Monday, November 10, 2008


I absolutely despise Greek film events. To them I ascribe full culpability for they and they alone are responsible for shattering one of the most hallowed illusions of my life. Prior to their inception, and given that my first corporeal experience of Greece took place at a relatively lat stage, my visual understanding of the Hellenic topos was of a grainy black and white-scape where people wore suits, used excessive amounts of brill cream and were invariably polite, in clipped Athenian accents. This world was peopled by gruff, balding but ultimately kindly old men, sporting amazingly rich eye-plumage, (Papagiannopoulos), thin, lanky, gawky but devilishly clever young men (Iliopoulos), stylish , new-age-but-trying-to-hide-it patriarchs (Konstantaras), androgynous, sensitive, cultured and ultimately flawed losers (Moustakas) and of course, invariably, a bald spinning top, rushing around from place to place, chattering away at a velocity that would rival the speed of light (Veggos). Greek women had blonde hair and spoke in lilting girlish voices. They always found their true loves within ten minutes of the unfolding of the screenplay and remained faithful to them despite all difficulties and mishaps, usually arising out of their chosen one's inferior social or economic status. Apart from having a tendency towards the hysterical and the propensity to break out into song at any given moment, these girls were the embodiment of perfection.
Even when in the eighties, I discovered that there were Greeks who were skeletally thin, wore tight jeans, sported long hair and rode motorcycles, I retained an admiration for a fabled land where teenagers could roam around at will, having good natured fun playing pranks, to the exasperation of their elders. Further, this was how the important word «σούζα,» along with many others, was introduced into my vocabulary. Having seen a Stathis Psaltis film on a Friday night, we would rage around the corridors of our Greek school the following day, attempting to re-enact virtual wheelies and parroting the latest received-jargon, along with the latest hand-gestures, such as the back-hand «μούντζα,» to the exasperation of our teachers. In short, film-Greece was fun.
Personally, I blame Theo Angelopoulos for the ensuing fall from grace. In particular, I recall an excruciating half hour, viewing "Voyage to Cythera" on SBS with my grandmother, watching a ship silently pull away from a harbour. A telling motif of separation, detachment and despondency all wrapped up in late-twentieth century Balkan angst? I think not. I just think that Angelopoulos just couldn't afford Psaltis and had to do with the dour Katrakis instead.
Actually, no, the French are to blame, not Angelopoulos. For had not the French decided to reward Angelopoulos at the Cannes Film Festival for his brooding, bleak and plotless work, other Greek film-makers would not have chosen to emulate him in the quest for accolades and kudos. Hellenic film haute-couture, in my view, is all about dialogue. We sit comfortably among the most garrulous of peoples in the world and to be compelled to bear witness to films, weighted down with an "atmosphere" of lead, where barely a word is spoken, is an abomination.
My first Greek Film Festival film, back when it was held at the State Film Centre, was memorable for two reasons. The first was because on my way there, I saw the very first possum I had ever seen, roaming around the streets of the city and I considered this to be symbolic of the cross cultural experience that would ensue. The second was because I ended up viewing entitled: "The Cow's Orgasm." I can’t exactly recall what it was about. All I remember, after overcoming my initial revulsion at such an inelegant title, was my musing over whether cows were in fact capable of orgasm and if so, how this could affect the quality of milk produced. In the midst of all this, the bonds of two rural teenagers were broken after sexual experimentation and their romantic myths destroyed. This was highly disconcerting. Greek teenage girls aren’t supposed to have sex. They are supposed to sing, happy songs as they bake bread and draw water from the well, waiting for a happy go-lucky lad to sweep them off their feet as he expertly drives past on his motorbike. I was troubled, but reconciled myself to the fact that this movie probably had a social commentary that I was not erudite enough to follow.
The next movie I saw, the "Lost Treasure of Hursit Pasha," was supposed to be an action comedy. It wasn't. There was no snake-hating Indiana Jones to shoot the Nazi's and discover the treasure. Instead, I was presented with a bewildering maze of corruption and bureaucracy. The jokes were black and off beat and I was amazed at the way the protagonists contrived to bamboozle, lie and cheat each other in their own futile quest for self-aggrandisement. By this time, I was angry. This was not a Hellenic film. Having referred to my well-thumbed grade six Greek history book, I knew that Hellenes were people who worked together, selflessly, for the greater glory of Greece. Something was wrong. Happy sailors, dancing ballet-choreographed zeimbekika on the sea-front were nowhere to be seen. There were no happy endings. I would leave each film feeling not a little disconcerted and discomforted. They were all so bleak, so hopeless and dark. Where was the land of sun and happiness that was supposed to lie, just over the rainbow?
The nineties definitely were a dark time in Greek history, a time where emerging from the Cold War, having nothing to show for its fidelity to an ideology and an alliance that had caused so much damage to the Greek soul and poised upon the brink of globalisation, Greece lost its innocence. Looking back, the films of this period are remarkable in the way they capture the contemporary zeitgeist of the Greeks. Fear, futility and sarcasm are now, in Greek film discourse, as confronting as an Athenian taxi-driver who has been told that he is taking you to your destination by a circuitous route. While tempered of late, by lyricism and nostalgic humour in the case of "A Touch of Spice," excellent cinematography, raw passion and brilliant dialogue in the case of "Brides," or the zany and absolutely fun "Sirens of the Aegean," Greek films remain just as open, honest, multi-faceted and confronting, as to the themes, motifs and concerns of the society they seek to reflect. As such, they are, compared with the sanitization of Hollywood genres, a breath of fresh air and of vital importance to all those who seek to comprehend what makes modern Greece (and modern Greeks tick).
It is in this voyage of discovery and interpretation that the true value of the Greek Film Festival, a Greek Orthodox Communtiy of Melbourne and Victoria endeavour, lies. This year, between 13-15 November 2008, four titles are presented, purporting to be a snapshot of contemporary Greek cinema from the collection of the Greek Film Centre. They are absorbing and compelling viewing.
"Valse Sentimentale" (2007), directed by Constantina Voulgari, is a romantic story the like of which you have probably never have seen before. The protagonists are two conflicted individuals: a self-destructive, individualistic male and a depressed female. They began to orbit each other tentatively. While it takes a little while for them to truly connect, the process is definitely not smooth sailing. While they appear to be drawn to each other, they often repel each other. The man's behaviour is especially psychopathic. There is a need for ownership that conflicts with the desire to be left alone. Given their psychological weaknesses, they need each other but seem unwilling to accept mutual dependence. Their masterly interaction resembles two magnets that need to be aligned properly. I found the film eminently watchable and never felt the need to consider what each scene was a metaphor for. The cringe factor, on account of cutting instruments slicing skin, is minimal. Incidentally, the male protagonist has by far the most memorable line: "Suicide should be part of the Human Rights Manifesto." I'll jump to that.
"Soul Kicking" («Η Ψυχή στο Στόμα» 2006), directed by Yiannis Economides, purports to be Greco-Noir. It is more than that. It is punishing and thought-provoking, transmitting the melancholy and the depreciation of the western suburbs of Athens. The film was depressing but so true. Takis is sad, Takis rarely speaks, Takis accepts other people's hate and anger. His wife is cheating on him. He never sees his daughter. Takis has paranoiac colleagues and a sadistic boss. His friend and his creditors yell at him. And what does he get? Nothing. Nothing but humiliation and inconsideration. They say that in every family there is a tragedy, but in tragedies there is always the solution. Is the resolution of this film the way out? Takis (and we) are so alone…
"Women's Conspiracies" («Γυναικείες Συνομωσίες» 2007), directed by Vasilis Vafeas, has as its central premise the conviction, held within Greek literature since Aristophanes penned "Lysistrata" that women have the potential power to overturn the natural order of things at whim. When an ordinary 50 year old man loses his job, he is plunged into a mid-life crisis. Via the alter ego of the protagonist, we are taken on a roller coaster ride that veers sometimes towards comedy of the absurd and a meta-comment about the fragility of everyday life and the torturous results of having one's mundane equilibrium, while on other occasions, it descends into an exploration of eye-candy and the way female sexuality is understood or constructed by Greek males. Stalwart actor from the golden years of Greek cinema, Kostas Voutsas' sterling performance is reason enough to subject oneself to this film.
In "Cool" («Ψυχραιμία» 2007), directed by Nikos Perakis, who also directed "Sirens of the Aegean," a group of friends are driving towards the Venizelos airport, without knowing that their stories are part of one, bigger and involving their parents' story. Corruption, politics, media, drugs, the prison and health system and the social standards of contemporary Modern Greek life in the 21st century are exposed in a powerful way. The next generation is about to take some far reaching decisions. Perakis shows how crucial and 'difficult' social issues can be approached with wit and in a productively provocative way. Given that Modern Greek society (as can be evidenced by nineties films) seems to be unable to finalize its struggle for an identity, lacking the (sometimes externally imposed) heroism of the generations of the first half of the 20th century, Perakis highlights how the generations leading Greece into the end of the 20th century seem to have identified with a "balkanised" trio of values: money, media-fame and easy pleasure.
The enduring value of this seminal movie then, is Perakis' resolution of our cultural impasse by hinting at the possibility that the emerging generations are able to build a different and alternative future to the one that the previous generation has left. In brilliant Greek style, this becomes possible in the very heart of the rotting modern Greek ruling social group.
These must-see films will be screened between 13-15 November 2008 at the Palace Cinema Como. Call 9827 7533 for bookings, or visit and remember as a parting shot, these words by George Lucas: "the secret to film is that it is an illusion," coupled with these by: Francois Truffaut: "film-lovers are sick people." Happy viewing.
First published in NKEE on 10 November 2008