“What’s great about Alkinos is that he doesn’t make commercials and he doesn’t do TV,” actor Nick Barkla told FilmInk in 2006 of his Em 4 Jay director Alkinos Tsilimidos. “He’s got guts and integrity because he doesn’t use his talent to sell product for corporations. It’d be great if there were more films like this, but it takes a brave director to make one, and we don’t have many of them in this country.”
If you consider yourself a lover of Australian cinema, but know little or nothing about writer/director Alkinos Tsilimidos, then you need to take serious stock. The Melbourne-based director makes films that are challenging. He makes films that hurt. He makes films that are sometimes hard to love, which worry his distributors even as they excite his audience. But the only consideration which really matters is that Tsilimidos makes his films 100% from the heart. Steeped strongly in his own sense of style, and with a continuing commitment to subject matter that most filmmakers wouldn’t dare embrace, Tsilimidos remains our most indelible cinematic voice for society’s disenfranchised and bereft. All of his films resound with a gritty honesty and deep sense of humanism, bolstered by an utter lack of compromise that mark them all as unforgettable experiences.
Tsilimidos made his truly auspicious feature debut way back in the mid-1990s. Based on the play by former prisoner Ray Mooney, 1994’s Everynight…Everynight stars a young David Field as a convict suffering under the systematic and institutionalised violence of a brutal Australian prison. “Everynight was an important film for me,” Alkinos told FilmInk in 2006 of the stark black-and-white wonder. “It’s got a kind of cult status now. I was very young then and just tackling the idea of making a film. And it was the first film that David had to hold together by himself.” Tsilimidos reunited with master character actor David Field seven years later for 2001’s brutally sad and darkly humorous Silent Partner, the grim tale of two down-and-outers (Field is teamed with the equally great Syd Brisbane) who pin their final hopes on a potential champion racing greyhound.
Tsilimidos’ truly towering work, however, remains 2004’s brutally uncompromising Tom White, which tracks the sharp, unstoppable downward slide of a white collar salary man (a career defining turn from Colin Friels) who winds up hitting the skids and roaming the streets as a homeless drifter, where he cuts across the paths of a number of bizarre characters. “You often see homeless people and sometimes they’re a pain in the arse,” Alkinos Tsilimidos told FilmInk. “Sometimes you want to avoid eye contact or sometimes they might sting you for a buck. But there’s a person there who has a story. I just wanted to take this bunch of characters and give them a sense of dignity and humanity.” The results are extraordinary.
After the ambitious multi-character feel of Tom White, Tsilimidos kept the grit but downsized considerably with 2006’s ultra-grungy Em 4 Jay. Dazzling newcomers Nick Barkla and Laura Gordon catch fire as Emma and Jay, two loved up, unemployed junkies who tire of their money woes and decide to jump-start their financial future by orchestrating a 7/11 robbery. Initial success is probably their worst enemy, because they become more ambitious, sloppy and cruel in future attempts, sending them staggering into a moral abyss. “I’m really proud of Em 4 Jay, because Nick and Laura were really untried actors,” Tsilimidos told FilmInk in 2006. “The way they went about that film was just superb.”
Tsilimidos changed tack again with his next film, but as always, he flatly refused to sugar coat anything. 2009’s Blind Company is a brutally honest account of one man living with a terminal disease on the rugged, windswept coastline of South Eastern Tasmania. With only a dog by his side, it’s hard not to think that the craggy, wheezing Geoff Brewster (Colin Friels) is the only one to blame for his total isolation. With the unexpected arrival of a distant nephew (Nick Barkla), emotional stakes surge up, and an oblique psychological thriller emerges that has calamitous consequences for the characters involved. “I love Al,” Colin Friels enthused to FilmInk upon the film’s release. “I just love him. I love him to pieces. He’s a great guy. I’d do anything for him. He doesn’t pull punches. Christ, to be honest, I’m shocked that it got distribution. I’m just blown away that someone saw this and wanted to put it on screens. Not because it’s not good, but because it’s pretty dicey. It holds absolutely nothing back.”
After the emotional battering of Blind Company, Tsilimidos delivered his warmest and most comfortably enjoyable film in 2019 with the wonderfully colourful and authentic The Taverna. Set in a charming suburban Greek restaurant run by the ever harried but charismatic Kostas (wonderful Greek import Vangelis Mourikis), the film runs the course of one crazy night, bouncing from one funny situation to the next with sparkling aplomb. “I was inspired to make something light and fun,” Tsilimidos told FilmInk in 2019. “After Blind Company, I hit a creative wall. I didn’t know my next move. I took some time out and ended up directing theatre and increased my teaching at universities and acting schools. I developed various film projects, but they didn’t see the light of day. I found myself leaning towards lighter material not for commercial reasons, but because I personally wanted to change my relationship to filmmaking. I was firstly inspired by the idea of having fun on set and then working on material that is essentially lighter but with real emotional stakes.”
Real emotional stakes are what Alkinos Tsilimidos trades in every single time, and that’s what makes him such a vital and truly essential Australian filmmaker. “He’s a formidable talent who’ll continue to be a real presence in filmmaking for a long time,” his Em 4 Jay star, Laura Gordon, told FilmInk. “He’s an actor’s director, and a total dream to work with.”