The CineFest Miskolc International Film Festival is Hungary’s leading film festival. Every year in September, the cinema industry and movie buffs from Hungary and abroad meet for eight days of great cinema in Miskolc, a town in the northeast of the country. The 17th edition of the festival took place from September 10-18, 2021. For the occasion, and for the ninth time, Interfilm (International Interchurch Film Organization) and SIGNIS (World Catholic Association for Communication) appointed an ecumenical jury of four members, comprising two Hungarians and two from Denmark and Romania.
‘Apples’, the best film at Miskolc
At the festival, the ecumenical jury awarded its prize to Apples, a film by Greek director Christos Nikou. Born in 1984, Nikou was assistant director for the movie Dogtooth, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, one of the main exponents of contemporary Greek cinema.
Here are the grounds for the award: “The film Apples – describing a situation that mirrors the difficult pandemic times in which we live – presents a potential way to deal with loss and to find meaning in life. In a rigorous, minimalist style, the film reflects on the saving power of love for others and on the need to live an authentic life beyond the risks of isolation that are typical of our hyper-connected society. In addition, Apples opens up horizons for discussion and reflection on several levels about human relations, the complexity of every person, and the spiritual meaning of life.”
The film plot
We are in the middle of a pandemic that causes sudden amnesia. Aris, a middle-aged man, finds himself enrolled in a recovery program for those caught unexpectedly by amnesia and unable to get help from relatives. The New Identity Program involves daily activities they must engage in, strictly prescribed on tapes given them, with the goal of creating new memories to be documented with an old Polaroid camera. Aris slowly slips back into ordinary life and meets Anna, a woman in the same recovery program.
The film begins in a dystopian setting, in which the spread of an amnesia pandemic poses serious questions for the future of humanity. The drama of the situation is rendered effectively in one of the first scenes: people suffering amnesia are taken into a hospital and cataloged as objects. Each is given a number. Without memory, without a name, their past disappears, as does their identity. They are just numbers.
Gradually, however, the focus shifts from the potential social impact of such a threat to the individual experience of Aris and his various attempts to reconstruct a new identity. The direction carefully alternates moments of bewilderment – well interpreted, with restrained and convincing acting – with situations that are distinguished by a vein of subtle comedy.
In one very effective scene, Aris takes a memory test. He must associate an image with a known melody. When it is time for the main theme of Swan Lake, Aris chooses the image of a Mexican with a sombrero: the contrast and the absurdity of the association make for refined comedy.
Significant also is the moment when Aris, spending an evening in a club, unexpectedly and heedless of everything and everyone, starts dancing The Twist without control, living perhaps a moment of true freedom beyond memory and time. Humor and beauty sometimes go hand in hand.
Another interesting scene concerns the completion of one of the activities required by the New Identity Program: attending a costume party to meet other people. The chosen disguise is that of a fully equipped astronaut, helmet and all. The possibility of seeing other people is thus purposely thwarted by the choice of a costume designed to maintain a high level of social distancing.
The attempt at a forced experience of intimacy with a lap dancer, however, does not work. On his return from the experience, Aris pauses with a melancholy expression to watch images of some tender moments between a couple on a black and white television set through the window of a closed store. He seems to really need an affectionate caress and the genuine smile of a partner. The perception of how remote this possibility is for him is striking: the black and white film and the store closed by a heavy shutter seem to allude to an unattainable goal for Aris.
Striking, in terms of its truthful simplicity, is the scene in which he looks after a dying patient. There is tenderness without clamor, apparently pointless, and yet central to the unfolding of the story. Can solidarity in suffering really be a turning point in everyone’s life?
The narrative rigor of the film is underlined by the apples of the title. Ari’s favorite food and – as we will discover at a certain point – an effective cure for his memory lapses, they are always present at the main moments of the narrative. It is another of the happy choices of this film, which guarantees unity and comprehension, leading to a beautiful and successful work on many levels.
A conversation with director Nikou
To go further in understanding the film and behind the scenes of this work of art in Miskolc, we met with the director, Christos Nikou. We were able to talk about his personal experience in film, about Apples, and his future plans.
How did your passion for filmmaking come about? How did you become a filmmaker?
Since I was a kid I have always watched a lot of movies. I used to go to the video store and rent two or three movies a day. That is how I created my relationship with cinema. When I discovered the “world of cinema,” I knew that was the world I wanted to live in. Then, when I was 16, I started writing my first screenplays.
How did the idea for this film come about?
I always enjoy seeing films that create their own worlds and change the rules of our society in an allegorical way, of course, as I prefer conceptual stories that are realistic and not futuristic. That is what we did in Apples, where amnesia is a new form of pandemic. Also, it is a very personal story. I got the idea for the film when I was dealing with the loss of my father and was trying to understand how selective our memory is and how we can erase something that hurts us without losing our identity.
Digital devices are completely absent in the film; the photos are taken using old Polaroids. What is the reason for this choice?
My intention with Apples was to create a familiar world in the recent past, reflecting a society where technology is not so obvious and everything is analog, a society of lonely people where amnesia is spreading like a virus. A pandemic of unknown origins is a well-known literary topos, from Camus’ The Plague to Saramago’s Blindness. These are stories, as in Apples, in which the disease is not important in itself, not even in terms of its impact on society. It is simply a device to talk about what might be called the human condition on an individual level. I also wanted to explore the impact of emotions on our memory and how nowadays this is greatly influenced by technology, which makes it all too easy to record and store information. It may be that all these technological advances have made our brains lazier, which is why we remember fewer and fewer events, fewer and fewer emotions. Making your life revolve around goals and objectives set for you by a self-constituted external authority is at the heart of social media , whether it’s Instagram campaigns or TikTok challenges. Have we submitted our memories and emotions to these authorities? Could it be that we have ended up living less?
In the film, the process of creating an album of photographs to give meaning to life evokes the digital photo albums of the various social networks. As you suggest, from Facebook to Instagram, the risk is to live according to the photos you take (and the respective “likes” you get) and to lose sight of the truth of life lived “offline” and the fullness of those moments that cannot be captured in a photo. Is there a relationship between the process of construction of the new identity of Aris through the agency of his photo album and the situation today?
I think people are finding it harder and harder to connect with each other, and social media is one of the main causes of that. We can have 10,000 friends and “likes” on our Instagram or Facebook profile and never realize how alone we are, because it is all fake. Our digital world has somehow created false or estranged relationships, and it is good to take a step back from them. Looking back at the pandemic and the year we all lived away from each other, I believe that as a result this effect has increased even more.
In his journey of rebirth, Aris is accompanied by art, especially music. He suddenly comes alive when singing a song in the car, dancing The Twist wildly, and unhesitatingly stopping to give some money to a busker in the street. Could we talk about this film as a reflection on the therapeutic value of art?
In Apples we experience the surreal, sad, sometimes comical existence of the main character. I tried to place him in a world full of dramatic irony and double entendre. Although this is not a comedy, several surreal comic scenes break up what might otherwise be a very depressing view of the human condition. The lead actor’s performance was a key factor in bringing all of these tonal elements together. The measured demeanor of his performance is enhanced in the few scenes in which he does something unexpected, for example, the rather grim evening when the main character starts dancing The Twist. In those moments, his physicality hints at a person who remains elusive which helps him recover.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many exciting moments in the film. Is there a scene you are particularly fond of? Why?
One of my favorite scenes is actually when the main character starts dancing The Twist. I think this is the moment when he really forgets everything and just feels invisible. I always enjoy watching dance scenes in movies, especially when they come on screen unexpectedly. Maybe that is why one of my next projects is to direct a musical. Not in a classic way. More absurd and different.
Seeing the film, one has the feeling of extraordinary care. Every single episode, element of dialogue and shot presents great beauty and expressive force. The impression – shared by the members of the ecumenical jury in Miskolc – is that of a film resulting from an extremely rigorous creative process. Is this really the case? What aspects and themes in the production of the film were most stimulating for you?
Apples begins with a description of a dystopian environment, but soon shifts to a more anthropocentric approach. The visual style allowed me to focus on the physical and existential isolation of the main character. In order to follow his emotions closely, we used the 4:3 format, which also serves as a direct reference to a recent past clearly linked to Polaroid photos, and this, as I said before, is a very significant element of the story.
The biggest challenge we faced during the whole production of the film was certainly the budget, which was really small. You always have to be very creative and find ways not to show the limitations of the budget on the big screen.
The film, thanks to artistic refinement, is pervaded by a great sacredness: every moment assumes an importance that cannot be exhausted in the single situations described and experienced by Aris With few examples of dialogue and shots, and thanks to the masterly interpretation of the main actor, the spectator can follow him in his inner spiritual journey . What is at the basis of the “religious sense” of this film?
Apples is an allegorical type of dramatic comedy. At its core is an effort to explore how our memory works. As a reflection on identity and its loss, memory and pain, Apples also explores what – and who – makes you the person you are, how much of who you are is authentically your and how much is imposed or created by others. It is exciting, and somewhat absurd, to see how quickly time passes from the moment we enter adulthood, how quickly we forget the most important events or people in our lives, when at the same time we might remember very clearly insignificant details and feelings. The most important thing for me is that the audience goes through the emotions that Aris experiences throughout the film, and that they feel and understand his journey. There are definitely many different levels of interpretation of the film, but in general its main message is related to who we are, whether we are our memories, and how we can accept even the saddest ones and move on.
Certainly, we can say that we are our memory. However, in some situations the memory of unpleasant facts can accompany us as a burden with negative, traumatic implications for our identity. If on the one hand it is necessary to remember in order to continue to be ourselves, on the other hand it can be important to forget in order to suffer less. So, is it better to remember or to forget?
Of course, it is better to remember. Even if we are in great pain, this is the only way to move forward. Even if what we remember is related to pain. Because our memory is the most perfect world in the universe. It gives life back to those who no longer exist.
The ecumenical jury is an unusual idea in the cultural domain , where sometimes there is a certain distrust of religious values. What was your first thought when you learned you had received the prize of the ecumenical jury? Do you agree with the sentiments of their accompanying explanation of why they made the award
I was more than happy to receive this award because it is very important to know that the film was appreciated by a jury of four people who share the same passion for their religion and for cinema. The film has a very peaceful and gentle approach, and I felt that this worked for the jury. Also, the motivation is very much aligned with the humanistic elements that we tried to highlight throughout the film.
The making of a film is a cyclopean project, in terms of ideas developed, people involved and situations experienced; the final result is only the tip of the iceberg. Is there a particular anecdote you would like to share in relation to the production of this film?
Let me share a moment that was simultaneously very stressful, a little funny, and certainly unexpected. In the car crash scene, the actress crashed the car during rehearsal, and the car stopped working. So we were trying to think of how to do the car crash scene and get the shots we needed, because there was no way we could shoot that scene another day. We came up with this solution: four people, including me, pushing the car from behind to reach a normal speed and so complete our shooting plan.
‘Apples’ offers food for thought on many levels; what has been its reception internationally? On a personal level, what reactions or comments struck you the most?
The international reception has been more than positive and certainly a bit unexpected. The film has been very well received by critics and audiences alike and has given us the opportunity to participate in over 80 international festivals, win numerous awards and be featured in over 70 countries. I feel that all reactions, good or bad, are priceless as they help me understand the value of the story and the emotional journey of the main character.
What are your upcoming projects?
My next project is called Fingernails, and it will be my English debut. I am aiming to shoot it in mid-2022. The script is written by Sam Steiner, Stavros Raptis and me, and will be produced by Dirty Films, Cate Blanchett, Coco Francini and Andrew Upton’s production company. It is a film closely resembling Apples , and will be like the other side of the same coin. Again, we will create a different world where people are struggling to find love in their lives.
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I bade Christos farewell, thanking him for his time and promising not to miss his next film. Given the premises, we are expecting another great film, a significant step in Christos’ artistic journey and an event all cinema enthusiasts will not want to miss.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.5 art. 5, 0522: 10.32009/22072446.0522.5
 Interfilm and Signis collaborate in the coordination of ecumenical juries at numerous film festivals. The members of the jury – from different cultures and European countries – can be film journalists, critics, theologians, consecrated persons, researchers or teachers. Usually from the Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox Churches, they are open to intercultural and interreligious dialogue. The members – completely independent – meet during the Festival to analyze and comment on the films, with the aim of choosing a winner. However, the ecumenical jury, in contrast to the other juries present at the festival, makes a special evaluation of the films in competition. It awards its prizes to directors who show a strong artistic and creative talent and are able to describe human beings and life experiences in harmony with the Gospel. It awards those works of quality that touch the spiritual dimension of our existence, and are capable of sensitizing the viewers to the values of justice, human dignity, respect for the environment, peace and solidarity.