This essay was, in some ways, provoked by Bill Mousoulis’s article “Is Your Film Language Greek? Some thoughts on Greek-Australian filmmakers”, (1) in which he poses the question of whether the film language used by Greek Australian filmmakers is Greek. I would argue that a different question needs to be posed – are the eyes of Greek Australian filmmakers Greek? The issue is as much about how a filmmaker “sees” as it is about the language they use. The film language a filmmaker uses is influenced by how they “see”, and how they “see” is influenced by the context in which they live and work. Greek Australian filmmakers, like all filmmakers (and artists practising in all the art forms) of a non-English speaking background, are part of a minority culture in Australia. It is from this point that discussion should start.
While the current representation of Greek Australian filmmakers in the film industry may be “more than fair” in terms of the demographic representation of Greeks in Australia, and while it may be higher than that of Italo-Australian filmmakers, (2) the situation needs to be analysed further in order to consider the impact (if any) of this representation.
Greek or even Greek Australian (3) subject matter has not been explored in any feature film made by a Greek Australian except for Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998) and presumably The Wogboy (Aleksi Vellis, 2000), a film unseen by this author. But it has been explored or used as a starting point in other formats (shorts, documentaries) by a few Greek Australians. While I do not necessarily believe that Greek Australian filmmakers should confine themselves to Greek Australian subject matter in all of their work, I do believe that the stories of Greek Australians, particularly Greek migrants, need to be told so that these become part of Australian culture. Sneja Gunew, referring to migrants in Australia asked “where are our histories, our writings?” (4) I would ask the same, with regard to films: “where are our stories, our films?”
Head On, while it does tell such a story and while, admirably, it uses Greek Australian actors to do so, negates any positive effect of purely “telling the story”. Besides being a film with a number of redundant scenes (several in need of pruning) and problems with authenticity, it is a film which presents and perpetuates ethnic stereotypes (as did Only the Brave [Ana Kokkinos, 1994]) in art-house style. The subservient Greek mother, the overbearing patriarchal Greek father (this type was taken to an extreme in Only the Brave in which the Greek father sexually abuses his daughter and thus “causes” the tragic ending), the young Greek Australian woman who wants to liberate herself from her family’s and her culture’s oppressive expectations, and the cocky, young Greek Australian man.
The essay/documentary film Levantes (Fionn Skiotis and Lisa Horler, 1998) presents its “story” free of any historical context and without complexity. Anyone without any knowledge of Greek and Turkish history would have a great deal of trouble placing the narrator (who is in fact, Pontian [a distinct Greek cultural group]) in a historical context and therefore understanding the journey he, and by extension, Greece and Turkey as nations, go on.
Unlike Mousoulis, I do not regard these filmmakers as “edgy”. (5) Rather I view them and their work as somewhat “safe” as they present Greek Australians and Greek Australian issues in ways that, generally, the Anglo-Australian community sees them and would prefer to see them. These filmmakers do not see with Greek eyes nor do they challenge. Instead, they see through the eyes of the dominant culture and interestingly, they see their own cultural heritage (in Skiotis’s case, part of his heritage, as I understand that one of his parents is of a Greek background) through such “eyes”. I am not suggesting that Greek Australian filmmakers should present romanticised pictures of the “Greek Australian experience”, nor do I think that “seeing through Greek eyes” is a simple matter. However, I find it puzzling that, as Mousoulis points out, a number of Greek Australian filmmakers work with themes of assimilation, displacement and racism, but they do not tackle Greek subject matter. Is it because doing it this way is more palatable to the viewing public? Is it because it is easier to obtain financing and later, distribution for these films if they do not concentrate on Greek Australian subject matter? (It would be interesting to explore whether the difficulties Nick Giannopoulos has stated he faced in looking for financial support for The Wogboy(6) were partly to do with the subject matter.) Or is it because these filmmakers, on one level, are attuned to these themes because of their own experiences as members of a minority culture, while on another, are not quite comfortable with them?
Greek culture and Greek Australian culture are not homogeneous (as of course, no cultures are), but paradoxically, the two Kokkinos films I have mentioned and Levantes would have us believe that they are. Adrian Martin contends that “our national cinema offers an extraordinarily distorted view” (7) of Australian suburbs. This is the case with regard to Greek Australian life, which, in the eyes of some filmmakers, seems to be frozen in a particular period of Greek Australian history (if this is, in fact, an accurate view of that history) and space these filmmakers “want to be anywhere but”, like the filmmakers to which Martin refers.
Fortunately, a number of other films present a rich, layered view of Greek Australian culture and life, though unfortunately, these have not enjoyed the level of exposure that the aforementioned films have.
Anna Kannava’s Ten Years After….Ten Years Older (1986) is an honest, moving work, which focuses on an individual’s experience as a migrant. It allows the viewer to go along with the narrator as she returns to her country of birth and think and feel with her as she ruminates over memories, family, identity and loss.
Similarly, Two Homelands (Michael Karris, 1979) offers the same opportunities, this time through the documentation of a concert by Savvas Christodoulou. Karris lets Christodoulou’s lyrics and poetry speak for themselves. The director intercuts concert footage with photographs and images, which, handled differently, would appear clichéd, but handled by Karris, magnify the poignancy of the concert and experience with which it is concerned. The film is even more poignant given that the concert was held in 1978, a time when there were very few such events and when many of the children of the ’50s wave of migrants to Australia were starting to deal with issues of ethnic identity in a society which was struggling to come to grips with its cultural diversity.
Tim Spanos’s The Little White Boat (1998) is interesting as it draws on a traditional Greek folk song and uses footage of a funeral in Greece and more recent footage of an older Greek woman. The older woman singing the story throughout the film and the funeral footage prods the viewer out of their comfort zone (particularly if they can understand the lyrics!), though shots of a young woman in Greek national costume are a bit awkward.
Alkinos Tsilimidos’s short documentary Man of Straw (1988)follows a Greek male gambler around the racetrack. You can’t help but laugh in some scenes, but the laughter is two-edged as it underlines the pathos of this man’s life. There is something affectionate about the way Tsilimidos handles his material which elicits a good-natured response from the viewer.
Then there is the issue of “Hellenic sensibility”. I prefer a definition of sensibility that is broader than the one used by Mousoulis. (8) “Hellenic sensibility” or any sensibility based on ethno-cultural terms, is not based purely on intellectual factors. It encompasses the culture as it is lived now, the history of that culture, societal issues, religion, the arts, etc. It also needs to include an individual’s experience of that culture, particularly when that culture has been transplanted from the country/ies of its origin to another country where it becomes a minority culture and is affected, inevitably, by this and by the migration or refugee experience. The latter is directly relevant in the case of Greek Australian filmmakers (and filmmakers of any minority culture in Australia) because it is one of the defining factors in the relationship between a filmmaker and their material, particularly when that material involves explorations of cultural identity. The combined perspectives on all of these factors contributes to one’s sensiblity and hence colours the ways in which one “sees”.
The films about Greek Australian life that are genuinely interesting to me as a Greek Australian and as a film-lover, demonstrate a kind of relationship between the filmmaker and their material that is different from that of the films I consider flawed. Both Kannava and Karris are “closer” to their material, so “close” that it seems to be an integral part of them. In contrast, Kokkinos and Skiotis, and to a lesser extent Spanos, are at a distance from their material and I would say, of the former two, in conflict with it. Mousoulis states that “Greek-Australian filmmaking begins in the ’70s with substantial assimilation already in place”. (9) Greek Australian filmmaking, reflecting and influenced by the context in which it takes place, has continued from the ’70s to the present with a much more subtle form of assimilation still intact. This assimilation has contributed primarily to the skewing in Greek Australian filmmaking away from diverse, real representations of Greek Australian culture towards work that is largely tired and reduces this culture to one, flattened dimension.
- Senses of Cinema, Issue No. 1, December 1999. “Is Your Film Language Greek? Some Thoughts On Greek-Australian Film-makers” by Bill Mousoulis.
- I make a distinction between “Greek” and “Greek Australian” because there are differences between the two.Greek Australian culture is different from Greek culture in that the former has been affected directly by the migration of Greeks as a group to and their settlement in Australia. So,”Greek Australian” refers to whatever relates to the experience of Greeks in Australia and “Greek” refers to anything relating to Greece.
- Prof. Gunew, S., “Situating Multicultural Literature: Ethnicity/Race/Gender”, in Dounis, K., (ed.) Greek WomenWriters from Sappho to SAPPHO, Conference Proceedings 1992, RMIT, p. 35
- Mousoulis, op. cit, p. 3
- Schembri, J., “Wogs on Film”, The Age (EG), 18/2/2000, p. 3
- Martin, A., “Where Australian film lets us down”, The Age (News Extra), 12/2/2000, p. 4
- Mousoulis, op. cit, p. 3
- Mousoulis, op. cit, p. 2