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That’s a wrap: Byzanfest film festival founder Chris Vlahonasios shares 2020 behind the scenes and award winners

Chris Vlahonasios is an Orthodox media expert, owner of TRANSFIGURE MEDIA and founder of the Byazanfest film festival, the world’s only online Orthodox Christian film festival streaming the very best short and feature-length films.

Chris founded the Byzanfest Film Festival in 2014 following by his mother’s shock cancer diagnosis, as a way to “let light shine through that cloud.”

Chris Vlahonasios
* Chris Vlahonasios, founder of the Byzanfest Film Festival

The annual Festival showcases films which reflect Orthodox Christian themes, beliefs, culture and values. All films tell visual stories which are inspired and guided by living a life in Christ.

Byzanfest aims to be continuously innovative, reaching out to wider audiences, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The goal is to raise greater awareness of Orthodox cinema and at the same time generate a more sustainable future for the industry.

Byzanfest 2020 took place this year from 23rd October until the 8th November (when winners were announced) whereby the participating films were available to view on-demand – globally –on the official Festival website: byzanfest.com.

In a conversation with Greek City Times, Chris shares with us the ‘behind the scenes’ of Byzanfest 2020, gives the run down on this year’s award winners, and imparts important messages of faith to our youth.

Explain the process by which it is decided which films are successful in making it onto the Byzanfest Film Festival programme. 

Byzanfest accepts films that tell stories which have been inspired and guided by the filmmaker living out their Orthodox faith. This means films can contain directly spiritual or non-spiritual messages, but done within an Orthodox phronema (mindset).

In order to encourage entries, we primarily promote the film festival through Orthodox Christian media outlets, a strong online presence, various churches and word of mouth. Byzanfest also uses secular media outlets.

Do you have a couple of favourite films for this year and why do these stand out for you?

It’s impossible to only mention a couple of favourites. Each film offers something really unique and original. Orthodox filmmaking is incredibly rich and dynamic, telling stories which explore different aspects of human existence within a spiritual approach. But if I have to make special mention, it would be:

The Rite of Holmgang: it’s a short-film by two brothers, Stephan and Andrew Robinson, from Tasmania, so it’s great to share with the world Orthodox creativity from Australia. What I like about this film is how Orthodoxy fused with Viking culture. It’s about a young warrior who is challenged to a duel, but must find a way to be himself, which is, as a Christian. Filmed in the beautiful Tasmanian wildness, Holmgang is an epic short which uses the ancient Viking language of Old Norse and intense battle scenes.

Made in America: this film takes us into the inner-most struggles returning veterans face when they come home from war. What I found so profound was comprehending the isolation and torment these soldiers experience. Watching this film in a COVID-world highlights the importance of mental health and how we have to do more to help those in need.

New Men: one of the most beautifully shot films in the competition, New Men grants us access into the world of monks to better understand their reasons for leaving the world. Over the course of one year, we get to see all the colours and sounds of the seasons and Church traditions.

That's a wrap: Byzanfest film festival founder Chris Vlahonasios shares 2020 behind the scenes and award winners 1

 

* NOTE: films have temporally been removed since the completion of the film festival on the 28th November, but they will return in a couple of months. Stay tuned on the Byzanfest Facebook page.

What inspired you or drew you to align your career with your Orthodox faith?

Orthodoxy has always be a part of my life since I was young. As I got older I became more and more intrigued by its complexity, yet simplicity. I love how Orthodoxy enables us to experience all the different stages of our lives – just like the seasons, each with its joys and sorrows – and being in sync with all aspects of life.

In regards to work, I’ve always been passionate about film. I love the power of the message and the moving image. However, in my early-twenties I felt this calling to align any career I might have with film or media to be in harmony with my spiritual life, which is far more important.

The more I learnt about Orthodoxy and its approach to art and media, the more I realised how much it valued and encourages creative expression.

Orthodoxy does not limit creativity as long as it does not cause harm, emotional or spiritually, to others. Orthodox creativity is so richly entwined with our theology, enabling organic expression that’s freely willed by the artist.

Byzanfest was established in 2014. How did the establishment of Byzanfest come about?

 It was early 2014 and I remember watching a documentary about the growing popularity of online film festivals. I was so intrigued by how dynamic this concept was, I then asked myself, “Why couldn’t we (Orthodox) have such an event?”

At first I wasn’t sure how to go about bringing this idea to life and I was planning my first trip to Greece so I thought I’d get back to it when I return.

Upon my return I was told my mum had breast cancer. I then put any film or art projects on the shelf until she got through her treatment.

On the day of mum’s first round of chemotherapy at the Olivia Newton Cancer Centre I remember seeing artwork made by patients during their treatment.

This struck a chord with me: our ability to create can be a powerful means to overcome tragedy.

Though I was not the one going through cancer, the constant presence of it was like a black cloud, so I wanted to do something about it – I wanted to turn my mum’s trial into something positive and let light shine through that cloud.

I used the resources I had had my disposal and used my various connects to help get the word out quickly.

Within a short period of time I had enough submissions to host my first Byzanfest.

My mum is now in remission and doing really well, glory be to God!

Yes, glory be to God!  We notice that your judging panel this year is full of very credible judges, some of Greek background. Would you like to tell us about some?

Nektaria Karantzi – one of Greece’s most prized Byzantine chanters. Her performances are purely devoted to Byzantine Chant, the Mediterranean primeval musical tradition and the religious music in Greek, Italian, Romanian, Arabic, Russian and Aramaic.

The Greek vocalist of Sacred orthodox music, Nektaria Karantzi has also been invited to run master classes from some of the most renowned educational and musical centers in Europe, such as the Liszt Academy in Hungary, the Sorbonne University in France, the University of Oviedo in Spain etc.

In her first recordings as a teenager, she accompanied Saint Porphyrios the Kapsokalyvite, a contemporary saint, and with his encouragement, she commenced her studies in Byzantine Music.

Nektaria Karantzi is also well-known in Greek music stage through her collaboration with the greatest teacher of the Greek Traditional Music Chronis Aidonides. An important moment of her career is her collaboration with the internationally acclaimed pianist, composer, conductor and ECM recording artist Vassilis Tsabropoulos, in an artistic combination inspired by byzantine hymns joining West and East and toured in Europe several times.

She is the President of the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra of Athens , which is under the aegis of the Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece, Ieronymos II.

In recent years, many women and young girls have been drawn to Byzantine music, inspired by the work of Nektaria Karantzi.

Having as a primary purpose of cultivating and promoting the female art of chanting, in 2013 she founded the: “Women in Byzantine Music Worldwide Association”, the world’s first official and largest membership platform for women in Byzantine Ecclesiastical Music.

She also founded and is the director of the women’s byzantine choir “Psaltries Choir” with members from all over Greece and abroad.

Evmenios Vasilopoulos – is the Archdiocesan Vicar of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia District of Northcote Victoria. He is also responsible for the project management of the new drug rehabilitation centre in Melbourne, and sits on the board of St John’s College and St Basil’s Aged Care, Victoria.

Efthimios Hatzis – a Greek-American filmmaker based in Athens. He is the winner of Byzanfest 2019’s Best Cinematography and Best Director. He has directed several short and feature-length films.

Have any of the Byzanfest Film Festival winners from previous years been Greek films?

Yes they have:

Byzanfest 2019

Christmas Anti-Fable: Set in an alternative retro-future, the world’s worm species is dying leading to impending massive ecological collapse. Who will be the one to save them and the whole world?

Winner of Best Cinematography and Best Director.

 

Byzanfest 2015

Breathing Under Water: A woman finally comes to terms with Grace.

Winner of Best Cinematography + Best Director

 

Can you tell us a bit about the filmmakers who enter the Byzanfest Film Festivals from year to year?

Some of the filmmakers entering Byzanfest Film Festival are Orthodox from birth, others, mostly from USA, are converts.

The filmmakers come from all over the world – Greece, Romania, Russia, Georgia, Lebanon, France, USA, Jamaica, England, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Ages of the entrants vary, we’ve had filmmakers as young as 14 years old, but usually late-20s, averaging 35 years old.

Mostly the participants are professional/career filmmakers, both up-and-coming and experienced ones, rarely amateur.

Would you say Byzanfest is targeted toward a certain demographic? For example, helping to deliver Christian messages in a way that is relevant to youth today.

 Byzanfest does not specifically target any particular age group. The Festival offers a wide variety of topics and genres to appeal to everyone. For example, this year’s short-film collection had several fantastic animations which could cater for both kids and adults.

However, there’s something very interesting I’ve noticed with Orthodox filmmaking.

Unlike some other Christian filmmakers who use their films as a 2-hour sermon, Orthodox don’t do this.

The filmmakers simply want to share a story which they find interesting and express it in their own creative way. In Orthodox cinema, art comes first. It’s not so much about targeting a particular age as it’s more about offering stories which may serve the audience a benefit either now or upon future viewing.

You regularly speak at Orthodox events and conferences about Orthodoxy, creativity and media. Your most recent speaking engagements include the Melbourne Youth Conference and Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago Youth Worker’s Summit. What did you speak about at these events?

 

  • SYEZD (Dec 2019, Brisbane): THE MOVING ICON: An Orthodox Approach to Filmmaking – an introduction and appreciation of Orthodox filmmaking, formulating film analysis and development of a sustainable future of Orthodox film industry.

 

  • Melbourne Youth Conference (Jan 2020) part of His Eminence Archbishop Makarios’ series of national youth conferences: I firstly highlighted the dangers and consequences of the online world. The second part was how to foster a spiritual approach to existing online and how maintaining an Orthodox mindset and spiritual disciplines, even when in the virtual world, can result in propagating a positive environment for all.

 

  • Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago Youth Worker’s Summit (Webinar): Engaging our Youth: Why does online engagement matter? – a comprehensive workshop designed to educate and equip youth workers with an understanding of the dynamics of social media and how to effectively capitalise on its power to engage youth in church ministry.

 

 

  • The Orthodox Family Webinar (28 Nov 2020): Raising Orthodox Digital Citizens: This lecture aims to explain the addictive psychology behind social media, what effect it has on youth’s development and how parents, through spiritual guidance, can raise their children to become resilient and mature Orthodox Digital Citizens.

 

A lot of your work seems to be focused at helping and supporting our youth.  What are the topics that you like to present to our youth and what is the most important messages you try to leave for them?

 I would say my work on digital communications and social media is very youth focused.

I think it’s because youth are naturally drawn into the online world and it’s an area I’m very interested in.

I’m fascinated by ‘human communications’ – the theories of why some forms of communication can more effective than others.

I don’t want youth to solely base their personal development on just online experiences, but in a healthy way in conjunction with other real-world experiences and skills.

It’s important youth are aware they can’t just rely on social media to define who they are.

 

What do you think are the main issues that our youth are dealing with currently? And what are some important messages that they can take from their faith to help in dealing with these issues?

I think youth are overwhelmed by all the messages and trends they’re exposed to online and through mass media.

Being overwhelmed causes you to not make the best decisions, it simply forces you to follow what everyone else is doing or saying because you think it’s right.

Important messages from their faith: stillness and silence – monasticism has taught stillness and avoidance of noise and chatter helps one recalibrate all the turbulence they feel in their soul. It’s amazing how different a person can feel when they take some time-out and with some prayer can start to see things more clearly and what direction they should take their life. I highly encourage taking time-out from social media and technology from time to time.

I’m not saying you can’t use social media, but just the same way we sometimes have to go on a diet when we overeat and it starts affecting our health, it’s the same with social media and its effect on our mental and spiritual well-being.

 

Byzanfest Film Festival 2020 Award Results

The winners of the Byzanfest 2020 film festival were  announced live via the Byzanfest Facebook page and YouTube channel on Sunday 8th November.

Watch the live announcements here:

FB Autoplay: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=369591097827984

YouTube link: https://youtu.be/dGMzGRYmZDA

 

SHORT-FILM CATEGORY WINNERS

Winner of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Dormition of our Lady Award for Best Cinematography for Short-Film was 500 (from Romania)

$150 USD = $210 AUD

 

Winner of the City Auto Group Award for Best Director for Short-Film was 500 (from Romania)

$150 USD = $210 AUD

 

Winner of the Aniston Lawyers Award for Best Short-Film was 500 (from Romania)

$200 USD = $275 AUD

Hand-written icon from OramaWorld

 

FEATURE-LENGTH CATEGORY WINNERS

Winner of the Nick Papas Studio Award for Best Editing was New Men (from USA)

 

Winner of the Priceless Imagery Award for Best Documentary was $150USD was In the Name of Choice (from USA)

 

Winner of the Ryan Jaroncyk Award for Best Director was New Men (from USA)

 

Winner of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Book Centre of VIC & NSW Award for Best Film was New Men (from USA)

 

That's a wrap: Byzanfest film festival founder Chris Vlahonasios shares 2020 behind the scenes and award winners 2

 

That's a wrap: Byzanfest film festival founder Chris Vlahonasios shares 2020 behind the scenes and award winners 3

 

Recommended links:

byzanfest.com

transfiguremedia.com

 

* NOTE: films have temporally been removed since the completion of the film festival on the 28th November, but they will return in a couple of months. Stay tuned on the Byzanfest Facebook page.

 

Read more about Byzanfest on Greek City Times:

Byzanfest 2020 – world’s only online Christian Orthodox film festival

 

That's a wrap: Byzanfest film festival founder Chris Vlahonasios shares 2020 behind the scenes and award winners 4

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