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Doc Edge 2012: View from Olympus

View from Olympus brings together two men whose job is usually not to be seen and who live their lives, physically and metaphorically, behind the camera. Geoffrey Cawthorn’s portrait of Greek-Kiwi composer John Psathas didn’t quite go according to plan. But, like a well-written tune, it found its rhythm.

Both the filmmaker and his subject are types who regularly pass under the radar of the general public, the former because directors of TV dramas and documentaries aren’t feted like directors of films, the latter because classical music is stereotypically the preserve of poncy snobs who usually keep as low a profile as our national bird. That Psathas is also an academic only adds to the limited likelihood of his being mobbed on the street.

The film, as screening in the Doc Edge festival, is a theatrical cut of the shorter (44 minute) version commissioned and screened by TVNZ for its Artsville series. The longer version was made with the assistance of the University of Victoria (where Psathas teaches) who wanted a theatrical-length profile of the composer.

Practically, the additional money was the difference between Cawthorn having sufficient budget to travel to Germany and Greece with Psathas which, given the way the story turned out, became a pretty important strand in the narrative.

Psathas is perhaps best known as the composer of the ceremonial music for the opening and closing of the 2004 Athens Olympics, although the works are not – in his own opinion – especially representative, being works of design (form serving a purpose) rather than art.

For better or worse, the audience doesn’t get to assess his opinion since the Olympic organisation wanted US$20,000 for the rights to use a 30-second clip of the ceremonies.

Whilst admitting that, he had long hankered after the opportunity to write a film score and had that opportunity on Mike Wallis’ recently-premiered debut feature Good for Nothing (“a Kiwi Spaghetti Western filtered through the offbeat sensibilities of early Sam Raimi or the Coen brothers”). Psathas is currently in negotiations for a second feature score.

Cawthorn’s Plan A had been to follow Psathas for several months as he collaborated with Little Bushmen’s Warren Maxwell to create a new work – a not dissimilar process to that of Leonie Reynolds’ Disappear in Light, also screening in this year’s Doc Edge Festival.

However, creatives and other commitments being what they are, the process began to stretch out. A musician himself, Cawthorn had some sympathy for the situation but it became clear to Cawthorn that he needed to choose between making the documentary he’d intended to make and meeting the delivery deadline.

Having worked on several episodic TV series on both sides of the Tasman, including Mercy Peak, Maddigan’s Quest, The Amazing Extraordinary Friends, Legend of the Seeker, Shortland Street and The Almighty Johnsons here, Cawthorn understood the choice wasn’t really a choice at all and set about crafting a more traditional “portrait of the artist” film.

For this reason, the overseas travel became important as Psathas (born here to Greek immigrant parents) dealt with family issues involving his parents. Also, one of Psathas’ major compositions was being premiered in Germany.

Like a screenwriter or playwright, Psathas isn’t capable of executing what he creates, and relies on the skills of others to bring it to life (“First rehearsals can make you want to commit suicide”). One suspects, seeing him at rehearsals and performances, that he has more say in the final outcome than the average screenwriter.

Talking about his work Psathas is engagingly articulate and open, and quickly dispels any stereotypical notions of classical composers. He displays antipathy towards the rarefied world of classical music, worries about the amount of time his work takes from his time with his family, proposes endless variations on even half a bar of a composition, and has an infectious enthusiasm for what he does and, in the case of collaborations, who he does it with.

The production values reflect the $123,000 NZ On Air put into making View From Olympus and remind us, should we need it, of the quality of outcome that a decent budget (and a very competent filmmaker) can deliver.

Given the nature of the project, especially the abandoning of Plan A, Cawthorn ended up with a lot of unused material. He’d like to see it put some use, possibly online as part fo a multi-platform strategy, but money – or the lack of it – has prevented such exploitation to date.

Geoffrey Cawthorn’s View From Olympus screens as part of Doc Edge 2012, in Auckland on Friday 27 April (Auckland Art Gallery), Sunday 29 April (Event Cinemas Newmarket) with a Q&A with Geoffrey Cawthorn, and on Monday 7 May (Event Cinemas Newmarket). It screens in Wellington on Friday 18 May (City Gallery), Sunday 20 and Monday 28 May (both Angelika at Reading Cinemas Courtenay).

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