Q&A with Italian filmmaker artist and animator, Thomas Künstler - made a stop motion animation on rebetiko and Markos Vamvakaris

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, you know. So, I really have difficulties finding the words explaining why I cannot stand 99% of the music imposed by the labels, radio etc. There’s so much randomness and lack of beauty in this word and this music is the right product of this society we live in today. What music misses is being more spontaneous and naïve as it used to."

Thomas Künstler: Art-hropology  

Italian filmmaker artist και stop motion animator, Thomas Künstler says: “Since I was fourteen years old I have been doing clay puppets pose. So my father gave me his old camera, he explained me the basic principle of animation, and a few hours later I came up with my very first short stop-motion video. Ever since I never stopped doing these kind of videos.

A few years later I had the chance to see “The Enigma Kaspar Hauser” movie, by Werner Herzog. Right afterwards I spent entire afternoons just watching his films and documentaries. As a natural consequence I started getting more and more into remote cultures, with their languages and dialects, as well as their ethnic music and ancestral traditions. These are the reasons why I try to do films: trying to communicate my love for human beings and life in all of its shades.” EDUCATION: University for the Creative Arts,
 Farnham, Surrey, UK.
BA (Hons), Film Production. Graduated with a 1st honour. INTERESTS: Documentary theories and making. Music studies and ethnic music research. Film Photography. Anthropology. Literature. Thomas works several projects.

Interview by Michael Limnios       Artworks/Photos by Thomas Künstler

How has the counterculture/underground philosophy influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

My vision of the world comes exclusively from my personal experience. I don’t believe to belong to any underground or counterculture philosophy or movement. I follow what I like, I don’t like to belong to something.

What do you learn about yourself from the Rembetiko people and music? What touched (emotionally) you?

First of all, I learnt that I could learn another language. It is thanks to the countless hours that I spent listening to rembetiko that I could put together my first Greek sentences. Now it has passed so much time since I’m in touch with rembetiko music and people that it is hard to properly answer to this question because I probably learnt so many things that today are so rooted in me that it is hard to imagine a time when I didn’t have them. Nevertheless, I can say I learned more from the music itself rather than the people. Actually, I find it hard to speak about “Rebetiko people”. what is rebetiko today? who are the rebetiko people? however this is another complicated conversation.

I remember living in U.K. and as I was researching music from the Balkans and I found these extremely beautiful old Bosnian ballads (Sevdalinka) by Himzo Polonia. These songs, at least in the spirit had a lot to share with rembetiko (which I didn’t know back then) and I remember listening this music home alone but I wished I could experience this beautiful feeling of Sevdah (Bosnian equivalent for Melancholian Saudade etc etc.) with someone, as in Italy we have a different relation between music and feelings. So, for a long time I dreamed to go to Sarajevo and find a filthy taverna where I could seat and listen with other people these songs. Probably it was an innate sense of rebetiko I always had inside? Anyway, soon after I met Greeks, I discovered rebetiko and I didn’t need anymore to go to Sarajevo. So yes, what I like about rebetiko is the collectiveness of the experience but at the same time the fact that it can be something very personal and you can find yourself isolated in yourself singing softly or loudly the lyrics.

"I’m very disillusioned by politics. I really can’t see a positive sign in any direction. Greater musicians and greater artists lived in previous years but I don’t think we can affirm that John Lennon or Pablo Picasso have actually changed something. Arguably arts will never change any collectiveness, surely they can deeply impact some individuals positively, but that’s it. No-one really cares about art, potentially it can be way more affective a silly video viral on Facebook or what the latest 20 years old IG influencer tells you to buy. It’s a sad world."

How do you describe and what characterize your films and artwork? Where does your creative drive come from?

For me it is never easy to speak about my creations, especially to people I just met or as an icebreaking conversation to impress a girl. All my animations and illustrations are generated by a feeling of longing. However, in that short time in which I create the video or the illustration, I can feel the distance between me and the desired one, becoming smaller. And naturally this makes me feel good.

Nevertheless, this is a condition where I manage to create something only when I have really heavy feelings and lately, I’m relatively ok therefore I haven’t been able to create anything but at the same time I’m emotionally good, and that’s what matters at the end… I guess. I do stop motion since I am 14 years old and I did probably more than 100 shorts videos. There hasn’t been one video where music wasn’t the starting point. In fact if the feeling is the starting point, music is what brings visions and the mood for the idea. For example, when I was a teenager I liked very much bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division and Cure; so take the universal feeling of longing and apply to it the music, aesthetic and visions suggested by these guys. Later on the music giving shape to my feelings has been classical music, (Mahler, Rachmaninov or Chopin) and consequently my videos were set in the WWI period or in the XIX century. Today it’s Rebetiko, tomorrow who knows? maybe Yugoslavian Laiko music from the 70’s.

How important is Anthropology & Literature in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Anthropology, Glossology History and Geography are big passions of mine. I try everyday to learn something about these topics because for me, learning, it’s a real pleasure. Today with internet we have an easy and infinite access to whichever topic we want to know something more about. We are very lucky and we should keep it in consideration. So, every time I can I take the chance to learn something about a random topic like the Jannisaries division in the Ottoman Empire, or maybe the roots of Albanian language or what’s the deal with the Nagorno-Karabakh. It would be such a shame to use internet only for checking out girls on Instagram, which I do as well of course. I don’t know how much these informations are important for my work but I think that curiosity is a vital characteristic in filmmaking and in life in general.

As I mentioned before music means a lot for me. It’s something serious. I started listening and researching music since the age of 12, when I asked my father to make me a CD with the soundtrack of the videogame GTA: Vice City. Ever since I haven’t spent a day without music. Music is made to inspire, it’s a universal language. Many times, people ask me “How is it possible that an Italian, enas XENOS, likes / knows rembetiko?”. Honestly, I don’t know anymore how to answer. What is it to be a xenos, Italian, Peruvian or Bosnian when it comes to music. Music has no borders that’s the beauty of it. Listening to a song from Victor Jara I can learn, imagine and understand so much about Andean music, and I don’t need to be from Chile to appreciate it. To that person asking me how is it possible that enas xenos likes rebetiko I would like to answer: “Do you like blues and rock? How is it possible that you like a 120 years old music from the black slaves working in the cotton fields of Alabama?”

"Considering the disastrous path our world has taken I’d take this phantomatic magic wand and punt an end to pollution of the oceans, the air and the land. That would be a good starting point. Secondly, I wish people could fly… that would be amazing."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, you know. So, I really have difficulties finding the words explaining why I cannot stand 99% of the music imposed by the labels, radio etc. There’s so much randomness and lack of beauty in this word and this music is the right product of this society we live in today. What music misses is being more spontaneous and naïve as it used to.

My fears for the future? After having listened to Italian Trap there’s nothing I fear anymore. Hardly something equally horrible can be invented. For me music is something serious. My hopes? I’m not a music critic neither I have a label therefore all my hopes are on a personal level. I hope always to find some new interesting music to listen to and never asking myself: and now what?

If you could change one thing in the world/people and it would become a reality, what would that be?

This question makes me feel a bit like miss America. Considering the disastrous path our world has taken I’d take this phantomatic magic wand and punt an end to pollution of the oceans, the air and the land. That would be a good starting point. Secondly, I wish people could fly… that would be amazing.

How does the underlying philosophy of On the Road, ethnic music and ancestral traditions impact you?

In 2015 I walked from Rome to Athens because I was in love. Needless to say, that it has been an experience that deeply shaped me. I still have a strong sense of nostalgia for it and every time I pass by one of the spots, I walked by I remember everything of that moment. Sometimes watching the landscape, or flying from Rome to Athens I can see the precise root of my journey and it’s hard to believe even for me that I actually walked all that road. At the same time, it has been something that reminds you that you can do whatever you want, you have the power, if you want. Anyway, yes I’m very emotionally attached to the philosophy of the “On the Road” and I can barely describe with words how it is a part of me, I can count the distance in days of walk and I can sleep in a tent for 50 days eating panini and souvlakia. Therefore, you develop a different way of measuring things of everyday life in their value, everything is relative.

Do you consider the Rembetiko a music genre or it’s a state of mind? Why is this subject matter important today?

I don’t know if this subject is really important today, we are talking about such a specific question embedded in a very specific topic anyway. In my humble opinion today “Rebetiko” has lost a great part of what it used to mean a long time ago. So, I’d say that for most of the people is is a music genre. I like to think romantically though that for a few people it is still something a bit more special. Obviously, it cannot be a permanent state of mind, we don’t live anymore in the rebetiko era, it would be too much. But sometimes it’s nice when the rembetiko feeling creeps in and stays for a while.

I respect rebetiko very much. I never danced a zeybekiko. Not because I don’t know the movements, but because of the deep respect I have for its meaning. After all I am Italian and the zeybekiko it’s not something I grew up with, it’s not something I learnt to give shape to my pain with. Therefore I do not dance Zeybekiko, it wouldn’t be real, it would be just representation. One thing I really cannot stand is the mechanicity of certain dynamics in the rembetiko audience, when it’s not spontaneous but people do it just because.

What is the impact of music and art (general) to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

I’m very disillusioned by politics. I really can’t see a positive sign in any direction. Greater musicians and greater artists lived in previous years but I don’t think we can affirm that John Lennon or Pablo Picasso have actually changed something. Arguably arts will never change any collectiveness, surely they can deeply impact some individuals positively, but that’s it. No-one really cares about art, potentially it can be way more affective a silly video viral on Facebook or what the latest 20 years old IG influencer tells you to buy. It’s a sad world.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine? What memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

I often do this game, and find so unfair that there’s not yet a Time Machine capable to take us on a time travel. There are different moments I’d definitely visit:

I. I’d visit a group of cavemen and observe them for sometime, watching them painting of the walls, speaking their funny language, social dynamics, their music etc…

II. I’d love to visit ancient imperial Rome at its peak. It was a city with over one million of inhabitants, people from all over the known world, the games in the Colosseum, the reach people parties, the language… so fun.

III. I’d love to see from far away different epic battles of the History such as the siege of Costantinopoli, or the battleship of Lepanto having some cameras with me.

IV. And of course for some obvious reasons I’d love to see Athens in the 30’s.

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