The feature debut of video artist Janis Rafa explores the gritty relationships between humans and animals

Kala Azar

Source: IFFR

‘Kala Azar’

Dir: Janis Rafa. Netherlands, Greece. 2020. 85mins

An antidote to the adorable puppy memes and ubiquitous pet-stagram superstars, Kala Azar taps into the gnarly, smelly and unapologetically unappealing side of the relationship between humans and animals. Here, the humans are an unnamed couple (played by Pinelopi Tsilika and Dimitris Lalos) whose job it is to drive around the sprawling outskirts of a Greek town, collecting dead animals from their grieving owners and bringing them back to the pet crematorium where they work. The feature debut from visual artist Janis Rafa, Kala Azar is something rather special. It’s foetid and atmospheric, a feral scavenger of a film which sniffs around its themes before sinking its teeth into the meat of a beasts’ eye view of the breakdown of civilisation.

Nothing is overtly stated but there’s a sense here of disintegration

Rafa’s background as a video artist – she has exhibited at, amongst others, the Viennale, the Tate Modern and IFFR – infuses her first feature with a heady sense of immediacy and a highly original approach to everything from story structure to character. Even by the off-beat standards of previous Greek ‘Weird Wave’ films, like Dogtooth and Chevalier, the picture is defiantly odd, and as such, should find a receptive audience in further festivals. It might, however, be a tricky picture to market theatrically. The title is taken from a deadly infectious disease that is wiping out swathes of the canine population of southern Europe, and the picture is similarly unromantic. But bold arthouse distributors will likely be tempted by its earthy originality.

The line between life and death seems particularly brittle for the fauna of this blighted corner of southern Europe, and the couple find themselves gathering the corpses of discarded roadkill and other animal casualties of the modern world, and cremating them illegally under cover of night. But this is not a film which anthropomorphises the beasts; in fact it’s more interested in finding the animal at the heart of the human characters. 

The woman and the man barely communicate with words. They respond to sounds with cocked ears and turned heads (movements which are later echoed in an incredible scene involving an industrial poultry facility and a brass band). Sleeping, eating and fucking on the road in their jeep, the couple are not so different from the wild dogs which prowl around the scrubby wastelands on the outskirts of the city. On the way to the next appointment, the woman rehearses the words she must speak to the bereaved pet owner. It’s as if she is re-learning the art of speech for each encounter.

Her one piece of lengthy dialogue is an anecdote about her father Tasos (Tasos Rafailidis, the director’s own father) getting injured while trying to prevent a dog from bolting across the road in front of traffic. Tasos and his wife, an older couple with a house full of dirt and dogs, and jars of gloopy homemade balms from cactus plants, also feature in the film. There’s something fascinatingly canine about the approach of both the screenplay and the camera – they get scent of something interesting and simply wander off.

Surrounded by death, the couple are closer to mortality than is generally considered comfortable: bodies in the film, both human and animal, are riddled with unexplained wounds and oozing blood. And this permeable division between man and beast is further broken down by the sound design, a barrage of animal sounds from staccato dog yelps to the droning buzz of insects trapped inside the car.

Nothing is overtly stated but there’s a sense here of disintegration, of the human cost of caring when the tragedy is too big to fully comprehend.

Production companies: SNG Film, Heretic

International Sales: Heretic Outreach

Producers: Digna Sinke, Konstantinos Kontovrakis, Giorgos Karnavas

Editing: Patrick Minks

Cinematography: Thodoros Mihopoulos

Production Design: Elena Vardava

Music: Gwil Sainsbury

Main cast: Pinelopi Tsilika, Dimitris Lalos, Michele Valley, Tasos Rafailidis