If you try to lucidly think back to your childhood, how was it? I count myself as having had a pretty sweet time, with loving parents and a loving sister, home-cooked meals I now fail to replicate, and an overall sense of stability. Many others I know say so too. There are recollections of pets and pool parties and caring moms and dads who shepherd discrete family units through tough times and good. But perhaps if we squeeze our glossed-over memories a little harder, we’ll reacquaint ourselves with the rigidity of what a family is. Can you peer back into the emotions of a heartfelt disagreement between you and your parents? Do you recall being flooded with a sense of injustice and helplessness, guilty vengeful wishes? Perhaps you can scoff now at those childish feelings, incurred by your parents doing what parents do (and what you, as a parent, will do too). But families, no matter how predominantly kind and cuddly, are little dictatorial units where children, and often mothers, have no real agency or escape option. The family structure itself ubiquitously dictates the organization of private lives the world over, telling us who deserves our strongest allegiance and deepest love. Meanwhile, best of luck to those children (and sometimes mothers) who lose the benevolent dictator lottery, or worse, have no family at all.
Elina Psykou’s new film, Son of Sofia, captures this reality in the most effective way I have yet seen. By magically dunking the viewer into the perspective of a child who is discovering the harshness of his predicament, Psykou compels viewers to re-connect with their own memories of childhood struggle, no matter how rosy their overall experience was. Crucially, in addition to the deeply personal story, she tips her hat to the larger reinforcing mechanisms of patriarchal nationalism and popular culture. There are subtle (or sometimes totally blatant) ways in which our own institutions and folklore coerce us into maintaining the status quo.
In the film, our protagonist is eleven-year-old Misha, who arrives in Greece from Russia to reunite with his mom, Sofia, after two years of apparently financially necessitated separation. To make this possible, Sofia has had to move in with a Greek pensioner, Mr. Nikos. At first, Misha doesn’t know he is also Sofia’s recent husband and Misha’s newly minted dad. But we, and Misha, soon find out that Mr. Nikos—along with the powerlessly complicit Sofia—intends to make a family out of them. The man, seeing himself as a benevolent patriarch, is animated with the selfish purpose of molding Misha in his own, and his country’s, image so that the boy can go on to be his heir and carry on the family line (it goes without saying that Sofia would not suffice).
An enchanting, fantastical undercurrent drags us through the murky depths of Misha’s experience. His mom avoids his concerns by singing him to sleep with a haunting Cossack lullaby, parts of which translate into: “The time will come when you will learn the soldier’s way of life, boldly you’ll place your foot into the stirrup, and take the gun,” and which clearly wriggles its way into the tightest nooks of Misha’s soul. Meanwhile, Mr. Nikos—who once had his own Greek children’s TV show called Grandpa Earth, which aired on the neo-fascist Armed Forces Television in the 1970’s—dons absurd costumes to reenact tales of brave boys slaying dragons and saving damsels. We are reminded that the stories we tell kids shape their perception and indeed, their imagination. But as another young boy jeeringly points out, in the Grandpa Earth show, Mr. Nikos frantically plays all of the characters. Psykou’s message is that the entire family system—with its perceived obstacles, coming-of-age ordeals, and Freudian family tensions—is a story made up in the self-serving imagination of those whom it exists to empower. And while the misfits may understand this (Misha’s teenage foil tells him: “Moms and dads, and brothers and sisters, it’s all bullshit!”), they are emotionally, and in some ways physically, crippled outside of the family’s auspice. Everyone is trained to jealously hoard their love and dispense it to their immediate relatives, so everyone is absolved from caring for those who slip through the cracks.
Psykou’s film wisely takes place in 2004, where it allows her to color the story with the Olympics’ nationalistic undertones and the precarious moment in time in Greece. But the story she tells is one that still plays itself out today. Everywhere we look, the family is held up as an innocent and good thing we must protect from all sorts of external threats: from economic demise, from wars, from sex, from prescription drugs and bad influences. But if we weren’t strapped into these little dictatorships, which cordon off our budgets, empathy, love, and attention, would these threats exist at all?