Monday, November 20, 2006


In ancient Greek mythology, the Sirens were sea nymphs who lived on the island of Anthemusa, which was surrounded by cliffs and rocks. Approaching sailors were drawn to them by their enchanting singing, causing them to sail on to the cliffs and drown. The term “siren song” consequently refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad result. Conversely, the modern usage applied to the word siren, implies exactly the opposite. It is a startling, often annoying sound that if heeded, will lead one away from a bad result. Both senses of the term are intrinsic to an understanding of the popular Greek movie and showpiece of the Melbourne Greek Film Festival this year, “Sirens of the Aegean.”
At a glance, the relevance of the title to the movie seems only marginal. This army satire, a sequel to the famous Junta satire “Loafing and Camouflage,” follows the adventures of a small group of Greek soldiers stationed on the island of Kos, who are assigned to spend a few days guarding a fictitious rock island named Pitta so as to defend it against a rumoured invasion from Turkish troops. After their arrival in Pitta, everything seems normal until a Turkish boat disembarks some castaways on the island; some models engaged in a photoshoot and some political refugees. As one of these models is a niece of a Turkish admiral, their dissapearance threatens to burgeon into a vast diplomatic incident between Greece and Turkey. This is exacerbated by inept and unprofessional handling of communications by the aptly named exchange operator Bakakos back at Kos, who refuses to take the soldiers’ story seriously and does not pass it on to High Command, causing immense confusion and by the journalist Makris, played expertly by Renos Haralambidis, who abounds in the creation of convoluted conspiracy theories in order to draw attention to himself and seduce women. Indeed, Haralambidis’ portrayal of Makris is the most accomplished, not in the least because of the prevalence of journalists like him in Greece. Here is our first clue. This prophet of doom and gloom is definitely a siren that we should not heed, as its song can mislead us.
The movie ends, predictably enough, with a defusing of the potential conflict. The castaways are allowed to return to Turkey, while during their sojourn on the island and despite some initial tension, both Greeks and Turks realise they have more in common than politics and propaganda would have them believe. This is treated in a stereotypical way - through the repetition of words held by both nations in common and wonderment as to how this came to be so. Further, Greek claims to cultural superiority are refuted by Turks who challenge official national myths that portray Turks as a primitive people. Indeed, as the example of the Turkish sea captain who speaks Greek and exploits Graeco-Turkish paranoia in order to maintain a flourishing trade in contraband, as well as that of the Turkish journalist who secretly speaks Greek and understands all that is going on indicates, the Turks are intimately familiar with the Greeks, whereas the navel-gazing Greeks are only just hiking up a precipitous learning curve. Indeed, the scene where the Turkish captain attempts to buy off the Greek soldiers by offering them contraband cigarettes is so reminiscent of scenes of Captain Cook offering various forms of junk to buy off Pacific natives that the implication of who actually is superior, is crystal clear. Here again is a siren we ought to take heed of.
In the meantime there is a great deal of swearing, a lot of sex and an immense amount of vulgarity, all of which seem to be the young Greek soldiers’ major preoccupation. They are also the reason why elder members of our community have written into Neos Kosmos expressing their concern at such a film being shown at the Film Festival, as no doubt the image it portrays of the Greek military and indeed the Greek nation is not a very flattering one. At the outset, their reaction is justified. A generation brought up on a martial tradition beginning with the 300 Spartans and culminating in the superhuman victory of 1940 will clearly struggle with the idea of a lax, self-interested and venal military unles it is made clear to it that this merely acts as a paradigm to show how far we have in truth departed from the myths we have created about ourselves, though the myths endure, as Jean-Bernard Klus maintained, to obscure the art. There is much to modern Greek society that is disturbing and though we may not always like to have these taken from the cupboard and aired, it cannot be doubted that the movie deals with various of these elements with some skill.
Sex is inextricably linked to the motif of the mythological Sirens. In the Odyssey, Odysseus was only able to withstand their wiles by adopting a ‘look but don’t touch’ approach. He bound himself to his ship’s mast/phallic symbol, and was able to survive their allure. In the movie however, there are various Sirens and all of them, upon closer inspection, are poignant symbols of modern Greek society.
The first group of Sirens are the British tourists. Portrayed as vulgar, overweight and obscene, they are generally derided by the Greek testosterone-driven males of Kos. Nonetheless, they appeal to their most base instincts and thus are used for sex and discarded. The parallel with western-imposed culture, being alien to the Greek people and derided but appealing to their baser instincts and so invariably consumed is inescapable. Though the Greeks know that the cultural elements they are importing or mimicking ill-fit them, they cannot but utilise them. This is personified in the film by Babakos’ anguished cry as he is chased down the quay by a triad of squealing British girls and translated loosely in a genteel idiom as “I copulate with my propensity to mate with rubbish,” ie. «γαμώ τη σαβουρογαμία μου, γαμώ.»
Marialena, Greek girlfriend of the only soldier with pretensions to culture, the law student with the Turkic in origin surname Tzibitzidis, is effectively played by Vicky Kayia as an outwardly attractive and successful woman. However, as the narrative unfolds, it reveals a stilted, dysfunctional personality who does not know what she wants, to the extent where she is easily misled by the siren song of charlatan populist journalist Makris. She is an excellent symbol of the dilemma of modern Greek society. Bearing both western and eastern cultural traits, she is not at home anywhere, disillusioned, dystopian and thoroughly unhappy.
The Sirens that finally make off with the sailors are the Turkish models that are stranded on Pitta with them. Immediately, they establish a rapport with them, to be expected since hormones speak an international language. Over the course of the following days, the soldiers realize that the substratum of the culture that defines their existence is also shared by the Turkish girls, that their own culture is essentially an eastern one and it is this shared understanding that helps them relate to these girls better than to the British or modern Greek ones. The scene where two of the soldiers make love to the Turkish models can therefore be viewed not so much as a bridging of the cultural gap than as a return to the primaeval culture from which both are derived. In this respect it is fascinating that in purely Brechtian fashion, real-life Turkish model Tugce Kazaz, who played Havva in the movie, fell in love with Greek actor George Seitaridis, who played the lieutenant Parlavantzas on the set, and married him. The Siren-song here perhaps is the danger that the symbolism could be mistaken for crass orientalism and it requires steadfast perception to look beyond the bikini….
In ancient Greek mythology, it was held that if a ship successfully passed by the Sirens wihout coming to harm, the Sirens would leap into the water in protest. There was much leaping into the water by the Turkish, bikini-clad Sirens, though in an inversion of the myth, the Sirens come to us in a boat and depart from us in a boat as well. It is as though we are to be kept guessing to the end who the actual Sirens are and what warnings we should in fact heed. Is the movie a warning about how easily misunderstandings can flare up into conflict if they are not responsibly handled? Is it a warning against wilful blindness caused by cultural superiority? Or indeed is it just an amusing film, devoid of deep significance full of gratiutous sex scenes constructed in such a way as to invite analysis of elements that were never really intended to be there anyway? If so that would be the ultimate siren’s call, that of futility.
It is quite possible that the Australian Film Critics’ Association was led astray by the siren-song of ostensible silliness when they wrote that the film: “never achieves the satiric or symbolic heights to which it aspires, instead remaining rooted in traditional Greek farcical humour. [It] turns into a strangely homophobic, lascivious and ultimately silly film (witness the flamboyant characterization of the gay Greek soldier, and the many shots of sexy women as a substitute for any real satire).” For the end of the movie, where watched by his girlfriend Marialena from a hotel balcony, Tzibitzidis receives a siren-song in the form of an sms video clip from his Turkish love interest in Bodrum is evidence enough to suggest that Sirens’ songs are all pervasive in this age of modern technology, and their allure is as potent as ever before.


First published in NKEE on 20 November 2006