For 113 years, teenage boys in the north Pinellas community of Tarpon Springs have participated in a Greek religious ritual called Epiphany, diving after a lead-lined wooden cross tossed into the shallow salt water of Spring Bayou by an archbishop. The retriever of the cross, it is believed, will be blessed with good fortune.
The tradition was incorporated into a feature film, lensed at Spring Bayou, and at the Tarpon sponge docks, in 2017. Epiphany has been screened in other Florida cities, but this weekend, the independent movie is coming home to Tarpon Springs.
It’s the centerpiece of the very first Tarpon Arts Film Festival, taking place Friday through Sunday at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center.
Tarpon Arts is the city’s Department of Cultural Services.
“Certainly St. Pete has such an active film festival scene, there’s Sarasota, Dunedin … we just wanted to get involved and bring something like this to our residents,” operations manager Kelley Reidy says. “Obviously, Tarpon Springs is a pretty diverse community – with our Greek roots, we’ve got such an international heritage. It seemed like a natural fit to bring some international films, and really diversify the cultural offerings that we have in our area.”
When Pennsylvania-based filmmakers Koula Sossiadis Kazista and Katina Sossiadis were in Tarpon making Epiphany two years ago, Reidy explains, “it was a really exciting time for our community. People would come out during the film shoot days and gather around, and watch and take pictures, and hope to be included as an extra.”
Kazista, who’ll be present for tonight’s screening and will conduct an audience Q&A afterwards, says she and Sossiadis – her sister – visited Tarpon Springs every summer as children. They grew up in Pennsylvania, part of a large Greek family, and they had relatives down here.
In 1997, the siblings’ parents bought a summer home in Tarpon.
“When I was 17, and I had seen several Epiphanies, I kind of had an epiphany,” Kazista says. “I thought wow, somebody should do a movie about this; it’s very cinematic. And that’s kind of where my gears started turning.’”
Life, she explains, got in the way, and although she eventually found her way into the movie business, Epiphany had to wait.
“Tarpon Springs is very much a part of the story,” she says. “I always say it’s another character in the story because it’s so important to these people, as we dive into their lives, so to speak. It’s not only the Greek culture, but the culture of Tarpon, in my opinion. And so it absolutely had to be shot there.”
Epiphany is fiction – both sisters are credited as writer/directors – but with the actual Epiphany cross dive as its centerpiece, and numerous scenes that take place on sponge docks and boats, it has Tarpon Springs as its beating, nonfiction Hellenic heart.
“Luka is a little girl who’s struggling,” explains Kazista. “Her uncle is raising her there, and then her kind of deadbeat dad has come back into the picture. They’re in this dying business, struggling with the sponges. The two men are fighting, they’re in this business together and there’s a lot of conflict between them. And she feels like if she was born a boy that they would have better. And she doesn’t understand why she can’t dive for the cross to bring luck.”
She can’t, because she isn’t a boy. And so Luka – played by California actress Caitlin Carmichael, who was 12 when she made the movie – disguises herself with a scissored-up wig and duct tape across her chest … and makes the Epiphany dive (this was accomplished by careful editing of actors and extras in close-up at Spring Bayou, with drone footage of the actual event, shot in 2018).
“Not to be a spoiler, but it’s not really about that,” says Kazista. “It’s about her trying to connect to these men who just don’t know what to do with her. It’s very much a film about the three of them, their familial relationship.
“And the Greek culture of Tarpon Springs is in the backdrop, but like I said, it does play a pretty important role, just saying who they are as people.”
The Tarpon Arts Film Festival includes a curated cross-section of submitted short, documentary and feature films.
Sunday’s final screenings are Belleview Waltz (made by Christopher Still and Kevin Starkey, with a live introduction by longtime local radio and TV host John Wilson) and Dancing As One, historian and folklorist producer Tina Bucuvalas’ biopic on local Greek culture and history.