Yon 2012, Jacqueline Lentzou picked up the phone to her cousin in Athens, Greece. She remembers the date exactly: 19 June. Lentzou was 20 and studying to be a director at the London Film School. “My cousin told me: ‘Your father’s in the hospital. He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t walk. You have to come back.’” He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
For the next 18 months, she became her father’s carer. At the time, it felt as if her directing career was finished before it properly got started: “The only thing that kept me from not believing that everything was over was the fact that I would make a film about it. I’ve known since 2012 that this would be my first feature. I had to do it to move on in my life.”
A decade later, that feature has been made. It is called Moon, 66 Questions and it is as fierce, intense and thoughtful as Lentzou, speaking over a video call from her home in Athens. Since the film premiered at Berlin last year, she has not talked publicly about its autobiographical beginnings – until now. She worried that her life story would be a distraction. “I’m not hiding it, but at the same time I’m not too open. Only because I would never, ever want the real event of the film” – she puts “real event” in invisible inverted commas – “to take the attention away from the actual film.” Besides, she adds: “The real story is much tougher.”
Moon, 66 Questions is squarely in the arthouse tradition, unconventional and defiantly unsentimental (although it is very emotional at the end). Sofia Kokkali plays Artemis, who flies home to Athens after her father is hospitalized. As the only child of divorced parents, her extended family of her – rich, conservative, churchgoing – expect her to care for her father of her, even though she has barely spoken to him in years. Artemis spends most of the film seeing with resentment and anger.
Is gender a factor? In her own life, would Lentzou have been asked to drop everything if she had been a son? She shakes her head. “No,” she answers with a thin, ironic smile. “If I was a boy, they would call me just to go pay a visit and then they would send me to work.”
Lentzou wanted to show what it is like to live in male-dominated Greece; the expectations put on women and “toxic” homophobia. Her script from Ella features a gay character who has lived for many years in the closet. “My film is deeply and above all about patriarchy, and this suppression that people have to go through and deny their own souls. This is the heart of the film. It would not exist if patriarchy did not exist.”
She is talking a week after the high-profile conviction of two men for killing Zak Kostopoulos, a 33-year-old LGBTQ+ activist in Athens. Witnesses described the attack as akin to a lynching. Four police officers, also accused of causing fatal bodily harm, walked free. Lentzou looks furious; for the first time, she is lost for words. “They kicked him to death in downtown Athens at four o’clock in the afternoon. I have goosebumps telling you this story. Imagine, this is in Athens, the capital. I don’t want to know what’s happening in the other smaller cities of Greece.”
In the film, she doesn’t pull any punches with her honest portrayal of an adult child caring for a parent. The camera keeps rolling during the bits that a Hollywood movie would cut away from: Artemis’s excruciating embarrassment at seeing her father in the bath for the first time, or changing his incontinence pants.
What happens when you take care of a sick parent is that you swap between carer and daughter, says Lentzou. “It’s a double-agent role. Artemis could not take him to the toilet believing that she’s her daughter. Ella she’s not the daughter then, she’s just there to help him. Then she goes back to the daughter’s role. I think it’s impossible to change your father’s diapers knowing that he’s your father.” It is all a bit much for some. “There are people who are shocked, for sure, because they think that the film is very harsh, that’s it’s very in-your-face.”
Lentzou doesn’t spoonfeed her audience, either. We never find out anything about Artemis – where she lives, what she does for a job. But in Kokkali’s brilliant performance of her, in the little glimpses she gives of Artemis’s kooky coolness, playfulness and hint of a humming inner life, we get a picture of who she is. This withholding has caused some headscratching in Greece, says Lentzou: “Some people are bored, which I totally understand. It was one of my biggest risks, to make a potentially hard-to-watch film. But, as a viewer, I like to watch something that challenges me.”
At this point, our interview is interrupted by her dog barking from the hallway. “She never barks,” says Lentzou wandering over to the door to let in a shaggy ball of fur who bounds on to her lap. “Our interview has become too personal now,” she giggles.
Lentzou grew up with her mum, her grandmother and dogs. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a writer. “I was alone most of the time, watching films and television 24/7. They were my best friends, but I never thought I could make a film.” Then, at 14, she had an epiphany while watching Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, about a high school shooting, on TV. “I was shocked. It was my first arthouse film. Until then, I was watching only mainstream stuff: Scorsese, you know, more fun stuff. When I watched Elephant, I was drawn in body and soul to the silence of the film. I could not believe my eyes. And I knew: this is my job.”
Lentzou has a tattoo, two words inked on the inside of her forearm: “Ext Night” – screenwriting jargon for exterior night. She laughs when I point it out: “You know what’s funny? I had it done for free when I was 16, when film-making was a dream. Then it happened, and this” – she points to the tattoo – “is the cheesiest worst.”
After looking after her father for a year and a half, Lentzou stayed in Greece when professional care workers took over. She felt she couldn’t leave. “I had to be around; I could not disappear. I had to go to teach them how to be there with him.” Gradually, she started directing a string of award-winning short films crewed by friends. Looking back, being forced to work in Greece might have been a blessing: “Things were faster. I was shooting in my house with my people, on a low budget. I don’t think I could have done that anywhere else.”
She took her time to make Moon, 66 Questions, writing the script over the years in between the shorts. “I needed, first of all, to practice and make my film language as perfect as possible. Because this film could have been a very easy-peasy, cheesy, melodramatic film.”
During the edit, people nagged her to add a dedication to her father, who is still alive. Or open with the caption: “Based on a true story.” Lentzou rolls her eyes and waves the idea away. “I’m like: no! I want someone to be drawn into the film for the film itself!”
Now, finally, she is thinking of moving back to London, or maybe New York: “Somewhere where I can do my job as I deserve to do my job.”