"I feel that cultural behavior is a very interesting thing to observe and interpret"
Originally from Greece, Kelly Sarri is a Los Angeles based filmmaker.
Kelly decided to shoot a documentary about the Tax Evasion in Greece. She bought a flying ticket and arrived at Thessaloniki, only to realize that people aren't ready to talk about this subject ("people did not want to talk on camera. Not because they were afraid but mostly because they were angry").
Just before she lost all hopes, Kelly found a few people who were willing to talk on camera only if their identities are covered ("I had no problem given the circumstances").
And it paid off big time. A year later, "Tax Evasion: A Greek National Sport" won multiple awards, including Best Documentary at Top Shorts and New York Film Awards.
The film tries to find the reasons why tax evasion rates in Greece are that high without forcing the viewers an opinion
Kelly, congratulations on winning Best Documentary award at Top Shorts! We're very excited to include Tax Evasion: A Greek National Sport in the lineup. It's such a fantastic piece. Why did you decide to make it, what sparked the initial idea and what were the first steps in making this dream a reality?
Thank you for accepting my film and giving me the award for best documentary. When I left Greece to go and study in the US, it was a very difficult time in our economy. It was the summer of 2015 where the capital control started. That inspired me to create this documentary and talk about the situation in my country from a different perspective. I know that it is not usually common for women to get involved with economics but my mother is an economist so in a way I knew how valuable it is to acquire the knowledge and an opinion for these subjects.
I wanted to make this film because I believe that there are two sides of every story. The tax evasion situation in Greece is a phenomenon that caused a lot of conflict between nations and people. Therefore, I decided to make this movie in order to present how and why an edgy behavior emerges through a whole nation. I feel that cultural behavior is a very interesting thing to observe and interpret. For this reason, I proceed into making a piece that illustrates the situation without forcing the viewer an opinion.
The first steps after that it was to start a further research. I started reading more and asking more questions in order to understand how economy works. After that, I booked a ticket to Greece and I started searching for people willing to talk to me on camera.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face when making this film?
The whole film for me was a challenge. As I say in my voice over, “I started doing my research when I realized that I do not have the slightest idea about economics”. I had to understand how the system works and then interpret it in a subjective way. Also, I think the most difficult thing was to find people to interview. I had initially planned to do a vox pop in Thessaloniki (the city in Greece I filmed the documentary) but people did not want to talk on camera. Not because they were afraid but mostly because they were angry. That was a challenge but in the end, it paid off.
There was a moment that I could not find anybody willing to be part of the documentary interviews. But right when I had lost all my hopes, I found the shop attendant, those two plumbers and the coffee-shop owner who were willing to talk on camera only if their identities are covered which I had no problem given the circumstances.
The editing and motion graphics in this film are amazing and contribute to the light, humorous and fresh vibe of the film- great job! Do you normally edit your own films? What, in your opinion are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so?
Thank you for that! I wanted from the beginning to create this humorous vibe and since I like doing motion graphics, I felt that this will add something more to the film. To answer your question, I do edit my own films. I really enjoy the editing process. You also learn a lot. You learn how many mistakes you made while in production so in the future, hopefully, you are not going to make them again. Also, editing a documentary is such an amazing process because you have all the creative power to change the structure or alter whatever you want. However, this makes it also very challenging because at the end of the day, you need to decide what to include and what not or how to tell your story and that can make things difficult.
How did you get the two other producers (Christine Tsakmaka and Irene Theodoridou) on board, and what did you learn from the experience with them?
Irene is a student at the Department of Balkan Slavic and Oriental Studies focusing in Economics and she also happens to be my cousin so she was on board from the beginning when I told her that I wanted to make this film. She helped me a lot during pre-production and during the shootings with her creative input.
I had the pleasure to meet Christina right before starting the production. She is a student at the Film School of the Aristotle University where I got my bachelor’s. Both are amazing individuals who works hard and they helped me coordinate everything.
Tax Evasion is your thesis film. Did you have any mentors that helped you out with it? What are some tips you received during the production?
I had the chance to be a graduate student at the School of Film & TV Production at LMU. My supervisor was Professor Luis Proenca who with his creative input helped me accomplish this film. Professor Proenca coming also from Europe like me and specifically from Portugal was well aware of the situation. The challenging part for me was to shape a narrative with information that was understood in an American audience given that there are a lot of differences like for example names of taxes, etc.
What was your favorite moment throughout the production?
Doing the motion graphics I think. I had so much fun trying to visualize concepts and what the people were saying that I really enjoyed it. I was very into it.
Were you at any point concerned about the subject you chose for the documentary - that it may lead to an unwanted audience reaction? What were some of the reactions so far, and how do you feel about the film's success so far?
I was concerned from the beginning because I knew how it is perceived in Europe. People will think that because I am Greek, I wanted to make a film that makes Greece look good. But that was not and is not my intention as anybody can see from the film. My intention is to reveal the explanation of the situation and both sides of the argument if you will. I was and I am ready to receive a potential unwanted audience reaction because I understand that people become passionate about economics or politics. However, that did not stop me from doing it. It worked mostly as a tool to double check my sources and make sure I keep the balance. The reactions, up until now at least, are mostly positive. That shows me that the audience really understood what I was going for. The most inspiring comment was when somebody told me that while he was used to hear that Greeks did not pay their taxes and had this negative image from the media, he started having second thoughts about that after watching my film.
Let's scroll back to the beginning. How did you become a filmmaker?
To be honest, I had no idea that I would take this path. It all started with an editing software that I learnt while at school. Then I applied to film school, I find it very interesting and then as soon as I finished my bachelor’s, I went straight to get my master’s in production and it became part of my life. I do not think I can do something else other than telling stories.
Who are your favorite film directors and what is your favorite film?
Tough question. I think one of my favorites is Hal Ashby. But my favorite film is “Finding Nemo” I think. Yeah I know that’s a weird answer but I like different movies depending on the mood.
"One Third" - a short animation
You're a very versatile filmmaker - before approaching Tax Evasion: A Greek National Sport, you worked on several shorts in different genres - Bro Story (Comedy), The Youth Elixir (Fantasy), Revenge (Comedy) and One Third (Animation). Where do you see yourself in ten years? Do you plan to do more documentary work?
As I said I do like getting involved into different things. I want to see what appeals to me the most and also I like to learn different techniques and new styles or experiment with genres. As of now, I can definitely tell that I really like making documentaries and I am really planning to get more involved with animation. But I am also a huge fan of comedy so you never know. Maybe I can do both! I think it all depends on the story I want to tell each time.
Tell us about your future projects. What's next?
Right now I am working on the animation of a short film about a mermaid! But definitely I am planning to shoot another documentary soon.
Is there anything you wish to add?
Just that I knew from the beginning that I wanted to make a piece in a humorous way to contradict the significance of the subject matter itself and the mentality of Greeks. That’s why I was invested in that subject. I am a huge fan of Aristophanes’ works and how he uses satire to comment on the political situations of that period. His works are an inspiration for me and I think that they are relevant until today.