(Greece 2022; Dir: Evi Kalogiropoulou)

On Xerxes’ Throne

How to Hold a Hand

review by Savina Petkova

On Xerxes’ Throne

original title: Ston throno tou Xerxi

length: 15

year of production: 2022

country of production: Greece

director: Evi Kalogiropoulou

production: Amanda Livanou

director of photography: Evan Maragkoudakis

editing: Giorgos Zafeiris

sound: Helena Charbila as Kid Moxie

cast: Yorgos Mazonakis, Angela Brouskou, Myrto Kontoni, Ksenia Dania, Lorenzo Sarzan, Kevin Zans Ansong, Jordan Genidogan, Vassilis Koutsogiannis

festivals: Semaine de la Critique Cannes 2022, Kinemastik International Short Film Festival 2022, Sarajevo Film Festival 2022

© images: 'On Xerxes’ Throne' (Evi Kalogiropoulou)

In the middle of Evi Kalogiropoulou’s short ‘On Xerxes’ Throne’, a young black man begins to sing acapella, his body gently rocking back and forth to each slightly elongated last syllable – the melody of a ballad paralleling the lyrics of a dignified soliloquy. “Aniko se mena” (“I belong to me”) is a song both melancholy and revering in the way it holds its simple refrain to a deep, unforgiving realisation of one’s state of unbending solitude – “I belong to myself and my dreams // I don’t want anyone in my loneliness.” While the man sings, the camera treats us to glimpses of the scene from multiple angles, all of which reveal an environment of manual labour – a shipyard construction site – in a momentary stillness, as if a hymn is being sung. Usually, a singing centrepiece in a short film scene either disrupts or grounds it, but what ‘On Xerxes’ Throne’ evokes here is a more subtle form of self-imposed, glorious, control. And loneliness plays a crucial role.

‘I Belong To Me’ (2021) was, actually, the name of the short’s predecessor in the form of video-art which was the kernel of what ended up ‘On Xerxes’ Throne’. The installation set the narrative as dystopian and uncanny by virtue of its location (the shipyards of Perama near Athens) and its prohibition of touch amongst the workers. Because of this tactile ban, bodily interactions are capped at the human-machine axis – these are the preconditions which also outline the world in the 2022 short.

For the woes of belonging are quintessentially human, such restrictive premises are often a litmus test to how deep human desire can dig and how spontaneously it can erupt, risking the destruction of a carefully calculated order. This is the kind of epos Evi Kalogriopoulou is concerned with and this interest twins her with French filmmaker Claire Denis, whose ‘Beau Travail’ (1999) haunts ‘On Xerxes’ Throne’ – the two are effectively kindred spirits. As in ‘Beau Travail’, bodies are prohibited ground but also the surface of battles – they shimmer with sweat and tenseness so that our gaze can latch onto them involuntarily, again and again. The stillness of the camera is, it seems, also a consequence of such great attention, until we notice the handheld sways over sleeping men and women in the barracks. It does so only lightly, as a substitute for the disallowed touch.

In this film, overlaying is a disavowing mechanism, an act at once subtle and rebellious to defy the Draconian measures controlling the workers’ bodies, and in Foucaudian fashion, their own internalisation of surveilling that rule-following. But what kind of overlaying can actually substitute touch? Kalogriopoulou turns to history and in particular, one of the decisive events in the Ancient world, just by the use of real locations in her film. The Greek land is rich in its mythological and historiographic capacities, and the locus itself already thrusts the symbolic association – such is the case with Perama being part of the region overlooking the strait where the legendary Battle of Salamis (480BC) took place. In their decisive victory (albeit scatteredly documented) against the Persian invasion, the Greeks (Athens and allies) assured the future of Western civilisation as we know it. Tale has it, the only person who may have had a full account of how the battle unfolded, was emperor Xerxes, as he installed himself in the nearby Mount Egaleo. From his promontory, the Persian ruler witnessed the demise of his own people and it is tragically ironic to have him as the sole witness of the entirety of his loss. Loneliness, again.

With this historical background, ‘On Xerxes’ Throne’ does not lose its mystique, on the contrary, it conjures up a new sensuality thanks to the layering of place and land. Similarly, the figure of the one supervisor is also singular in the film, as it was in the aforementioned battle. Almost all of the film uses voiceover narration in the first person (I, we) to guide the viewer through this strange place. That’s Yorgos, the one who has to cross over to Salamis island once a month to get provisions: in his stringent role, he dreams of penetrating the sea surface in an invasively intimate confession. The longing for touch for something that is non-mechanical extends across humans and nature alike: desire swells and moulds itself into unexpected shapes and forms with the tantalising proximity – of bodies, of water. Resistance is lonely.

Distanciated, too, is the camera’s look – as if from this overlooking point of view, it draws closer to different characters, much like the scene mentioned in the beginning, to observe them, to brush against their presence, to suggest a passage of touch is possible. Repression is a governing mechanism, as undying as the automated machinery and wheels which rule the workers’ everyday, but Kalogiropoulou unearths something even more subdued and inarticulate in the way purity breeds its own contamination. Until, of course, both these categories become annihilated in the face of desire.

“Aniko se mena” is originally sung by iconic Greek singer of laïká (commercial folk, pop music) Yorgos Mazonakis who here takes the role of the protagonist named after him. This name-persona layering gives the film another, more playful ring, with regard to the pop star image and the intertwining of autobiographical elements, such as the matching character-actor names and the fact that Mazonakis’ own father once worked at the Perama shipyards. The central song appears in two renditions, one sung and one reworked by the film’s composer, Kid Moxie, doubling the metatextuality and letting it fold back into itself. At the same time, the solitude insisted on by the lyrics, appears to dissolve – with every rendition, layer over layer, a choir of voices can be heard in the same ‘I’ – a coming-of-touch story is never one to end in loneliness.