An Interview with Greek filmmaker, writer and poet Robert (Roviros) Manthoulis: "Do not insult your fate"

"I realized that the real story of the blues is life experiences. In other words you have to give life to the words and to the feeling behind them."

Robert Manthoulis: Blues Under the Skin

Robert (Roviros) Manthoulis is a Greek filmmaker who was born in Komotini. From 1949-1953 he studied film direction in the United States. His 1966 film, Face to Face, brought him unwelcome attention from the dictatorship and he took refuge in Paris, where he worked in television and on documentaries. He has directed more than 120 films. His most recent film is Lilly’s Story (2002). He now lives in France.

He studied drama, cinema and television at the University of Syracuse in New York, he first devoted himself to the teaching of cinema and to documentary films. His first feature film was The Lady Mayor (1960). He established himself with Hands Up Hitler" (1962) and Face to Face (1966) With the coming of the Dictatorship, he settled in Paris, where he made numerous telefilms, serves and documentaries for French television, including: "A l' Affiche du Monde" (Rolling Stones, Joan Baez, John Mayall, Johnny Hallyday), "Melina A Paris" (1968), "Marion Williams" (1969), "Blues Entre Les Dents" (1972) this relatively short French-made feature film with an all-English soundtrack boasts performances by blues greats including B.B. King, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Bukka White, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Roosevelt Sykes, Fury Lewis, Mance Lipscomb and Robert Pete Williams.The story concerns a young black couple who live in the ghetto with the boy's mother. When the boy lashes out at the limitations of his life, he winds up in prison. Eventually he gets out, but things don't look good for the relationship's longevity. Many blues performances are included in the story, particularly in the prison episode, "En Remontant Le Mississippi" (1974) picking the Mississippi river as a symbol to illustrate black America first form of art odyssee, the authors described the metamorphosis of rural blues into an urban music and make us enter the blues day to day life in a time when its main actors had almost never been filmed before. Interviews, live extracts of Robert Pete Williams, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Mance Lipscomb, B.B. King, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Willie Dixon, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. Among the most moving images are Sugar Land, Texas penitentiary farm and Rikers Island, New York jail. From chain gang to prison factory, the day to day tragedy of the blues is shown in all its strength, "Edith Piaf – Dix Minutes De Bonheur" (1974), "La Coundry Music Ou La Nostalgie De Ouest" (1974), "Cuba: La Musique Et La Vie" (1979), "Les Blance Sans Le Blues" (1986), "Berceuses Qui Reveillent" (1986) A film for the "20th Century Blues" series of the French National Audiovisual Institute with Joan Baez, Marion Williams and Rosa Balistreri. And The film on the Greek Civil War "La Guerre Civile Grecque" (1997).

Interview by Michael Limnios

Mr. Manthoulis, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & what does the blues mean to you?

In my American youth, I swam in the sounds of Rhythm & Blues. When I was in college. There was plenty of jazz but not really blues. Blues belonged to the past, it was an archeological song. For both BIacks and Whites. In the years after the war, people were looking ahead, to a better -and faster !- world.

Even in Greece, the "Greek blues" (the rebetico) was not yet accepted by the masses. It was never on the radio. It was also archeological and very "decadent" (at the time). It was in France -a cultural country- that I realized that black music was the real American culture and black music was the blues. The blues was left behind by the black intellectuals but it was alive in France (and in Great Britain, thanks to Mayall, to the Stones and the Beatles). The bluesmen were all over in the "old country" and nowhere in America. Then, I took advantage of my work and status in French TV and started filming blues people. In London, in New York, in Philadelphia, in L.A.  John Mayall, Richie Havens in London, Karen Dalton (the greatest of all) in Greenwhich Village, Sun Ra in Philadelphia, Booker T & the MGs in Memphis at the Stax studio.

They made a sensation in France and all the other countries where my films were sold. Dalton I filmed by chance. I planted my camera a Wednesday evening in the club and several singers came to be cast. Karen among them. When they heard her sing in Paris, people went crazy. She was Billie Holiday number two. Managers rushed to New York to engage her and make a great star of her. There was nothing to do. She was dying from drugs, liquor and, finally, aids. She was discovered in the States ten years after she died. 40 years after I had filmed her. Sun Ra was not singing anymore at that time. In order to make the film, he invited his pals, the old members of his latest band from all over the country, to play for me. The following year he was invited to play in Paris ! He started a new career, thanks to the French ! He never played in the States ever since . The same thing happened later, when my film "Going Upstream the Mississippi River" was shown on French TV. I had a sequence on Robert Pete Williams who had spent 10 years in jail and  was a scrap-iron man in a small village forgotten by God in Louisiana.

A poor "country blues" singer that two or three people knew of him in America. When the film was shown, he was invited to Paris to sing in La Salle Pleyel, the most prestigious concert  theatre, the equivalent of Carnegie Hall. I had a collaborator who was working in the French daily "Le Monde" and he was on the same wave band with me. We had two TV stations in Paris at that time. When a Third one was planned, they asked us to make a film, anything we wanted. We decided to make a series of two documentaries on the history and the role and the importance of the blues in the States and in the world. We called it "En Remontant le Mississippi" because the Black people -including the bluesmen- when they became free and free to travel, they started going North and North-West, usually along the Mississippi river. But I had the idea of making also a film for theatrical release (cinemas). With people acting their own life and this was "Le blues entre les dents". 

When we arrived in New York the day before Chrismas of 1971, the first problem was to find the addresses of the great old bluesmen, scattered all over the country. The Blues Revival was only in the books. And no more than two or three books. I had read them all and once in the States I went to meet the writers of these books. And this is how I learned, not the addresses, but the fact that I was about to make the first film on the blues ! Unbelievable. But true. We were in a Black-Panther revolt at the time. The Black intellectuals hated the blues (slave culture !) and the White film makers were not welcome in the ghettos. Because they were Americans and White. In other words, they were racists. We were White but we were French ! The only White people that the Black Americans respected. We were "arrested" by a street- gang in Harlem and they didn't kill us because we were Frenchies. We came back to Paris with fantastic footage. I took it with me in the plane, on my lap.  I refused to give it to the baggage compartment. We edited and showed it to the channel. And the 3rd French Cannel was inaugurated on the 3rd of January of 1973 with "Going upstream the Mississippi River" !   

What do you think is the main characteristic of your personality that made you a writer, poet and filmmaker?

To tell you the truth, I am a poet, I have a political mind, I am full of curiosity, I wish to convert people to my views on the world, I am for quality and not for quantity, I love humanity, I am a good detective (I was sworn Deputy-Sheriff in Louisiana ! Honorary of course) and I am a hard worker.

Tell me about the beginning of "A l' Affiche du Monde". How did you get the idea and how did it start?

It was the excellent idea of two French journalists,  specialists of pop music. They wanted a film director, of the British "free cinema" school, if possible coming from the cinema and not from television to direct this new program (90 minutes, monthly). They approached two great Swiss film directors (Alain Tanner et Claude Goretta, who had studied in London) but they were preparing their first feature film each. I was living in Geneva, in exile, at that time. And they said "why don’t you ask Manthoulis ? He is like us". And this is what the French did. There were a lot of articles about my film FACE TO FACE  at the time and this convinced them to invite me (to import me !) to France.

And I started to travel, first to London for the Stones and the Beatles, then to the States. But also in France. French TV was very conservative at the time (like all France !) and this program was like a revolution, the "May 68" of TV. It obtained the Critics award for the "Best TV program of the year". I planned to leave TV in order to do a feature film but, after the award, they didn't let me go. I must say I was content, because I was completely free to do what I wished to do and even criticize the French ! I was in exile and this was also a great psychological help. And being in exile, I was also completely broke ! The funniest thing of all is that I represented France everywhere with a passport of "Apatride", ("a stateless man").

Of all the people you’ve met, who do you admire the most and why?

There are many wonderful  people in the world. I have visited more than 30 countries. I made plenty of friends. My nightmare was that all of these people would decide to come to Paris and look for me, all on the same day !

I think I admire most somebody whom I wanted to see but I finally met him …on the phone. It was Louis Armstrong. I called him up and he said "don’t you hear the way I speak ?". He had mouth cancer and died shortly afterwards. I missed him. I was very sad. I still am.  

Even in Greece, the "Greek blues" (the rebetico) was not yet accepted by the masses. It was never on the radio. It was also archeological and very "decadent" (at the time).

Why did you think that THE OLD GREAT BLUESMEN, continues to generate such a devoted following?

One summer I went to Alaska to work in a gold mine. At the time there were few veritable Alaskans. The saying was : "To be an Alaskan, you must kill a bear, fuck a squaw and piss in the Yukon River". Well, to be a bluesman you must me a man, you must have been the son of a slave, you must have sung the gospel in church, you must have collected cotton in a Mississippi  plantation and you must have done some time in prison, preferably for having killed a white man who insulted you. This is why there are no more new authentic blues singers. As there are no more "rebetes" in Greece ! How can you sing rebetica songs if you are not  a "rebetis" ?

Are there any memories of all these GREAT MUSICIANS which you’d like to share with us?

Only one told me in detail how he killed a man in self defense and went to prison. It was Robert Pete Williams.  Bluesmen don't easily speak about their past lives, especially about hard times. They sing them. Or they dream their voyage to another world. We arrived  in Memphis late at night but we had to film Walter "Furry" Lewis the same night because we had another date the following day in another town. We went to his house and woke him up !

He was never happier when we did that. We finished by 5 in the morning and packed the material. He then came out in the street (on his one leg, he had lost the other one when he was street cleaner in Memphis)  and I thought he came to say good-by once more. He said "come back in !". Why ? "Well, it is now that I will really sing to you". We went back and sat, without our camera of course. Unfortunately. He sang the most emotional blues I have ever heard. His own funeral. His carriage was driven by four white horses. I think I am telling that story in by book.

"There is a relation and there is no relation. The two are valid. Good art is always political if not activist. Bad art is not political at all, in spite of any political words it is using. Theodorakis is political in one way, Edith Piaf in another. Because she elevates people and elevated people are political."

Which memory from “En Remonstrant le Mississippi” makes you smile and which think critically?

There is one that makes me smile NOW, not at the time. We were travelling in two cars and we suddenly got lost on the round-about highways in New Orleans. There were not cellular phones at the times. It took us two days for getting together again! I am not critical of anyone. In the past yes, I was an outspoken enemy of Senator Joseph McCarthy. I have a file with the FBI for that, And one later for filming the groups from Harlem. Yes, I am critical of the FBI.

But I have a happy memory of Brownie McGhee because he was always smiling

How has the BLUES changed over the years since you first started in music?

A black man will always look good when singing the blues. But, it has no reason to do that to-day. In fact there is bad music in the market in the last 20 years. Everywhere. Especially in Greece and in France. Even in church. The priests of the new generations do not really believe in religion any more. They are just pedophiles. Maybe in Baptist churches in the South you will still listen to good music. I don't know. I am too old to find out.  

My first shock from church singing was in the Fifties. My girl friend took me to visit a Puerto Rican church in New York and it was maybe Baptist. They were all singing and it looked like a club! I had the feeling that I was the only one to have discovered that. No one else around me seemed to know or to care about it.  

Tell me a few things about the story of “Le blues entre les dents” how did this idea come about?

When I was preparing myself for the Blues film while still in Paris, I read a book of psychoanalytical cases of black men in Harlem. And then, I realized that the real story of the blues is life experiences. In other words you have to give life to the words and to the feeling behind them. I wrote a story, as simple as a blues song and managed to shoot it. How, it’s a long story…

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your experiences in the BLUES WORLD?

The whole film is an amusing experience.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Taking the worst TV channel of the world (ERT) that nobody watched and in three months bearing it to be one of the best, having doubled its audience in the mean time ! This happened in 1975, after the Colonels. But still my most interesting period should be working in the Resistance groups during the German occupation of Greece.

What characterize Greenwich Village's life at 60s?

Poor poets and artists lived there in the 6Os. Today, the rich intellectuals have taken over the Village.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music?

From Apollo, the god of music and poetry.

Why did you think that Texas Blues continues to generate such a devoted following?

There was never such a thing as Texas blues. It's pure marketing.

Make an account of the case for the Blues & what characterize the philosophy of the blues?

There is no philosophy in the blues, or in Tango or in Flamenco or in the Rebetico songs. They were just outcast people protesting through popular poetry for lost love.

Which of the artists were the most difficult and which was the most gifted front of the camera and lights?

None was difficult, they were happy somebody was interested in them. B.B. King is very aware of the camera.

Of the entire projects, you made, what were your favorites? What is the word "seal" of your work?

The film on the Greek Civil War. A big blues story.

What are the secrets to make a good film, about the blues?

Not to be American or German.

What you should keep or forget of the “BLUES WORLD”? Give one wish for the blues

Like Roosevelt Sykes told me, "blues is like salt, it is everywhere".

What are some of the most memorable meets you've had?

One is this man I filmed in a street of the City in London who came up to me, I thought he was going to slap me, he took out his card and gave it to me and said "I am the man who sold the London Bridge to the Texans for a big sum of money. They heard London Bridge and they thought they were buying the famous Tower Bridge !". 

Do you feel betrayed or satisfied of your generation?

We are all one generation ahead of our times. My generation had less books but they were better. Less films but better. Less poems but better. Less songs but better. The new generations I don’t know what they are, they remain secret. I call some of the young people that I know "plastic".  

In your opinion what was the events that made 60s to be the center of the political and social conquests

An interesting interrogation. I would not speak of conquests. Man is always a looser. As a man. But his art was richer in the 6os. And that is already a big victory. I don't think that the 60s were the same everywhere. Watch out for clichés in journalism. They were not the same in Cuba, in Greece, in Brazil, in Russia, in China.

We are all one generation ahead of our times. My generation had less books but they were better. Less films but better. Less poems but better. Less songs but better. The new generations I don’t know what they are, they remain secret. I call some of the young people that I know "plastic". 

You have been traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions?

People are the same everywhere, same aspirations, and same fear to lose their identity.

What was the relation between music and activism?

There is a relation and there is no relation. The two are valid. Good art is always political if not activist. Bad art is not political at all, in spite of any political words it is using. Theodorakis is political in one way, Edith Piaf in another. Because she elevates people and elevated people are political.

Do you believe that nowadays there’re things to change in any level?

I have a good program for the world if the world would only accept to listen to me !

What do you consider the world’s biggest problem of the world?

Television, disintegration of education.

What do you believe that it is the turning point of our civilization?

More and more people out of work because of fast and inconsiderate technological progress. I am a pessimist.

What MOTTO of yours you would like to stay forever?

"Do not insult your fate" 

Website for Robert Manthoulis story, filmography, poetry and books

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