– Asimina Proedrou’s proficient debut explores moral ambiguities and social tensions on the Greek border, with a stamp of approval as the country’s Academy Award submission

Review: Behind the Haystacks

Eugenia Lavda in Behind the Haystacks

It’s 2015 on Greece’s northern border, and Stergios (Stathis Stamoulakatos) is drowning in debt. Thus begins Behind the Haystacks, the debut feature from Greek writer-director Asimina Proedrou which has now showed in competition at the Balkan Film Festival in Rome (read news). In addition, it’s also been chosen as this year’s Greek Oscar submission for Best International Feature Film.

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As both real life and recent European cinema have shown, there is always someone to offer a quick solution to financial troubles, and it almost always involves smuggling immigrants across the border. In Behind the Haystacks, that’s the border lake Doiran, and that someone is Stergios’ brother-in-law, a man of shady business. Against the advice of his wife Maria (Eleni Ouzounidou), an avid churchgoer, Stergios takes up the risky job in secrecy. In the meantime, their adolescent daughter Anastasia (Eugenia Lavda) is trying to make a life for herself outside of the oppressive bubble of her home. But there is a catch, a tragedy that ruptures a deceptively simple narrative of familial harmony.

The domestic success of Proedrou’s 2013 short Red Hulk was already a calling card. Winning awards at two major Greek festivals, the film made her a director to watch and signalled her ability to minutely dissect socio-political issues explored through a single individual. In Behind the Haystacks, she elaborates on that complex relationship with the help of a Rashomon-style structure, where each part builds up on the events shown by adding a different point of view. The film locks its tragedy in a triangle, in condemnation, in the impossibility of moving forward unscarred. 

Cinematographer Simos Sakertzis distils Proedrou’s poetic-political vision in a mix of handheld and reactive camerawork, emphasising the distraught psychological state of each character individually. The world for Stergios is fast, repetitive, and often deafening, so he cannot help but fall behind. Bound by the weight of his debts and the legacies of patriarchal aggression that flow through him, the father exists in a film universe composed of heavy backdrops and ineffable loneliness, framed more often alone than with others. Maria’s part is riddled with worry and confusion: rack focus and swift shifting of scenes leave their marks on her perception, as the moral dichotomy of good versus evil that has guided her this far splits and skews. Her allegiance to the church over Christian values traps her in doubt and passivity; it makes perfect sense that her chapter would be the one in the middle, stuck between two polar opposites. After all, many mothers in traditional family structures such as this one find themselves in a mediating but compliant position.

A rich film invested in its characters’ inner lives, Behind the Haystacks testifies to Asimina Proedrou’s directorial vision and future successes. While not confining itself to one genre — be it the social drama or the psychological thriller — the film has its finger on the pulse in terms of themes that are tearing Europe apart today: collective denial and political complicity through structural oppression. Proedrou, however, approaches those topics with such well-crafted attention, both aesthetically and ethically speaking, that the film stands out as a razor-sharp (but still abundantly poetic) diagnosis of the present.

Behind the Haystacks is a Greek production by Athens-based Argonauts Productions, in co-production with Germany’s Fiction Park, and Sektor Film (North Macedonia). TVCO handles international sales.

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