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Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Theodoros Angelopoulos

Oration given on 12 July 2001

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon THEODOROS ANGELOPOULOS.

It is fitting that only a few months ago The Guardian called Theo Angelopoulos "one of the few great directors who are still with us," implicitly placing the legendary Greek film maker in the company of other notable leaders of the European cinema, many of whom are no longer with us: Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andre Tarkovsky.  Like these directors, Theo Angelopoulos has created a body of work that defies the conventions of mainstream cinema while expanding the field of vision of his audiences.  And like these directors, he has managed over his thirty-year career to achieve what only a handful of others have been capable of doing: to create lasting and transforming works of cinematic art.

The films of Theo Angelopoulos are often hypnotic, dreamlike, otherworldly.  Contrary to the logic and conventions of most Hollywood movies, which are rolled out and consumed so readily at our local Odeons, Theo Angelopoulos has always taken his time, so much so that he has become renowned for his use of the long take.  The shots that make up his films are lengthy and sustained: artfully yet minimally constructed.  This has been a consistent practice since some of his earliest works, like 1974's ‘The Travelling Players’, which lasts almost four hours but is comprised of merely 80 shots altogether.  Yet these lengthy shots are far from static.  Within them are striking images that cling to ones memory.  Monumental images, such as an open ship carrying the massive remains of a statue of Lenin up the Danube in ‘Ulysses Gaze’; enigmatic images, such as a horse wandering an abandoned town, reflecting the displaced and homeless figures that populate ‘Landscape in the Mist’; images of horror, like the frozen refugees clinging to a mist-shrouded border fence in ‘Eternity and a Day’. 

His special interest in film began when he was a child, but he experimented with other subjects such as law and literature before embarking on his life's work.  Born in Athens, his childhood memories are of war and occupation.  He later began studying law, but after military service he decided to go to the Sorbonne University in Paris to study philosophy and cinema.  After briefly attending the School of Cinema (IDHEC) in Paris, he found himself at odds with a certain Professor and this is a story he just told me this morning over coffee.  He was accused of being a ‘non-conformist’.  His approach to film was too unusual.  Dr Angelopoulos was not willing to change and this certain Professor demanded that he leave the school.  The Professor said it’s either him or me.  Facing this kind of demand, Theo Angelopoulos decided he had better go.  He returned to Greece, working as a journalist and critic for the newspaper Demokratiki Allaghi, though this career was cut short by the democratic change and the military coup d'etat in 1967.  Soon afterwards he completed a short film, ‘Broadcast’, in 1968, and in 1970 his first feature, ‘Anaparastassi’ [or Reconstruction],  appeared.  Already he had established a close relationship with key collaborators, including the cinematographer Giorgos Arvanitis; these relationships would guide his vision and these relationships continue to the present day.

The numerous honours he has garnered over the years are only a small indication of his lasting contribution to the art of cinema.  His films have been awarded major prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival, the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, and the Thessaloniki Film Festival, to name only a few.  He has won Best Film at the European Film Awards, Best Foreign Film from the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics (who are, no doubt, a very difficult group to please).  He has received a number of awards at Cannes, most notably the much-coveted Palme d'Or in 1998 for his haunting ‘Eternity and a Day’, a meditation upon the passage of time and the search for resolution and re-affirmation in the face of impending death.

Such praise might lead to overconfidence, but Theo Angelopoulos is never fully satisfied, constantly striving for greater clarity in his work.  In a recent interview he stated that he is the kind of film maker "who is never sure, not even when the film is finished".  "I am always, without stopping, searching, searching", he noted, "my films never really end.  To me they are all works in progress". 

If it is possible to isolate two recurring themes in his films, they are the passage of time, on the one hand, and the visual and psychological impact of landscapes, on the other: not merely natural landscapes, but the man-made cities and towns and the unnatural, in-between spaces that we inhabit every day.  In these two themes, Theo Angelopoulos addresses two basic elements of human experience - our perception of time, and space – and captures and even restructures them through the magic of cinema.

Time becomes malleable in his films, which interweave present and past, experience and memory.  In ‘Eternity and a Day’, the central character (who is played by Bruno Ganz) literally confounds human time by meeting his dead wife as she was thirty years earlier; in ‘Ulysses Gaze’, the character of ‘A’ (who is played by Harvey Keitel) meets his mother in 1945 as a young woman, and she becomes one of several guides on his long journey through the tragic history of the Balkans.  Space, on the other hand, is reconstructed within Angelopoulos' frame by emphasising the relationship of human figures to the landscapes that surround them.  This is a space held for the viewer's careful contemplation by sustained shots; this space of contemplation can then, over time, welcome the audience into the frame.  It is this viewer that Theo Angelopoulos depends upon to create meaning in his films:  "I need to see through the eyes of the others", he once stated.  "Only in the regard of the viewer do I recognise what I have made."

Though Theo Angelopoulos' work is very much that of a Greek director, at the same time it seems to defy national borders, seeking to embrace the universally experienced complexities of modern European life.  Yet he also reminds us that, in these unstable times, it is not easy to escape these borders.  At the beginning of ‘Ulysses' Gaze’ he repeats the lines from his previous film, ‘The Suspended Step of the Stork’: "We've crossed the border, but we are still here.  How many borders do we have to cross before we reach home?"

Unlike most films one sees these days, an Angelopoulos film is not about surfaces, but about unseen depths embedded behind the images that flee past us at twenty-four frames per second.  He has rightfully been likened to a modern Homer, making visible the physical and psychological journeys of every day life, forging links between the geographically dispersed and often spiritually displaced inhabitants of the late-twentieth and now the early twenty-first century.

Chancellor, I present to you THEO ANGELOPOULOS.

Orator:  Dr Jeffrey Geiger