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Courtesy of 'Beneath the Olive Tree'

Making Films and Closing Deals from Greece to New York: An Interview with Stavroula Toska

Filmmaker Stavroula Toska was born and bred in the small town of Sindos, Greece. She spent her childhood and schooling there. By the time she was 21, she was in drama school pursuing a career in acting. She worked in Greek television, playing in soap operas. Although Toska feels a strong connection with Greece and her family, America called. She was in Manhattan by the age of 23. A few years into her time in New York, Toska met Academy Award and Golden Globe winner Olympia Dukakis at an event. The two connected as friends and soon collaborated on Toska’s award-winning feature documentary ‘Beneath the Olive Tree.”

Toska has directed three films so far:

Switch: a TV series based on true events that takes place in the world of professional domination in New York City.

In The Vice: a glimpse into the world of a high-powered Wall Street woman who resorts to an unorthodox way of enhancing her work performance, while trying to keep up with the challenging demands of the corporate world.

Beneath the Olive Tree: a documentary covering the hidden atrocities perpetrated on Greek women caught up in the Greek Civil War in 1946-1949. This war was much longer than three years. It went far into the 1970s and was backed by the US and British governments.

Mysterious circumstances brought me to Toska via my simple curiosity about the title. ‘Beneath The Olive Tree’, a film that stunned me to the core.

Stavroula, how were things like for you when you first arrived in the US?

You’re taking me all the way back, Don. I arrived in New York in September of 2000, with about $400 in my pocket which was the most money I ever had in my life at that point. That was a lot of money back then in Greece and I expected to rent an apartment, sign up for school, start paying my tuition, and then I’d find a job. I quickly learned that $400. won’t take you far in New York. So, I stayed at the American Youth Hostel which was charging about $20. a night, on the upper west side. Within a month or so I started working as a waitress in a diner in Manhattan, and began putting money aside to pay for school.

Looking back now I might not have taken the chance if I knew how hard things would have been. But, I was young, and I thought, oh, whatever, I will go to America, if something doesn’t work out within a year or two, I’ll just go back to Greece, or I’ll go to London, whatever, the world is my oyster—but, I stayed in America and I’m very glad I did.

What part of New York did you settle down in?

Soon after the American Youth Hostel I found a room to rent at an apartment on the upper west side. I got really lucky because I had an amazing roommate, an American girl, who was extremely supportive and understanding of my circumstances. She and I are dear friends to this day, we’re more like sisters, actually. Then I started working and attending acting classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I did a little bit of acting in off-off Broadway plays, and then I got my work papers. I started working for corporate America because I wanted and needed to make some real money. I didn’t want to be a struggling artist. A few years later, when I decided to quit my corporate job and make my first film I moved to Riverdale, a residential neighborhood in the northwest portion of the New York City borough of the Bronx.

Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Not at all. I actually started out wanting to pursue a career in acting. I was a little girl, in a small town, watching movies that came to Greek television from America. I remember watching ‘Coming to America’ and thinking ‘I’m going to grow up, go to America, and work at McDonalds!’. This was like a dream of mine, Don (with a big smile). We didn’t even have McDonald’s in Greece at that time. But, it was images of big cities, and the type of people I would see in the movies that called me.

Fast forward to a few years later, I had graduated from school with a degree in Marketing and Public Relations, and then went on to study acting in Athens. I worked on Greek television doing a couple of soap operas and some guest appearances on shows but I quickly decided that I wanted to come to the States and have a career here. I look back now at the things I wanted to do, and the career I was hoping to have 20 years ago—I was a girl with a really heavy accent from Greece, my English wasn’t so good, had no connections, didn’t know anybody in America, let alone trying to find an agent or a talent manager, trying to get auditions and build a career as an actress.

I’d say I was pretty naïve about it all. The truth is it’s been a long journey full of adventures, good and bad experiences, life changing moments and countless lessons. Things started changing for me when I realized that I needed to create my own opportunities and build my career step by step; that was what led me to getting behind the camera to tell my own stories, what brought meaning into my life and what I truly feel more aligned with.

Tell me about your encounter with Olympia Dukakis.

I went to an event where Olympia Dukakis was speaking, and she was talking about how she never really sat around waiting for Hollywood or anybody to knock on her door and give her the opportunities to play the big roles that she wanted to play. So, she started her own theater company in New Jersey, and she decided what were the big productions that they were going to put on. And that really spoke to me, it made me feel like ‘OK, I can totally take control of the stories I want to tell, and make it all happen.’ The woman had so much passion and conviction. She was beyond inspiring and I got high just from hearing her speak! Needless to say that before the event was even over I ran after Olympia to introduce myself and asked her for advice. I had no idea at the time how my life was about to change because of that one encounter.

Tell me how ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ came about in the first place.

Well, I approached Olympia that night at the event and told her I had started writing, that I was taking writing classes, and that I wanted to find my voice as a storyteller, as a woman, as a Greek woman in particular, as an immigrant. We just hit it off, and that was the beginning of a very special friendship and mentorship.

What led me to my first directing job was Olympia handing me a book one evening as I was leaving her home; the book was called Greek Women in Resistance. This was the first time I was reading about Greek women fighting in the resistance movement during World War II against the Germans. Soon after the war was over these same women were being persecuted and accused of being Communists, enemies of the state.

I was in quite a shock because I had grown up in Greece, went to school in Greece, and yet I knew nothing about the Greek Civil War and the stories of these women. I had no idea that Greek women who had fought in the Resistance were later persecuted by their own people, their own government. I became fascinated with this story and started doing research. At some point I didn’t go to sleep for three nights in a row, was completely taken by this story and couldn’t get away from the computer, reading everything I could find online about that period in Greece. That led me to go back to Greece to make my first documentary ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ which Olympia executive produced and narrated.

And then you went on to direct a short fiction film and a series. Tell me about that.

Soon after ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ was completed I wanted to try my hand at directing fiction. That’s when ‘In The Vice’ came along. I was looking for something to direct, but I didn’t want it to be something that I had written. I wanted to find a story I was interested in, something that another person had written and would trust me to direct, take it from the page and make it come alive on screen. A woman I’d known for a while and I met at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. We were catching up at an event when she mentioned a script she had written—a short film. She was looking for a director, and I said ‘I’m looking to direct something. Let me read the script, see if I’m a good fit for it.’ I went back to her a few days later with ideas about how I wanted to shoot it. She agreed and that’s how ‘In The Vice’ came about.

What is ‘In The Vice’ about?

‘In The Vice’ is inspired by a true story that has to do with a woman who is very successful in the world of finance, Wall Street, and the stock market. The film is about what she does behind closed doors in order to be able to cope with all the pressures of that world. The film is about addiction, about the face we show to the world, who we really are behind closed doors, and what it takes to survive in New York City when you’re really hungry for money.

And ‘Switch’?

‘Switch’ started out as a documentary project. I had gone out for dinner with a friend, and we started out talking about different projects, and he brought up the word ‘dominatrix.’ We had just gone by a place downtown, and he said, ‘that used to be a BDSM establishment.’ I had no idea what any of that meant. To be honest, I thought he was talking about prostitution. I did not have a clue about the world of professional domination and that it’s all legal because there is no sex involved.

I became fascinated with finding out who are these women who do this work for a living, and what type of men go to them as clients. What is the psychological turn-on, the appeal? What are these men looking for if they are not looking for sex? What is it that draws a woman to become a professional dominatrix, and what is it that makes a man a regular client? I thought this was going to be my next documentary.

I had discussed this with Olympia at some point. She knew nothing about this world, but the idea was fascinating to her as well. Everyone I spoke to about this project was genuinely curious and wanted to know more. I was determined to do some research, find a few professional dominatrices and their clients, put them on camera, and explore the psychology behind all of this. Well, it sounded easier than it was…I wasn’t able at the time to find people who’d allow me to follow them with my camera inside their work environment, and also when they go home, pick up their kids from school, attend a family gathering. So, I decided to sort of go undercover and experience this mysterious and stimulating world for myself.

I began training and then working as a dominatrix for a couple weeks to see where it’d take me. The plan was to make some contacts, build some friendships so that people could trust me, and allow me to put them on camera for the documentary. After my first week of training and working I was completely hooked, and I did this job for about five and a half years. I took those experiences, and turned them into a scripted series called ‘Switch’ which became my third project as director. We got to work with an incredible cast, including Olympia Dukakis, and the series has found an audience around the world and has won 17 awards and honors in the US and abroad.

I want to go back to ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ which blew me away.

Thank you, Don. That means a lot to me, and I appreciate you taking the time to watch it twice—there’s a lot of information in the film for someone who doesn’t know this part of history at all.

The very first time you learned about the Greek women and the horrors and deaths they suffered. What was that point?

That was when Olympia handed me the book called Greek Women in Resistance. That was early in 2010. By June of 2010, within a few months after Olympia and I were talking about this project, and what we could do with this story, my business partner, Sophia Antonini and I took our first script to Greece to meet with the women, and start filming interviews.

Mind you, these were the same women who as teenagers were sent to concentration camps and accused of committing all sorts of crimes that the government was never able to prove they committed, but that was the excuse for keeping them in the camps; torturing them and teaching them how to love their country again. I don’t want to give too much away, but I really hope that people will watch ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ so they can understand the propaganda that was used by the Greek, US and British governments in order to keep these women exiled in the camps or even imprisoned in various prisons around Greece.

So, I found myself reading about these women, and on one hand feeling so proud and inspired by the stories of these young women who dared to speak up for what they believed to be right and fair, for justice, for equality and on the other hand feeling completely heartbroken about how the Greek government punished them, destroyed their lives and took away their best years. I was in disbelief for a while…I honestly could not believe that all this had taken place in my country just a few decades before I was born.

‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ is a very important film and I highly recommend it to anyone who is a lover of history or interested in social and justice issues, women’s issues and history.

Thank you so much, Don. We had a very successful festival run in the United States. For close to four years we had festivals reaching out, asking to set up screenings for the film. It was overwhelming at first, but then it was really incredible to see people who are not of Greek background to come out and watch the film, and then come up to me at the end with tears in their eyes—talking about the women and what they had to endure, how moved they were, and that they knew nothing about this part of Greek history, and how blown-away they were by it all. You can imagine how much it meant to me and the whole team to experience the film through other people’s eyes.

What’s on the horizon for your work?

This is an interesting time for me as I am ready to take my work to the next level. At the end of 2019, and then into 2020, I was going back and forth to LA frequently because I was interested in getting into the networks and the studio system. I no longer want to work as an independent filmmaker. I am ready to get into the studio system and work on bigger productions where I can put my skills and talents to even better use, create projects for the networks, and be able to reach a wider audience. This is the reason why I started my own production company, The Toska Matrix, and have been developing IP (intellectual property) through it, but also producing other people’s works under the company.

Now, as I started to make this transition, Covid hit. I was in LA last in March of 2020 looking at apartments, and they put us into lockdown. It was like, ‘oh my god, what am I going to do now?!’ But, long-story-short, I got back to New York and focused on staying healthy and developing various projects. I have a couple of documentaries I want to produce because I love documentary filmmaking, and I have some scripted and reality shows I’m working on. And, I just optioned a book that I want to adapt into a series; I can’t say more about it at this time, but I’m very excited about this project as well.

Are there any specific projects you wish to mention?

I’m under contract with a well-known production company in Hollywood. We have a development deal for a show that explores human nature, human sexuality, and all that. I can’t say anything more about it until we get the green light, but I will say that this has been a really great experience for me and one that shows me I’m on the right path. I absolutely love creating, developing, producing and I’m blessed to be doing that with a great team of people by my side.

I imagine that a narrative version for ‘Beneath the Olive Tree’ will be high on your list.

Yes! It’s on my to-do list. Olympia, soon after receiving her Oscar for ‘Moonstruck,’ was approached by studios asking what she would like to do next. She wanted to work a narrative about the Greek women, based on true events. They hired a scriptwriter, and it turned out to be very Hollywood. They wanted to leave out the politics, the fact that these women were brutally tortured or killed. Olympia was disappointed, and that was the end of that project. She, Sophia and I agreed, though, that we should produce the narrative film. Olympia is no longer with us, but I am determined to produce this project in her honor and for all the incredible Greek women featured in ‘Beneath the Olive Tree.’

Thank you, Stavroula, for sharing your life and work with me. I’m in awe of your work, and for all that’s coming next in your career.

If you’re interested in learning more and viewing Stavroula’s work you can visit the links below for more information:

www.thetoskamatrix.com

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/beneaththeolivetree

www.switchtheseries.com

*****

Tags

Interview, Stavroula Toska, filmmaker, Greece