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UCLA TFT alumnus Thanos Papastergiou uses an event in his family's past to tell the story of 'Sandy Beach,' which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival

By Noela Hueso

Thanos Papastergiou's short film Sandy Beach, filmed while he was a graduate student at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (UCLA TFT), recently had an auspicious start on the film festival circuit when its world premiere took place in early September during the Shorts Cuts portion of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Filmed in Crete, it's a story based on events that took place in Papastergiou's family nearly a decade ago. Intentionally sparse in dialogue, the melancholy film, which was Papastergiou's senior thesis project, is told primarily through the body language and facial expressions of its two protagonists, a thirtysomething woman and the aging, ailing father she cares for, and reinforced by the moody, dramatic lighting revealed as they spend an overcast day at a rocky beach.

Without revealing too much, Papastergiou says, "I had an uncle who was severely depressed and unhappy. He was not physically well, either. His daughter used to take him for a swim every Sunday." What happens to that uncle, reimagined as the father in Papastergiou's film, is the crux of the story.

"Sandy Beach speaks with an honest emotional veracity," says Kathleen McInnis, a film festival strategist and former UCLA TFT lecturer. "Thanos is a keen student of the language of obligation, guilt, family. These are often the narratives that find their way to the major festivals: Powerful visual storytelling combined with deep examination of the human condition. His strong, assured filmmaker voice heralds him as a discovery to watch."

Papastergiou, who received his M.F.A. in 2016, appreciates the response his film received at TIFF and for the experience itself.

"I am more than grateful to have been a part of TIFF," he says. "You meet so many talented filmmakers from every part of the world. Their work gives me motivation to keep going and work harder."

If his past is any indication, Papastergiou knows a thing or two about working hard.

A native of Larissa, Greece, Papastergiou entered university at 17 after having placed third in his country's college entrance exams, the Panhellenic National Examination, in 2003. This distinction earned him a full scholarship to medical school at the University of Athens. While he saw medical school as an opportunity to escape his hometown and to get an education ("My parents told me that if I didn't go I would be throwing away the opportunity of a lifetime," he says), he didn't see himself becoming a doctor. What, exactly, he was meant to do wasn't immediately clear — but he did know he would be associated with the arts in some manner. So while he made his way through medical school, he simultaneously tried his hand at a series of freelance jobs that came his way, including ones in sculpting, photography, journalism and, fortuitously, costume design, first for the stage and then for the independent film Attenberg (2010).

Being on set was a life changer.

"I knew nothing about it," he says about the filmmaking process. "I didn't even know what film or lenses were. For me, it was just more interesting than theater — you can be more intimate and nuanced with a film audience; with theater you have to be more expressive, which I didn't know how to be at the time.

"It was the first moment I thought about filmmaking as a career," he continues. "Watching movies was a habit when I was a kid but being a filmmaker in Greece isn't something most people ever think about. I never did. It's not even an option because it seems like an impossible dream."

Even so, after spending time on the set of Attenberg, his perspective changed. Prior to graduating from the University of Athens, he decided to apply to UCLA TFT — and wrote the six-page script for Sandy Beach to satisfy one of the application requirements. It was the first script he had ever written. At the same time, he also applied to a general surgery internship in Athens. If one didn't work out, he reasoned, perhaps the other would. As it turns out, he got into both — and promptly left the medical world behind him.

Calling UCLA TFT "the best film school in the world," Papastergiou appreciates the holistic approach the school takes in educating its students.

"I learned to do everything," he says. "That's why it's a great program: In the first year you're a grip, you're a gaffer, you're a DP; you rotate through all these crew positions for other films for your classmates. That helps you think better as a director. You're more patient and you learn to collaborate; you create a vernacular of how you can work with different programs."

Because of the education he received at UCLA TFT, he was well prepared for another project he was asked to work on, editing a documentary that will highlight the behind-the scenes process of Francis Ford Coppola's Distant Vision, a unique 25-minute hybrid of live theater, film and television that was performed at UCLA TFT this past summer and viewed in real time around the world by a select audience.

"There's a lot of footage and it's good. Finding the story and the emotion through the dailies is challenging and exciting," Papastergiou says.

With Sandy Beach making the festival rounds (the Haifa International Film Festival is next), Papastergiou is working on the second draft of his first feature film, a story he first developed in a UCLA TFT screenwriting class, about a family of Athenian magnates who lose everything during the country's 2009 economic meltdown.

"What is happening now in Greece is like what happened during Depression Era in the United States. It's really significant. It has changed so much since I left [in 2011]," he says. "It's really sad. I am very much interested in the perspective of what it is like for a wealthy family to lose it all…how it has affected them."

Papastergiou says it will be the last time one of his films is set in Greece. Now living permanently in Los Angeles, his goal is to make quality Hollywood projects for the foreseeable future, citing an appreciation for the filmmaking styles of Robert Altman and Ang Lee.

"My life has been multi-chaptered so far and different stories have accumulated," he says. "My belief is that in every good film the story is simple and the emotion big."


Posted: October 11, 2016