and separatist conflicts cast doubt on the future.

“The Prince is Back” (59 min, 2000). This is the story of the dream and struggle of Prince Eugene Meshersky to restore the castle and glory of his family, on the outskirts of Moscow.

“Anatoly Rybakov, the Russian Story” (52 min, 2006). The author of “Children of the Arbat,” persecuted by Stalinism, recalls his life and the story of his parents.

“A Bitter Taste of Freedom” (90 min, 2011). The filmmaker recounts the life of combative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, her friend and the focus of the documentary, murdered in 2006 at 48 years old.

Feature Stories

LA Rebellion alum Haile Gerima screens epic "Teza" at Archive’s Teshome Gabriel scholarship event

&#34Teza&#34 opens Friday, Sept. 24, at Laemmle&#39s Monica 4 Plex

TFT

The West Coast Premiere of “Teza,” an acclaimed Ethiopian drama by TFT alumnus Haile Gerima ’72, MFA ’76, organized by the UCLA Film & Television Archive on September 17, became an emotional gathering place for filmmakers, friends and family members who had been associated with TFT since the heady rebellious era of the 1970s..

The screening was a benefit for a memorial scholarship fund named for the late TFT Professor Teshome Gabriel MA ’76, PhD ’79, who died unexpectedly in June. Gerima and Gabriel were classmates at the School in the 1970s and lifelong friends, forming the nucleus of a group of mostly minority film students that has since come to be known as the LA Rebellion.

The overflow screening was attended by several noted Rebellion filmmakers who knew and had been inspired by both men while students at TFT, including Charles Burnett ’69 (“Killer of Sheep”), Billy Woodberry MFA ’82 (“Bless Their Little Hearts”), and Julie Dash MFA ’85 (“Daughter of the Dust”).

As students and later teachers (Gerima has been a film professor for many years at Howard University), the two had complementary personalities. Gabriel, the scholar, described in his work styles of narrative that he saw as unique to Third World cinema, coining the term “nomad aesthetic” to help evoke them. Gerima, the passionate filmmaker, put Gabriel’s theory’s into practice, adapting Third World storytelling methods to modern African and African-American subject matter.

Gerima was interviewed on stage after the screening of “Teza” by Archive Director Jan-Christopher Horak. He spoke about his continuing struggles to raise money to make films, about how the experience of being a young African immigrant in the US has changed since he was a young man, and even about the “facist tendencies” of hip hop.

It was the “collective knowledge” he took from his friends at UCLA, Gerima says, that enabled him to make films, at times, almost single-handedly.

Watch the Q&A in three parts below:

Part One – Jan-Christopher Horak interviews Haile Gerima on creating the film, finding a different identity in America, and the failure of ideology.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9hIHgAuORE&feature=player_embedded]

Part Two – Haile answers audience questions on his influences, culture, and black youth of today.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m67AIaoxA0M&feature=player_embedded]

Part Three – Haile speaks about his history in Ethiopia, his film “Ashes and Embers,” and the young hip-hop culture.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgODTHUoQ0A&feature=player_embedded]

Watch the trailer for “Teza” below:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvxukmP8STU&feature=player_embedded]

The UCLA Film & Television Archive is planning a major retrospective event around the L.A. Rebellion in 2011.

Haile Gerima was born in Gondar, Ethiopia, and says he first understood the power of storytelling while sitting around a fire riveted by tales told by his parents. His father was playwright and Gerima often traveled with him when he toured Ethiopia staging his plays.

Gerima emigrated to the U.S. in 1968, and enrolled in acting classes at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago. He moved to California in 1970 to attend TFT, where he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s of Fine Arts degrees in film. Influenced in part by the pioneering work of film luminaries Vittorio de Sica, Fernando Solanas, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Med Hondo, whose work he discovered at UCLA Archive screenings, Gerima exploits film as a catalyst for social change, rejecting what he calls the “narrative dictatorship” of Hollywood movies.

Still Photos and Videography: Juan Tallo

Video Post-Production: Nolwen Cifuentes