Sarra Tsorakidis: “Making films, I just love it”

28 May, 2020

Looking at the Romanian short films made in recent years, there’s one that stands out by its special cinematography and directing style, thus announcing a talent that deserves further attention. The film in question is “Ivy” (2018), it’s about this group of friends who meet up but things easily get out of hand, and the director is Sarra Tsorakidis, a young Romanian filmmaker whose name reflects the Greek origins of her father’s family.

Born on April 22, 1988 in Bucharest, Sarra Tsorakidis graduated in Directing, completing her bachelor’s and master’s studies at UNATC with the short films “A Thousand Things in Common” (2012) and “Smoke” (2013). After film school, Sara was an AD on several Romanian films, such as “Aferim!” (2015) and “Scarred Hearts” (2016), both directed by Radu Jude, who also gave her a small role in each of them.

She is currently working on finishing a new short film, “An Extra Chair” (title in progress), about a woman (Maria Popistaşu) who returns home to cremate her mother, an event that brings to the surface personal and family problems. And soon she will start preparing her debut in feature film, “Ink Wash”, after a screenplay written together with actress Ilinca Harnut (who starred in “Ivy”) – the story of a young female painter in crisis in Bucharest who accepts a job on a boarding house somewhere in the mountains, hoping that a break might help her clear some stuff out.

Besides film, she also enjoys doing music – she took piano lessons for a while and for the past years she has also shot some videos, and had several experimental pop collaborations as a soloist with the record company Future Nuggets.

I talked to Sarra Tsorakidis about a fair amount of things such as her Greek roots, the origins of her passion for film, her studies at UNATC, the significant experience of working on “Aferim!”, the topics and style in her short films, her way of working, the need of female stories in Romanian cinema and the joy in making films.

Sarra Tsorakidis
On the set for “Ivy” / Photo Credit: Horațiu Șovăială

Her grandparents on her father’s side have such an incredible story which would deserve to play on a big screen, and Sarra Tsorakidis admits that, after gaining more experience, she would like to turn it into a movie.

Children of communist partisans caught in the 1940’s Greek war, her grandfather and grandmother were forced to leave the country as teenagers. They met in high school in Poland – her grandfather had arrived there by passing through the former Yugoslavia, and her grandmother through Albania. At the beginning of the ’50s, after finishing high school, they arrived as refugees in Romania, based on an agreement between two communist countries. They got married here, and even though they might have returned to Greece at some point, they preferred to stay.

“Grandma didn’t continue her studies in Romania. Instead, after a few years, my grandfather studied at the Faculty of Philosophy in Iasi”, says Sarra Tsorakidis.

At first, they lived in Hunedoara, then they went to Suceava, where her father was born and raised, up to 11-12 years old. “In Suceava, my grandfather was a manager at a cinema, although he has nothing to do with movies. And my grandmother worked at the ticket office. Dad went to all the movies when he was a kid. That’s how he became a great film enthusiast. His love for cinema is the main reason I started watching movies, when I was 7-8 years old”, says the filmmaker.

Later on, her grandfather became president of the Hellenic Union of Bucharest, so he moved with his wife, son and a 3-year-old daughter to the capital, where the family settled permanently.

In Bucharest, her father, an Auto Engineer-mechanic, met her mother, a Computer Engineer. A woman with a Romanian mother and a father from Chisinau.

On her ID card, her name is listed as Sarra Torachidis, because the Greek name of her father, Tsorakidis, was turned into Romanian in the official documents. But she uses her name as Tsorakidis, as some sort of statement, as well. “That’s how male Greek names are written, with -is at the end. If I was to live in Greece, my name would have been Tsorakidou. For female names, the ending is -ou, which in Greek means his. The woman becomes the property of the man, so to speak”, she explains slightly amused.

“I have more relatives in Greece than in Romania, especially those with whom I keep in touch. Most of them live in Athens, so we go there often. And they come to us often. I also learned Greek, even though I never actually lived there. Growing up in Romania, me and my sister, who is two years younger, a painter and illustrator who now lives in Switzerland, used to speak with our father in Romanian all the time at home, even though he knows Greek well”, says the filmmaker.

“Technically, I have dual citizenship, Romanian and Greek. I received the Greek one in 1989, when my family wanted to leave Romania. After the Revolution, they didn’t leave anymore, so I have no idea what has happened to that citizenship since then. I should see if it’s still valid”, she adds.

Although her family had nothing to do with art, her father passed on to her his passion for film he developed since childhood: “My father is rather passionate about Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick. I met all these great directors through him.”

“I remember I started watching movies in ’96-’97, on video tapes. To spend time together, we would gather in the living room and watch movies. Every night we watched something. The first movie that made me think there was someone behind the decisions, who made you feel the way it wanted, was, strangely enough, a SF – Alien, by Ridley Scott. I was 10-11 years old when I watched it, so old enough to realize that it was not real, that it was made up. But it gave me the creeps, got me in a certain mood. That’s when I realized this might be an interesting thing”, recalls the director.

But it was later that she decided she wanted to become a director, somewhere in the ninth grade. She was in a Mathematics-Informatics class, with a major in Physics, at the “Sfântul Sava” National College in Bucharest, when she was thinking about being an architect: “However, I realized that I had nothing to do with drawing, but watching movies, that was something I was doing all the time.” That’s when she discovered the classics of cinema, such as Antonioni, Fellini, Kieslowski. And together with her classmate, also a cinephile, she decided to apply to UNATC. Herself to Directing and her friend to Cinematography.

Sarra Tsorakidis
Filming ”An Extra Chair” / Photo Credit: Eduard Pârvu

During film school she got to meet many people who are now also part of the Romanian film industry.

Then, “you have the opportunity to learn how to make short films in an environment where everyone is just as passionate. Of course, classes could have been more extensive, there could have been a lot more practice. But I think my age and immaturity were also a disadvantage. If I was older and more aware of how awesome it is to make a film at the time, maybe I would have been much more involved during school. I would have looked for opportunities to be on the set more, instead of complaining that I don’t do things. During those six years, I made the student short films, but I think I could have been smarter on how to spend my time, if I had had the mind I have now”, she confesses with a slight regret.

She did like, though, that she was able to shoot her final two short films on film – A Thousand Things in Common is built on the tension between four friends, two couples, who spend a few days at a mountain cottage, and Smoke is about a young woman who wakes up alone in the apartment of a guy she apparently met the night before, but who later returns home with another girl.

“That’s what I learned most in college – how to use a limited amount of raw material and how to put everything together so that a coherent story comes out, up to 20 minutes. When working on digital, you’re only limited by the number of shooting days you have at hand, but there’s no limit on the number of takes. In A Thousand Things in Common, my fourth year film, I think I only have two shots where I could have two takes. The rest of the shots had only one take each. That meant a lot of rehearsals. It was cool. I liked having the opportunity to shoot on film, because it made me become more organized.”

Then there was that difficult time after finishing school. Still, she had the chance to get on the set of Aferim!, as Radu Jude’s 3rdAD. She says it was the most important experience on a set so far, and that it changed her career.

“I finished my master’s degree and afterwards I had a terrible year. I was beginning to realize that I’ve wasted a lot of time. What do I do now? How to start? If you have some self-awareness, you do realize you can’t call yourself a director and think you’re going to make a masterpiece after you’ve made two student short films. At the time, I was aware that I had many shortcomings and that I needed practice. I didn’t know what to do”, she recalls.

She stumbled upon an interview in Dilema Veche where director Radu Jude mentioned A Thousand Things in Common among several student films that caught his attention. That gave her the courage to write to him on Facebook, telling him that she admires his movies and that she would love to participate in a film shot, if he ever needed help. Radu Jude and producer Ada Solomon were very open to her proposal, so she ended up working on Aferim!, where her job was to look for and coordinate the extras, together with two colleagues, Sebastian Mihailescu and Ninel Petrache.

“It was the first time I really understood how magical it is to make a movie. I think it’s then when I fell in love with cinema for good”, says Sarra Tsorakidis when talking about the experience of working on Aferim!, where she also had a small role, in a final scene with Alexandru Dabija. She collaborated with Radu Jude, whom she considers one of her mentors, on Scarred Hearts as well, where she also worked as an AD and had a small part.

Sarra Tsorakidis
Playing a nurse in „Scarred Hearts”

All four short films directed by Sarra Tsorakidis have a female protagonist who finds herself in a moment of crisis, and the tension inside the couple or the small group of friends or relatives who have gathered together for a short time amplifies it, so that different buried issues are beginning to resurface.

When making a film, she really likes the “possibility of studying human psychology”, which she considers to be “the most important”.

“The relationship between close characters, that’s an area I find very interesting, because only then can you be truly honest. In situations like this, although walls may appear between one another, there’s no hiding behind masks. I like the stories where the main character is at the limit between positive and negative”, she explains.

She finds inspiration in the situations where the outside world assaults the intimacy of the protagonist: “I am interested in this topic, how people build a safety net and an intimacy for themselves, a world to control which, inevitably, the more protective and careful they are with it, the more brutally it is invaded from the outside.”

She confesses that the female perspective in her films comes “very natural”: “Until now, that’s what I felt, to have a lead female character. This may be because the sensitivity and vulnerability that all the protagonists have are very similar to mine. I want the perspective through which I tell the story to be as similar as possible to mine.”

She believes that the female perspective is different from the male perspective, and this difference is important, because she makes films about people and how they react to the world in which they live, and not about certain situations.

“My life as a woman is different from a life as a man. I grew up in the ’90s, a time when, as a woman, you didn’t have all the liberties, it was long before the Me Too movement. If I had made films about situations, about what is happening, then maybe the difference would not have been so big. But I feel like my films are more about the person who goes through these situations. That’s why I involuntarily get to the feminine perspective, because it’s a very subjective opinion”, she details.

She notices a great lack of female perspectives in Romanian cinema, although she says that this gap has slowly started to fill in over the recent years, with the appearance of directors like Ivana Mladenovic, Ana Lungu or Adina Pintilie.

“There are many films where the female character is just a pillar for the lead male character. The woman is there just to cook, to stress out. Until quite recently, the female character made no mistakes. There were very few films with convincing lead female characters, and an example would be 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days”, she adds.

As for the style she approaches in her films, where one could notice a special care to the visual aspect and the unusual camera angles, which suggest and induce a certain discomfort, she says that cinematography is extremely important: “It doesn’t have to look beautiful, but to make sense and complete and support the story. There should always be a reason for choosing a certain position of the camera.”

She states that she works very well with DoP Radu Voinea, with whom she made Ivy and An Extra Chair, and with whom she also wants to work on her debut in feature film.

While working on Ivy, she found out about this special camera, Ikonoskop, which was offered, together with all the equipment, by the FILM+ platform created by filmmakers Paul Negoescu, Ana Draghici and Alex Traila, whose support was crucial for making the short. “There is something magical about this camera. Ikonoskop is a digital camera with 16 mm sensor. Even if it’s not 4K, it has a kind of grain in the picture and it looks a lot like film stock. Only that you can shoot as many takes as you want and edit them right after”, explains Sarra Tsorakidis.

She developed her own working system with the DoP: “We talk a lot before we start filming, to determine exactly what the purpose and point of view of the camera is. For Ivy we established that the whole film is shot from the perspective of a Zoe (the protagonist played by Ilinca Harnut) from the future who remembers a day from the past. When you remember an important moment, it may be a little fuzzy what was going on around you then. Maybe you were looking at something, not necessarily to what happened a meter away from you. The moment we made this decision and started working on it, during shootings the camera was placed only from the right angle.”

She thinks it’s an instinctive thing. “Making film is following your gut, really. It’s beyond logic and reason. You can always bring arguments to your choices, but if you’re not friends with your intuition as a director, you don’t really get the confidence you need to direct a film. Until turning 30, an age when we all become more mature, although I had a very strong intuition and it always told me what would be best for me, I often said no to things. I didn’t trust it enough and denied it and I always regretted it afterwards. But from one point on, I decided not to do that anymore. I told myself that I need to do what I feel is OK, and at least I’ll have no regrets later for doing what felt right to me. So far, it has worked”, details the filmmaker.

As for her working style, she explains that it’s important to decide on the picture, camera angles and lighting before the shooting, so that she can focus on acting after. “When we film, I’m most concerned with the performance of the actors. For me, bad acting is maybe more disturbing than for others. I find it very important that an actor is not the actor who plays the role in the film, but a person who feels things just like the character and eventually becomes the character”, she emphasizes.

“Many times, I write the screenplay with the actors in mind and it helps me figure out the main characters. I consider their way of being. But I rehearse beforehand and work a lot on what happens in the actor’s mind when he acts. My goal is never to come up as mechanical. And I’m very obsessed with details: he has to be exactly in that certain place, by the millimeter. Instead, I will never ask an actor to cry just because I wrote it in the script. If the script says that the character is crying its eyes out, but the actor naturally doesn’t feel the need to cry in the situation in which I put him, then I prefer not to do it”, the director also declares.

She thinks that the few moments when she was in front of the camera, as an actress, were very important: “Every experience I had in front of the camera opened my eyes. It helps you feel when your performance is bad or fake. It helped me a lot as a director, because I can empathize with an actor when he goes through this and have discussions which could help bring him back where he needs to be. I would like to have a more serious role and take a break from directing as I do so.”

She confesses that directing is the thing she likes the most and that it gives her everything: “I feel my best when I’m on the set, as a director. I’m not tired, I’m not hungry, I’m not afraid. It’s the only place I feel like I don’t work at all. It’s very inspiring to see so many people getting involved and being by your side, and that together they can put on the screen something you created in your mind in the first place. Being a director is everything I need. Making films, I just love it.”


Photo Credit Banner: Horațiu Șovăială

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.