Interviewing Charlie’s Grandson, Charly Sistovaris

Interviewing Charlie’s Grandson, Charly Sistovaris

Well, Ladies and Gentleman, it is with a heavy heart that I pen my final introduction to the Charlie Chaplin newsletter, for this issue marks the end of my tenure as editor. I have enjoyed the last three years immensely and will miss the writing of it, working with’s Ted Lu in making it look pretty and in hearing from you all afterwards with your thoughtful comments. My biography of Syd is now taking all of my time (and I don’t think Charlie would mind that too much). Thanks to all of you. It’s clearly time to move on and I could end the newsletter with no better person than Charly Sistovaris, a member of the Chaplin family itself.

Because I’ve haunted the Association Chaplin office in Paris for the last five years, working on various projects and research there, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Charly. A warm and wonderful person, I hope the following interview will give you a bit of a glimpse into who Charly is himself and what it’s like to be within the Chaplin family looking out of that picture-window that is the Charlie Chaplin legacy-a window that can be both rosy-colored and stopped up with aluminum foil. Thanks to Charly for helping us to see through that window for a moment or two and thanks to all of my interviewees over the past year who have cordially contributed to this project in honor of Charlie’s 30th anniversary year.

Meanwhile, will continue, as will my new website on Syd, – a site that will be changing drastically over the next few months as I make better use of it. I hope you will keep in touch. All my best to everyone.

Charly Sistovaris speaking at the Chaplin Conference at Kyoto, Japan, 2007 Born in 1971 the son of Charlie’s second eldest daughter Josephine and Nicholas Sistovaris, Charly was raised in France. He wanted to become a neurologist, but went to a cinema school instead. Charly worked two years in a show for Bejart (see below) and tried writing for many years. He is a self-taught computer programmer, and with these skills, started working for the Association Chaplin three years ago. Charly has one daughter and lives in Paris.Charly, I understand you were in a program some time ago, entitled “Mr. C,” in which auditions are held for someone to fill Charlie’s shoes-to be the next Chaplin-but no one can be found who possesses all the necessary attributes. Can you talk more about this show and your role in it? How was it generally received?

It was an amazing experience… pretty frightening, too. I was only 20, had very little experience with theater and suddenly I had to play in front of thousands of people in the middle of highly professional dancers with one of the greatest choreographers, Maurice Bejart. For two years every now and then I had to hop on a plane, leaving my post-teenage life behind me, to throw myself in the arena. Still today when I hear the music of Chaplin that preceded my entrance on scene, I get knots in my stomach. The show was an homage to Chaplin with the underlying idea that Chaplin is inimitable. So, rather than having a lousy lookalike doing the Chaplin walk-on scene, it would be an evocation of his films and characters surrounding him, e.g., the bathing beauties, the police chase, boxing scenes, and transcriptions of some memories my aunt Annie (playing the main part) and I mentioned to Bejart. I don’t know what the show looked like from the “outside,” but being in it was like walking in a dream. Bejart’s powerful universe/vision intertwined with Chaplin’s world brought something of my grandfather’s films back to life. Just like when Mia Farrow enters the cinema screen in Woody Allen’s film The Purple Rose of Cairo

Your participation in this show preceded your working in the Association Chaplin office. Do you think your experience performing in that show provided you with another level of understanding of your grandfather that perhaps caused you to want to contribute to the Association’s efforts and mission? Can you talk about what you do there?

Working for the Association was rather an accident. I always wanted to write, but never found the discipline to finish a novel. A few years ago my mother suggested I could work for the Association with no hope I would accept. But she was lucky, because I was broke that day and at an impasse with my writings. When I arrived, I was stunned by the amount of paperwork and thought I could ease a few things by injecting some IT automation into the flow. So I started writing unfinished programs instead of unfinished books!… Today my main activity is on the website. The web is a fascinating medium and I sometimes relate to my grandfather in the sense that the Internet is an emerging medium the same way cinema was in the early 1920s. Social networking, the wisdom of crowds, users being actors, and all those web 2.0 trends are opening an avenue to something unique despite the dead ends. In my little niche, I’m trying to give Chaplin admirers a way to pursue the experience they have with his films, as well as keeping people informed of all the activities going on about him.

I’ve talked to you many times now, Charly. I would have to say that-to me-some of what you’ve inherited from your grandfather includes 1) an incredible physical grace and litheness, 2) a charming shyness or tentativeness and 3) a great passion for ideas. What would you say you’ve inherited from your grandfather and what would you have liked to inherit?

Thank you for the compliments! A very short answer: I wish I had inherited his discipline for work.

You said recently that you’d just begun to appreciate your grandfather as an historical figure. As I found when researching “A Comedian Sees the World,” he seemed to be-especially on that trip-hobnobbing with some of the most important personages of the time, men and women who certainly shaped the world into what it has become today, good or bad. How has your knowledge of this changed your feelings toward him, of has it? Of which interaction / confrontation / experience are you most proud (or intrigued) and why?

This is the subject of a book… As you know Chaplin’s fame and success with the character of the Little Tramp was immediate and huge. Talent and historical context don’t explain the magnitude of this sudden worldwide popularity. I think that the Little Tramp touches a chord that is close to something religious or sacred. It was once said that Chaplin was as famous as Jesus Christ. Ironically he died on the 25th of December. In a world of frightening transitions (the industrial revolution, exploding megalopolies, a collapsing Europe, emerging superpower states, dictatorships…), the common references of human communities were losing ground. In such a context the figure of the Little Tramp brought back a sense of dignity in a way I believe quite similar to the way the figure of Jesus helped the left-behinds in the Roman Empire regain faith in themselves. Symbolically the law is blind. It destroys people who don’t conform to its rules. Strikingly, when the Little Tramp hands over a rose to the ex-blind girl in City Lights, something amazing happens. She sees the real person behind the fantasy. Her savior isn’t some handsome, rich millionaire, but the naked humanity of a poor little tramp. The message is similar: God is human. When the laws of society overwhelm the basic truth of individuals, we reach a breaking point; are we just a cog in some supernatural mechanism or human beings driven by some sort of free will? Chaplin definitely refused to accept the idea of being a cog…… a part of that slippery theory, (Fellini said Chaplin was “our Adam” so let’s leave the theological debate for another time). Einstein, Churchill, Gandhi, Roosevelt. As you say they shaped the world. Only Stalin is missing from the picture, and I’m happy they never met!

As a member of the larger “Chaplin family,” what are your hopes and fears about Charlie’s longevity-in terms of his creative and historical status? How do you hope your own daughter will come to regard her great grandfather and his work?

I often see Chaplin associated with the idea of nostalgia. Some Americans still confuse him with an “evil communist.” In England they consider him too weepy. In France many intellectuals (although he was very appreciated by them) have the reflex of comparing him to Buster Keaton to emphasize the fact that the latter was a better “cineaste.” Over the trajectory of misconception to stupidity, I don’t know which one comes first, but I’m really not worried. I have seen over and over all of his feature films, and I may have noticed now and then a weak gag, a little clunk in the rhythm, but I never ever cease to discover new emotions, new subtleties, new comic depths, and new meanings. Even if I try to remain objective, I cannot help becoming overwhelmed by my emotions. Chaplin was a perfectionist, a man rooted with a deep trauma who put all his soul and genius in his work (and not just his talent, as Oscar Wilde would say of himself). His struggle for life, the deep intimacy he finds in laughter and drama, and the amazing humanity he gets out of it, shines in every second of his masterpieces. Would it be presumptuous to say Chaplin’s work is a diamond in the history of cinema art the way Shakespeare was in literature or Bach in music? I don’t think so. Oh, and my daughter (three years old) already loves him.



  1. Michael Deonarine says:

    I just watched the documentary film “Charlie Chaplin”and was really moved deeply by it.I must admit it is one of the best documentary films I ve ever seen.Well done
    i ve done a few short films with friends in Bergen Norway.
    best wishes .
    Michael Deonarine

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