‘If there’s one thing that unites, it’s music’: In Conversation with Cypriot Filmmaker Savvas Stavrou

In modern-day Cyprus, two young men meet, and fall in love. But being a young queer man in Cyprus cannot be as simple as that. The pair are soldiers, across enemy lines, one raised in the Greek-Cypriot environment in the South and the other, far across the buffer zone that divides the capital city, in the Turkish-Cypriot North. Throughout Savvas Stavrou’s latest short film, Buffer Zone, the age-old tale of star-crossed lovers is given a fresh, politically charged twist. Army barracks on opposing sides become the set of a love story told through the musical genre. Sent to ‘become men’ throughout a year-long military service that is mandatory for all boys on the island, the two protagonists instead discover queer love, and unification through song. Stavrou’s musical odyssey breaks through borders of genre, language, and culture, tackling, in one fell swoop, the systemic xenophobia, toxic masculinity, and homophobia, that permeate the Cypriot queer experience. After an impressive premiere at the Clermont-Ferrand short film festival, Buffer Zone awaits its next endeavour at this year’s BFI Flare, one of the world’s most important LGBT+ film festivals. In the run up, I sit down with Savvas to talk about our shared experiences as queer people who grew up on the island, the art that has shaped his cinematic hopes and dreams, and his pioneering queer Cypriot film.

Miruna Tiberiu: To start things off, what has your trajectory as a filmmaker looked like so far? 

Savvas Stavrou: I’ve been making films since I was 6 years old. I picked up my dad’s camera and ran around making horror films and musicals with my sister and cousins. I liked telling stories and was also excited by the sense of community that you feel when making films, when creating something together. When I was 14, our English teacher gave us an assignment to make a film at school, so I got a few friends together and we made a horror film. She loved it so much that she screened it in front of the whole school. Making that film reassured me that this was what I was meant to do, even though everyone in Cyprus kept telling me that I would ‘starve’, that there was no money in this career. Typical Cyprus. I then moved to the UK to study film production at the University of Westminster, met a lot of fantastic people, and did an internship with Focus Features for a couple of years. I learned so much about this industry through the internship, about independent cinema, studio pictures, and everything in between. It all rolled off from there. I was working full-time and making short films in the background, and now I’m planning a feature.

MT: You mentioned making a lot of horror films during your childhood, and Buffer Zone is, of course, a musical. Do you find that you’re particularly attracted to genre cinema?

SS: I first and foremost start with a story and a character. I love subverting audience expectations. You go into the cinema, and you think you know what you’re going to watch, but what you end up watching is completely different, and I think surprising an audience is everything. It’s a powerful tool when it comes to genre, in particular. By this point, I’ve done a comedy, two musicals, a sci-fi and a drama. I’ve worked in these different genres, but none of the films are really ‘genre pieces’. My sci-fi is essentially a ‘father and daughter’ story set in a sci-fi-esque space. And even with Buffer Zone, it’s a musical, but it’s not a traditional musical. It’s set in army barracks, and all songs are sung a cappella. I enjoy fusing genres.

Behind-the-scenes shot, Buffer Zone set, director Savvas Stavrou (centre) and co-lead actor Andreas Marcou (right). Courtesy of the artist.

MT: You have spoken before about how, growing up in Cyprus, you were inspired by music. How has that shaped your work?

SS: As a teen, I began going out of my way to discover new music that people weren’t listening to. You have to do that, growing up in a place like Cyprus where you’re only ever exposed to whatever is popular at the time. I remember when the trailer to Daredevil came out, and it had this Evanescence song in it. I remember going crazy, wondering what this song was, and I became obsessed for a while. I was attracted to its sense of teen angst, that ‘world is against me’ feeling that all queer kids go through when they live in such closed-minded places. I also discovered Tori Amos and Nine Inch Nails, and they were both huge inspirations for me. I would take songs and draw from them to create scenes for imaginary films. I guess that’s how I became attracted to musicals.

MT: Do you remember the first time you encountered a queer story in cinema?

SS: I remember being obsessed with Moulin Rouge when I was about 14. It was around Christmas time when I first saw the DVD in a store, and I was so drawn to it that I asked for it as my Christmas present. I remember feeling that it was a queer film when I first watched it. There’s this guise of superficiality, this glaze. Everything is purposefully artificial, the makeup is so extreme, but underneath there is a real pain, a real depth to it. I think the film operates as almost drag: as a performer, you amp it all up, and it is all very spectacular, but underneath that surface lies something very human and heartful.

MT: That reminds me of the experience of many of my Cypriot queer friends. Their first encounters with ‘queerness’ were through childhood obsessions with Greek film stars and singers from the 60s and 70s, through art that wasn’t overtly queer, but nonetheless became queer to them.

SS: I think, as a queer kid growing up Cyprus, you don’t see a reflection of yourself, because there is no representation. Instead, you must look out towards the world, nabbing at any opportunity to discover parts of your queerness from different sources. 

MT: You build up your queer identity, adding on a little at a time. [Pause]. So, you have found yourself drawn to music, and the double artificiality-realism of the musical film genre. Why did you choose the medium of music as the artistic ‘border’ which unites the two soldiers in their quest for escaping oppression in the film? 

SS: If there’s one thing that unites, I think it’s music. It is the universal language that everyone magically understands. It doesn’t matter in what language the song is, as soon as you hear the music, you know exactly what emotion it taps: it speaks in feeling, it is a form of communication that transcends language. If you listen to Cypriot music, it’s very similar to Greek music, to Turkish and Arabic music. It is the essence of this music, the sounds, that intrinsically drive us as people, as part of these communities. The sounds are so familiar, so similar, regardless of their country of origin. In Buffer Zone, we follow two boys across enemy lines who don’t speak the same language, but what they do share are the songs that they know, so they can communicate through them. One of them gets carried away singing along to a song that he loves and the other tries to grab his attention by singing back at him. Then, you have a medley between the two, and I think that’s kind of magical. To be able to communicate in that way – through music – and overcome borders.

Still from Buffer Zone, army barracks, co-lead actor Andreas Marcou (centre). Courtesy of the artist.

MT: Buffer Zone tackles two of the most foundational issues in modern Cypriot society: ‘The Cyprus Problem’, as well as the systemic homophobia that we as queer people have experienced growing up on the island. They are also both issues that tend to be ‘brushed under the carpet’. I get the impression that people prefer to forget about them. Why did you choose to tackle both themes simultaneously?

SS: That’s a good question. It wasn’t a conscious decision to tackle both themes, but I just think, if you’re going to stick it to them, do it properly, and get them really angry! [chuckles] The idea of the film stemmed from a discussion of what it means to be a man. If you think of the musical genre, it is stereotypically very ‘feminine’. Musicals, over time, have been associated with sensitivity, and that’s not a masculine quality in our culture. So, I wanted to explore this idea of what it means to be a man through music, and the musical genre. When I first began writing the film, I sat myself down and thought: what are the biggest problems that we have in Cyprus? What is the worst thing that happen to people who believe in that system? Two men, across enemy lines, falling in love. 

MT: That’s very brave…

SS: Maybe some people will be shocked and it will ruffle some feathers, who knows? But I think we need to ruffle some feathers, because ultimately the message is a positive one. It’s not pointing fingers. I chose to depict all the soldiers in the film as boys who have been thrown in a pit and taught how to ‘be men’. They are just confused, and as a result end up causing all these problems and hurting both themselves and those around them. That’s what we have in Cyprus, and I think it needs to be addressed. This systemic patriarchy can no longer be allowed to pass from generation to generation, from father to son.

Still from Buffer Zone, close-up on co-lead actor Adnan Mustafa. Courtesy of the artist.

MT: Have you noticed any changes for the better when it comes to the reception of the LGBT+ community in Cyprus? Can you see a space forming for queer stories in the Cypriot art sphere?

SS: When I was growing up, there was no representation. As you said, it was all ‘shoved under the carpet’, it was the ‘unspeakable’. Since moving to the UK, I’ve seen a lot of progress, though. We’ve had Pride for a few years in a row, attended by more and more people, and it’s not as trashed by religious or right-wing groups anymore. I also think the Queer Waves Film Festival is fantastic progress, but I don’t know how successful it is amongst audiences who aren’t queer. I hope it is! I think, much like everywhere in the world, we will have reached a true level of success when our stories are not just consumed by us. People should see queer films because they are good films, not just because of the subject matter. However, as long as there’s injustice in the world, an imbalance or inequality, queer cinema will have to continue being political. The choice to tell a queer story in film comes with a certain responsibility from the maker. It is a deliberate choice, with a deliberate message.

Buffer Zone will be playing at the BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival on Saturday 18th March at 11:00, as part of the ‘Music Is the Food of Love’ shorts programme. It will also be available to stream for free on YouTube between the 15th-26th March as part of the ‘Five Films for Freedom’ initiative ran by the British Council in partnership with the Flare. For more information about the film, as well as Stavrou’s other projects, have a look at his website.

By Miruna Tiberiu

Miruna Tiberiu is managing editor and staff writer at GAY45. She is an undergraduate student at Cambridge University. She has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is also the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Miruna is currently in Paris carrying out her dissertation research on Franco-Romanian cinema and hopes to continue this work as a postgraduate at Cambridge. To keep up with her work, follow her on Instagram or Twitter @mirunii_t.

SMART. QUEER SMART.

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