In “What Men Live By” (1885), the piercing, humane gaze of Leo Tolstoy raises three questions: What is inside men? What is it that is not granted to men? What is it that keeps men alive? The short story is one of Eva Stefani’s favorite pieces of writing; its title could be a general headline for her work.
Stefani was born in 1964 in Alexandria, Virginia, in the United States. Her films as well as her writings are grounded in theory but maintain a poetic independence. She makes observational documentaries and experimental films that begin and end in the domain of reality, yet what we see is a distorted version of it. She takes a twisted look at things, at people, at everyday life, and she exposes the paradoxical side of stories located, as she puts it, “in the fringes of reality.” Although she works in the genre of observational cinema and follows its fundamental methods, she approaches it in her own engaged way: she takes a stand. As a participant observer, she forges relationships with the people who will eventually appear in her films that can last for days, months, or years.
Whether watching the Athens Railway Station’s nightlife and its regulars (Athene, 1995) or following individual characters (The Box, 2004; The Return of E. C. Gonatas, 2012), Stefani highlights the most unusual angles of a situation, shifting her attention toward the Beckettian dimension of human communication. Likewise, her short stories (for example, “Fin’s Hair,” 2014), despite an anchoring in observation, underline realism’s surreal aspects. By rendering unfamiliar what’s taken for granted, she invites us to look at reality in a different way.
In the film Acropolis (2001/2004), she puts forth a subversive, feminist view of the famous monument. She follows a procedure that is the reverse of observation, putting together existing Super 8 footage with porn and archival material, and by identifying the Parthenon with the female body, she negotiates anew our received notions about Greekness and femininity. Both Acropolis and National Anthem (2007)—which was censored when it premiered in Athens—aspire to challenge the hegemonic ideologies and concepts that relate to national symbols.
What do people live by?—and, for that matter, what do monuments? This pivotal question in Stefani’s mind keeps her alert to the everlasting search for truth beyond the obvious, making her oeuvre experimental and, at the same time, classic.