In temperatures that had street lights melting, William and Mary music professor Sophia Serghi and documentary filmmaker Lawrence Cumbo were up from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. all last month, keeping the camera rolling.
Everywhere they turned, there was another reason not to call it a day — another spellbinding story about a musician turned refugee, a master in disguise.
Although Cypriot arts have always been special to Serghi — whose father was the country's director of culture from 1960-1995 and whose mother was a composer, textbook writer and professor at the Ionian University in Greece — she made the final choice to pursue a film about Cyprus' street musicians only after she was "awakened" by a New Orleans street performer in May. She connected with Cumbo, who spent 10 years after hurricane Katrina documenting musicians in his home town, to ask if he'd consider jumping on a plane to Europe and filming the project with her.
"He was crazy enough to say yes," Serghi said. "I couldn't believe my luck, because now I wasn't just alone with a selfie stick going around, I had this A-lister cinematographer along with me."
Even with a filmmaker who owns Opera House Live and has worked with National Geographic, Animal Planet and the Smithsonian Channel, the pair said this documentary is keeping a fiercely independent bent. Without the direct support of a television network, they're funding this global documentary with a GoFundMe campaign, having Cumbo work as a camera crew of one. They chose to start with Serghi's native country.
"This was going back to the core of just doing it simply for the love of storytelling," Cumbo said. He said the experience took him back to his days of acting like "a professional beggar" to raise money to produce films.
The lack of backing didn't only mean more work, it also meant more freedom. Serghi said the itinerary, musicians and main theme of the documentary all materialized organically while they were on the road.
"The whole idea was that we were going to spend two days in Cyprus, right? And then we were going to go to 28 other countries," Serghi said. "Every two days, we would be like, 'It's alright, we won't do 28 countries, we'll do six countries.' Four days later: 'It's okay, we'll just do like five countries. We'll just spend a little more time in Cyprus.' Ten days go by, we're like, 'Well, maybe we'll make it to Israel.' Fourteen days go by, and we're like, 'I think we've got enough here.'"
Music from nothing
The musicians' stories were too gripping to abandon, Serghi said.
"The first guy we interviewed was so interesting in and of himself," she said. "Just to give you a little taste, he took us to a vegetable fresh market and we bought fruit and veggies and we made instruments from them."
The man, Terry Moschovias, turned out to be a formally trained opera singer who studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and with Luciano Pavarotti, one of "The Three Tenors."
"But he hasn't sang as a professional tenor in a long time," Serghi said. "His passion is making these instruments out of nothing, I mean out of vegetables and out of tin cans, and they are remarkable. So that led to another interview with other musicians, and we ended up actually covering the entire island in terms of geographic spots, north and south."
Cumbo and Serghi spoke to refugees from Syria, Ukraine, Croatia, Lebanon and Palestine, just to name a few places. They said bringing Moschovias to do a workshop with his homemade instruments in one relocated people's camp showed the impact of music on the human spirit.
"There's a couple things that are universal, especially in my work with refugees, and that's music," Cumbo said. "Everybody gravitates towards music. This place started with like three or four kids, and by the time we were done, it was loaded with maybe 25, 30 people, adults, dancing, from countries and cultures all over the world. And that speaks volumes about universally what we need."
Telling life stories
From traditional Cypriot "chatista," which Serghi said is similar to rap in its format of competing to tell the most interesting rhyming stories off the cuff, to jazz, slasher guitar and hip hop, Serghi and Cumbo heard it all.
"Lawrence, after about 10 days of filming, is like, 'You know what? I'm going to go get shaved.' Because his beard is too hot," Serghi said. "I'm like, 'Okay fine, I'll pick you up in half an hour.' So I arrive, I walk in there, and he looks like a totally different person. But the first thing I notice is these traditional little flutes made out of bamboo. … I say to the barber, who doesn't speak English, 'Do you play?' He picks them up and sticks two in his mouth and starts doing this little thing. And then, all of a sudden, he breaks out in this traditional Cypriot hip-hop thing, rapping thing," she said. "He's telling me stories about Lawrence, and he's telling me stories about — you know, he doesn't even know Lawrence! And then he starts telling his own story. And of course he's a refugee, and of course his father was a missing person in 1974. … Lawrence is now without his equipment, just on his iPhone, having to document this thing that just exploded in front of our eyes that is so rich in everything."
Cumbo and Serghi said it usually took a few minutes of prodding, but intimacy of a small crew helped musicians feel comfortable sharing their life stories.
"The music was sort of secondary almost," Serghi said. "Brilliant music, but it really — we gave them a stage to voice their existence, essentially. Their personal story."
Serghi, who grew up in post-war Cyprus, said she used this trip not only as a way to realize a vocational dream, but also to reconnect to her roots and commemorate her late father, Panayiotis Serghis.
"In 1956, there was the unearthing excavation of this beautiful amphitheater called Salamis," Serghi said. "He staged the first performance of anything using word and music after the excavation in 1962, and I just learned three days ago, by going through his archive, that it happened on the sixth and seventh of July, 1962."
On July 10, completely by accident, Serghi and Cumbo wound up at Salamis themselves, almost 55 years later to the day. Even though she wasn't able to stage a production of her own music there as she had hoped, because the theater is under Turkish Cypriot directorship, she said she still felt connected to him in that moment.
"As I'm climbing up the stones of this amphitheater, it really just seemed like everything was dripped off of me, all my last 40-some years just gone, and I felt that I was one with those hot stones that I was sitting in, literally melting into them."
It's just the beginning for Serghi and Cumbo. They plan to visit countries around the world to continue the documentary series, parsing it out to television networks and film streaming services like Netflix and HBO Go. They're set to leave for Greece, Italy and eastern Europe in October.
"It really is becoming a buffet of culture centered around music," Cumbo said. "Through that journey, you're going to find out everything you need to know about a region."
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Cumbo estimates a premier of the pilot episode in early 2018.