“It will be difficult to create something this personal again, but Zymvragaki’s empathic touch is what documentary filmmaking needs when it approaches delicate subject matter like this.”
Sometimes as a documentary filmmaker, a subject is thrown into your lap. Such was the case for Greek director Efthymia Zymvragaki, whose Light Falls Vertical, a deeply personal yet also universal essayist doc about domestic violence, had its world premiere at IDFA this year. A film in which investigating the past and present of a perpetrator makes her relive her own memories as a victim of a strained father-daughter relationship back in Greece. In the early stages of her career, having only one short documentary on her resumé (2015’s Refrán), the subject of her debut feature landed on her proverbial doorstep when a man who called himself Ernesto contacted her and said he wanted her to make a film about his life. Drawn to the idea, Zymvragaki read Ernesto’s autobiographical novel and set out for Tenerife to meet the man and let him tell his story, unaware how much this would pry loose her own.
She finds in Ernesto an intriguing wandering soul, a man whose eyes show the explosiveness of the ticking time bomb that he is. There is a certain restlessness to Ernesto, somewhat akin to that of a caged animal. But he can also calmly, almost without emotion but with his piercing dark eyes suggesting a fire within, talk about his abusive bouts and how he inherited them from his father. He first reaches for this distant past, to a household in which the man of the house frequently beat his mother. He re-enacts moments from his childhood, alternately playing his mother and himself, and gradually an all too familiar image appears: a victim becoming a perpetrator. As the film progresses he becomes the director, instructing hired actors how to play scenes from his adult life; scenes of crisis triggered by jealousy in which he threatens to kill his wife. Even if he keeps his emotions in check, there is an intensity in Ernesto that reveals the danger that lies in the moments when his brain short-circuits.
It is somewhat surprising then to see him in a relationship with an older woman, Juliane. They are shown as an odd but loving couple, both fully aware of Ernesto’s psychiatric condition. They have an agreement: when Ernesto feels another episode coming on, Juliane is to leave the house and not return until he contacts her. Juliane knows full well there will come a day that he will never make that contact again, but they plod on in their idyllic, windswept landscape.
Zymvragaki makes excellent use of the island’s sounds and natural beauty, whose wind and rough seas present a metaphor for the turmoil inside Ernesto’s head. Imagery of desolate nature forms the backdrop for the director’s own reflections on Ernesto’s story and how they are tied to her personal history. She too suffered from an abusive father, whose strict upbringing deprived her of the freedoms she sought. Thinking back on her earliest childhood on the island of Crete, born a girl but not yet facing the dangers of becoming a woman, Ernesto’s story unlocks in Zymvragaki the understanding that she is drawn to her main subject because they are interdependent in their process of healing, having a sense of shared memories as they do. Both Ernesto’s behaviour and Zymvragaki’s own ruminations are testimony to this, although the film sadly doesn’t reveal why he specifically chose her as the person to direct a film about him.
Light Falls Vertical is not a film of condemnation, in part because Ernesto is fully aware of his own wrongdoings. Far more, the film seeks to understand him and the nature of his violence as well as its history. Schizophrenia lies at the heart of Ernesto’s problems; he tells about ‘the other’, who he names Juan. He tries to destroy this other man, figuratively and ultimately quite literally, but never quite succeeds. Far more, Light Falls Vertical is a film of understanding and recognition, especially for the filmmaker herself.
Zymvragaki’s editing (together with editor Tin Dirdamal) at first seems curious, as many scenes seem to include the moments before or after that would normally be cut. It is in these moments that Ernesto is shown at his most vulnerable and open, and perhaps his most ‘real’ version of himself. This ties in nicely with the film’s final image, the only photo Zymvragaki has of her own father in which he is not the tyrant she remembers. Yet it also is a juxtaposition with the last shot of Ernesto, filmed through the windshield of his car, obliviously breaking the fourth wall with his intense stare. Zymvragaki’s central character committed suicide before shooting was done, so this is the final frame we can remember Ernesto by, a man who was both perpetrator and victim. Light Falls Vertical follows its own rhythm and is a singular debut by a filmmaker who approaches her subject with open vizor and a poetic and contemplative gaze. Perhaps her own personal attachment is what makes Zymvragaki’s first film so deeply felt, but Light Falls Vertical invokes an eagerness to see what is next for the Greek filmmaker. It will be difficult to create something this personal again, but Zymvragaki’s empathic touch is what documentary filmmaking needs when it approaches delicate subject matter like this.