03 April 2014 09:24

Shootings for the fictional TV feature film "Palace Beach Hotel" have been underway for two weeks now. Housed under the roof of the four star Saint George Hotel on the seafront below Chlorakas in Paphos, the European TV crew now use the odd Greek word here and there only to prove they have settled in just fine to develop the scenario at hand.
But speaking on location to producer Yves Swennen, the whole venture goes beyond portraying a story about the psychological process four French soldiers undergo when decompressing in Paphos upon their return from Afghanistan.
As Swennen says, it's now that the 40 member crew has had hands-on experience with the local backdrop that the full potential of the local film industry is revealed.
Based on true facts, the film depicts the story of four French soldiers who, on the eve before their departure from Afghanistan, were ambushed and consequently kill a Taliban.
"The soldiers were witnesses of the event, since one of them had taken a camera with him which he had fixed on his helmet," adds Swennen.
It's when the soldiers discover a packet of drugs on the Taliban that the plot takes off. For instead of handing in the drugs to their superior officers, they decide to make money whereby one of the soldiers ingests the drugs once they have packed it in surgical gloves.
One of the soldier swallows these "98 little packets of drugs with the idea of bringing them back to France to make money, but the thing is that they don't return to France immediately, they pass by Cyprus first," explains Swennen.
Here things take a nasty turn. On the one hand the French army sends someone to investigate what happened in Afghanistan because the army is scared that the family may potentially attack the army for not having handled the case well in Afghanistan. On the other, and following an investigation at the hotel in Cyprus, the soldier who has swallowed the drugs goes from bad to worse and eventually his body is found in the premises' swimming pool.
"He is taken to the morgue were they are obliged to do an autopsy and they find the drugs," concludes Swennen.
As the story goes, the army is troubled but eventually decides to pass the incident off as a mere accident in order to avoid problems with the families involved.
While the focus is what the military go through during their short four or five day stay in Paphos, the countryside, places of interest, and activities in the sea, beaches and wellness areas also feature in the film, while 'flashbacks' of moments in Afghanistan are also shot locally. The production is being carried out by Cinétévé France and Les Films du Carre Belgium and AB Seahorse Film Production Cyprus, to be broadcast on TV ARTE (Franco-German pan-European channel), RTL (Belgium) and CYBC (Cyprus).

Boosting the local film industry
Admittedly, finding locations and collaborators on location wasn't too much of a challenge seen as Swennen has been coming and going to the island and Paphos in particular for the past ten years.
But it's the local support and professionalism of the local team along with Swennen's know-how of the industry which has propelled him to share a potential vision for the local industry with his local counterparts.
Swennen held meetings with local authorities in an attempt to secure funding for the film in question. Acknowledging the challenging financial situation on the island, Swennen cites the local positive feedback to send a positive message about the potential of building up a local film industry, particularly in Paphos.
And he emphasises the need for incentives to bring film productions to the island, while also focusing on the need to raise awareness on the local front, through his long standing experience in the film sector, but also through comparisons with the industry he made his career in.
He believes that a comparison of the Belgian and Cypriot film industry is a valid one, with Cyprus finding itself where Belgium was 15 years ago. Creating a film industry is thus "not something that's going to happen just like that but I think that there is, independently of the current financial crisis, which is hopefully transient, a lot of points that are in Cyprus' favour" Swennen tells me.
These have to do with the weather, the potential of locations and so on but also, as proved through this production, that the people working in the film and production industry have all that it takes.
It's obvious that Swennen was once part of the movement which has eventually become the well established Belgian audio-visual industry. And it's perhaps just by exploring what "others" have achieved that we can work by example.
Looking back Swennen explains that "we managed to put in place a decree which obliged all TV channels which broadcast in Belgium, whether Belgian or foreign, based on their turnover, to spend on Belgium audio-visuals and so we managed to increase the budget".
As a consequence, Swennen explains that the government also increased their budget and in 2003 a law was passed; a tax incentive for industrialists who had nothing to do with cinema.
"So today, an industrialist can invest half of his profits in cinema, in exchange for a tax exemption," continues Swennen.
As a result, "today, after ten years of this incentive, the fundraising for films in Belgium is more than €200 million per year".
Belgium now has an influx of film productions coming there to film, including French, English, German and who are interested in exploiting the Belgian market.
"This all means that the state has made its calculations in its latest statistics and finds itself within them. This tax exemption is totally reimbursed and gains approximately 1.5%. The state doesn't lose money, it gains money. And it also means that, today, we have approximately three million people employed full time in the cinema industry."  
Swennen confirms that these incentives are more complicated that what he shares with me, and that by default, finding the right authorities to support and implement any such ventures will not be an easy ride. Yet the vision is there, as is the potential for Cyprus.
"I think the worst idea would be to construct studios here. We don't need that anymore. They (Cypriots) need to find themselves a niche in the domain of service in relation to other crews; there's the people and the equipment which you can bring together.
"We will work on this in order for, for a start, Paphos to become a centre of cinema. The sets are characteristic; you cannot reproduce Paris streets in Paphos (for example) but there are many other subjects that can be shot here…When I see the large number of productions which take place in Morocco I tell myself that Cyprus, being a part of Europe, can do things in Europe," he reflects, only to reassure me. "Without flattery, there are people of quality here…"


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