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A lens on under-age drinking in Cyprus

By Melissa Hekkers

Three years ago, a local filmmaker gave four teenagers video cameras to depict the reality of their nocturnal outings, in a bid to reveal issues on alcohol.

Fast forward to today, and the result is Empousa, a documentary film about underage drinking. With the film now in post-production, the pragmatic, not-for-profit documentary is seeking financial support towards its completion and to raise awareness through its content. The Cyprus Weekly spoke to its director and producer, Elena Alonefti.

Cyprus Weekly: What urged you, personally, to make a film about underage drinking in Cyprus?

Elena Alonefti: With two teenagers in the house and super easy access to alcohol anywhere on the island (including the purchase of alcohol from kiosks 24 hours a day, without proof of ID most of the time) I became desperate, frustrated and angry.

I wanted to find ways to help my children understand how to handle alcohol, how to deal with peer pressure, why not to drink, etc., etc., etc.

So, I began some research on underage drinking. Knowledge is power and I wanted to share it as a filmmaker. The film was a result of this enormous research and, more than three years later, with incredible obstacles – as it goes with most documentaries – I find myself working with an amazing group of people to finish the film.

CW: You followed four teenagers and gave them cameras to film themselves, giving us a glimpse of their night life. How easy was it for them to commit to this?

EA: All four kids are familiar with taking photos and videos and loved the idea. When we uploaded their footage, it was like opening Pandora’s box.

We saw footage that we would never be able to film ourselves. Family times, personal moments, time with friends, nights out. The innocence of the kids is evident throughout the film, but also their vulnerability.

The change is huge, especially on the girls. Our four protagonists were 15-17 years old when we began filming. Two years later they have grown both physically and emotionally.

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CW: Making use of technology by a generation that is very much acquainted with its functions, is a brilliant and recently popular means of communication. What were the difficulties and benefits you found in this approach?

EA: Asking the protagonists to film themselves was a must. They would feel uninhibited and more comfortable, with more freedom for expression.

Such an attempt gives a documentary an authenticity that is extremely difficult to achieve otherwise. We went through a process of teaching the kids how to handle the equipment and film themselves.

Not knowing what we could get was a risk – one worth taking, of course. The results are fantastic!

CW: Actually giving youth the ‘responsibility’ of recording their activities, appears, from afar, to be a strong and insightful angle from which to tackle the topic at hand. In hindsight, how much of a deeper impact do you think this had on the local reality?

EA: Huge impact! Our protagonists are showing us the reality of the night life of young people in Cyprus. And this is something that the Cypriot society is not aware of.

The film will clearly show what is really going on at night; how easy it is for young children (from 13 years old) to have access to clubs, drink unlimited amounts of alcohol and stay out until 3 or 4 in the morning.

How the kids are influenced to drink, and how their relationship with their parents affects their drinking habits. It’s important to mention that none of the protagonists in the film have issues with alcohol.

They were chosen for their willingness to share their experiences with us. It was also important that their parents participated in the film.

CW: From what I understand, you also include discussions with government officials and other sources to emphasise the role of alcohol in our lives. How easy was it to combine real life moments with the mundane media and government representations?

EA: Empousa takes place in Cyprus, but the film concerns all drinking cultures. So we proceeded to interview international top experts, officials and researchers on underage drinking as we don’t have experts in Cyprus dedicated on this subject.

After researching the subject of underage drinking, we discovered that Cypriots, and especially parents, are not aware that there is a serious problem on the island about alcohol abuse by young people. Cypriot teenagers rank third in binge drinking in Europe (ESPAD 2016).

This is extremely high, considering that we are compared with countries that have a long tradition of alcohol abuse! And you know what the sad thing is?

Our government doesn’t think that underage drinking is a priority that needs to be addressed right now. So, what are we waiting for? To witness a death or deaths?

Underage drinking is associated with traffic accidents, injury, suicide, death, missed classes and decreased academic performance, loss of memory, blackouts, fighting, property damage, date rape and unprotected sex, HIV infection, unplanned pregnancies and cancer. Need I say more?

CW: Could you say something more about Empousa who narrates the story?

EA: Empousa is a mythical ancient Greek demi goddess, one of the vampires of the world.

She seduces young people, drinks their blood and eats their flesh. In myth, she has the ability to break through human mental defences.

Her particular traits perfectly mirror the attitudes and behaviour of society that lures and pushes young people into substance abuse.

She is used allegorically and, because she is fictitious, she can speak her mind freely and tell us some uncomfortable truths. Empousa can be you or me or anyone who may intentionally or unintentionally influence children towards drinking.

Alcohol is a highly-addictive substance and nowhere in the world can anyone say that it is beneficial to the human body. Even the ever-changing statistics are already proving this.

CW: You state that ‘We, the adults, are the main protagonists’. We are both the innocent bystanders and the villains. Is this a notion that also comes through the footage and insight of the youths behind the camera?

EA: When you watch the film, you will understand what this means. Children mimic adults. And we, the adults, can become villains not only through intentional actions, but also because of ignorance.

CW: You have already organised events promoting the film, but also raising awareness on the matter?

EA: Actually, we only screened a trailer specifically made for the event. The film is still under production and we hope to finish it for distribution before the end of the year.

The event we organised at the Pantheon cinema was an eye-opening experience for the audience, but also for the panel participants, which included the minister of health, the president of the anti-drugs council, a police representative, [Green party MP] Charalampos Theopemptou (who is also our associate producer) and a TV producer/director who is an alcoholic in remission.

Parallel to the film production, we have been very active in developing a strategy to cause political change and get the public interested in the subject.

We were invited to speak at the Parliamentary Committee of Education to discuss underage drinking and present our findings.

Through our intervention, we helped change school regulations to prevent alcohol use on school premises and prohibit school children from promoting night club events, and we have also submitted a law proposal to raise the alcohol drinking age to 18.

CW: You ask: What is our relationship with alcohol today? What are we doing in Cyprus and abroad to stop this unprecedented trend that has become an epidemic? Are we going to see 10-year-olds drinking in the next few years? Isn’t it time to rethink the way we view alcohol? Did you get to the bottom of any of these questions?

EA: There is no one answer to any of these questions, but there are answers which the film will provide. One thing is certain: we are doing very little in Cyprus to stop this trend.

And, as I mentioned earlier, I hope we don’t have to witness a death or deaths before we start doing something about this. And I am not kidding. If you take a walk outside the clubs after 3am, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

CW: You are currently crowd funding to materialise the project. What will you use the funds for, what is your target and where can we find more information about it?

EA: We need $30,000 to complete the film, screen it and distribute it. We are now at the stage of the final edit and we hope we can finish the film before December.

In order to support the film, visit: https://igg.me/at/empousa


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