The misty mornings and evenings at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival evoke a cinematic atmosphere that by turn feels celebratory and melancholy. In the time of the IMF and European Union Memorandum, which hangs over Greece’s economic future like the Sword of Damocles, there is a mood of pessimism throughout the country. Paradoxically, the Greek filmmaking fraternity is quietly optimistic about the future of its cinema, although in the minds of most it remains a cinematic landscape in the mist. The word ‘mist’ is a key to understanding the current trends and aspirations in the world of Greek cinema.

This year’s festival mirrored something of the economic crisis that Greeks are experiencing. With a debt of six million euros and run on half its past budget, the festival still managed to present a large number of innovative and quality films in competition and special interest categories. With 149 films from 49 countries, the festival retained its international reputation in terms of program content, although minus the expensive glitz and glamour of earlier years. Despite some murmurings and dark forebodings in the Greek press, the general consensus was that the festival was a success: over 50% of screenings were sold out, the retrospective shorts and features of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul impressed, as did tributes to Susanna Bier, Dorota Kędzierzawska, Mohamed Al-Daradji and Werner Schroeter, while the awards sweep of the Romanian films Outbound and Tomorrow and the strong showing of a small number of domestic features, all added to a final positive impression. For many Greek commentators however, this year’s festival was only the first, although important, step towards reviving a “damaged” institution.

To appreciate the present state of Greek cinema and filmmakers’ special relationship to the Thessaloniki Festival and the government-funded Greek Film Centre we need to go back at least a year. Last year’s festival was a critical point in its fifty-year history. It witnessed a revolt by Greek filmmakers who overwhelmingly boycotted the national competitive section as a protest against the previous New Democracy government’s lack of progress in overhauling its film industry legislation. This in effect rendered void the national competitive section and the Ministry of Culture’s State Cinema Awards which were an inseparable part of the festival. (1) The stand-off between filmmakers and the government has evolved into a significant break with the past. It stemmed from a crisis that had built up over decades involving tensions over party-political influences in film bodies, independent cinema viability, and a growing frustration amongst filmmakers fed up with the inefficient and often corrupt mishandling of taxpayers’ funds. The landmark film legislation initiated by Melina Mercouri in 1986 had become in practice an unbearable and dysfunctional brake on both young and old in the business of creating films. Greece’s filmmaking fraternity rallied as never before. Calling themselves, “Filmmakers in the Mist” (in English, “FoG”, Filmmakers of Greece) which plays on the notion of Gorillas threatened by extinction in the film Gorillas in the Mist, the οmichlistes (the “foggists” as they are called) have emerged as a highly effective lobby group that has dynamically changed Greece’s cinematic landscape. To date they have at least two successes under their belt: the creation of the Hellenic Film Academy, a broad professional body representing all industry participants and which has wrested the prerogative of deciding on industry awards from the Ministry of Culture, traditionally announced at the Thessaloniki Festival venue; (2) and the initiative of having had an important input into the new film legislation which was passed by Greek parliament in December 2010. The new legislation is expected to provide more returns to filmmakers on box office sales, the enforcement of a 1.5% revenue investment in Greek production by television stations as well as a greater recognition of the role of independent producers in the journey from script to film.

The changes emerging in the Greek film industry are more than a periodic outburst of industry lobbying or institutional adjustments by the PASOK government in a time of economic crisis, they represent deeper currents of change in both the style and production preferences of new generations of filmmakers. It is no coincidence that the Greek journal Cinema’s winter issue offers a 40-page coverage of these changes under the title “The New Greek Current is here”. We may be witnessing a discursive change in how contemporary Greek cinema is analysed and understood. The new terminology involves a broad counter distinction between the decades of New Greek Cinema of the 1970s and 1980s and a contemporary cinema emerging with a different style, thematic concerns and creative modi operandi. Both critics and filmmakers are reluctant to subsume this under headings such as “school”, “movement” or “aesthetic”, preferring the looser terms of “current”, “trend” or “wave”. Whether there is some deeper commonality between filmmakers of this “new current” only time will tell, although the films that stand out are in no way homogenous. At least one critic believes that Greek cinema is experiencing a rupture with the past analogous with the change from the older commercial cinema of the 1950s and 1960s and New Greek Cinema. (3) There are sporadic signs of this “new current” in the last two decades but more numerous in recent years. Films of the “new current” have won both domestic and overseas audiences, and in the last two years have been hosted and awarded recognition at hundreds of international festivals. At the September 2010 Venice Film Festival Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg competed and scored a Best Actress Award (Ariane Labed). Also at Venice’s International Critics’ Week was Syllas Tzourmekas’ fast-paced and punchy Homeland. The festival’s daily newspaper noted the strong showing with a front page title “Greek films getting in the groove”. Flush with recent successes, the Greek film community is excitedly discussing the nature of the “new current” and how to nurture it. The reflexive tendency is to contrast and compare it with the worst excesses of New Greek Cinema, which sometimes reduces comparisons to simplistic differences. However there is consensus that the “new current” of films are characterised by tighter scripts and direction, faster pace, less introspection and theorising, more focus on relationships and family dynamics, hybridity in genre and style, acute awareness of the codes of popular culture, and indifference to the issue of Greekness or large political statement. They are realist in the sense that they probe contemporary social realities in innovative ways. In fact, films that have gained international attention in recent years have done so because they offer strong stories and narrative inventiveness. International interest in Greek cinema may well grow as the country is quickly becoming a European case study of the limits of social cohesion in a period of extreme economic downturn.

The Greek Film section of the Thessaloniki Festival invariably generates heat amongst Greek filmmakers and this year was no exception. Although the “foggists” called off their boycott in anticipation of the new legislation, there were a number of newly-released features that did not participate (Nikos Panagiotopoulos’ Ta Oporofora tis Athinas [Fruit Trees of Athens], Syllas Tzourmekas’ Hora proelefsis [Homeland], Yannis Economides’ Macherovgaltis [Knifer] and Lakis Papastathis’ Taxidi sti Mytilini [Journey to Mytilini]). The 23 entries were heterogeneous to the point of losing coherence as a body. The Greek Program co-coordinator explained the choices as stemming from a desire to provide “the widest forum possible” which meant that there were no format restrictions. The result was an odd mix of film features, digital, animation, experimental cinema and art video, as well as time durations and budgets. Criticisms were heard at screening discussions and forums that Greek cinema was being marginalised, either through screenings in the smaller theatres or through programming. The Pan-Hellenic Union of Cinema Critics also noted the less-than-full line-up of films and the downgrading of the festival’s national character. However, despite these serious shortcomings a small body of contemporary Greek films stood out as crafted pieces of film work that resonated with audiences.

The stand-out Greek film was without doubt the much-talked-about Attenberg which competed in the international section where it won the Silver Alexander. The film narrates the story of Marina, an intellectually clever but somewhat socially autistic young woman, who is systematically teaching herself about sexual behaviour, while her father, a company architect and her only family, is dying of cancer. The setting of the story is central to the film’s impact – an industrial company town on the coast of Greece, an ambivalent space somewhere between modern resort and soulless industrial complex. On one level it is a coming-of-age story in which a young woman discovers her sexuality and faces the loss of family through death. In the first she is helped by her experienced friend Bella and a visiting engineer, while the second is a journey she must make alone. The director has called the story an “urban western” in which a stranger comes to town as a catalyst of change. Whatever one’s reading, the film succeeds on another level in investing its surface realism with other meanings through a series of believable but offbeat elements. Marina is obsessed with Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries on mammals – hence the title, a mispronunciation of the famous naturalist’s name – and this gives the film’s aesthetic an anthropological twist. In crazy adolescent-like bursts of energy, Marina and Bella enact the bodily movements of animals, a non-verbal performance that creates a strange emotional distancing from the drama. Added to this is the dying father’s pensive conclusions about modernity and industrial society which he communicates to his daughter. “I’m an atheistic old man. Modernity’s toxic waste… I’m leaving you in the hands of a new century, and I’ve taught you nothing.” These elements add multiple layers to the film’s narrative so that by the end the industrial landscape is invested with the emotions and traces of Marina’s story – discovery, death, loss and the lone journey into the future.

Ari Baloufaka’s Apnea is a strong first feature that also competed in the international section, winning the Fischer Audience award and the International Federation of Film Critics’ (FIPRESCI) award for Greek films. Like Attenberg it works its story into a larger metaphor – water, oxygen, pressure and toxicity. Dimitris is a champion swimmer who trains obsessively to help his working-class father with his debts. Like a dolphin, he can stay under water for long periods. He meets Elsa, from a well-off family and a Greenpeace activist who wants to save endangered species. She becomes contaminated with toxins while gathering samples from the sea and her pregnancy to Dimitris is jeopardised. The love story slowly builds into a contemporary story of environmental politics and social pressures that work against the young lovers. Elsa disappears at sea and is found drowned in mysterious circumstances. Through a series of flashbacks, the film tightens the dramatic screws, raising the stakes as the love affair confronts one complication after the other – class differences, political disinterest versus activism, pregnancy and toxic poisoning, bad timing, the deep differences in the couple’s relationship to water. In the end there is no oxygen for Elsa in this toxic world. Dimitris survives by immersing himself in water. The lead actors both offer strong performances.

Another first feature, Christos Nikoleris’ Kanenas (Nobody), received the Fischer Audience award, a recognition of its tender treatment of a “Romeo and Juliet” story in a contemporary Athenian migrant setting. Goran, a young second-generation Russian, and Julia, a young Albanian girl, fall in love. Tension and danger mount, as the feuding ethnic youths and Julia’s strict family brook no crossing of lines. The film captures the cultural nuances of two young people caught in a cycle of ethnic violence and hatred. Goran, trying to free himself from this ghetto though study, feels he’s the “wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” The identity he chooses is “Nobody”, Ulysses’ famous strategy in Goran’s beloved Homeric tale. The story builds to a tragic denouement with Goran’s stabbing and Julia being sent back to Albania. However, in a clever alternative transcendent ending, the couple make it aboard a ferry boat sailing on the Ionian Sea toward another Homeland where young love triumphs. The lead actors Giorgina Liossi and Antinoos Albanis bring off the tenderness, fragility and power of first love with convincing and fresh performances.

An equally impressive feature is Nikos Kornilios’ Triti (Tuesday) which resonated with a mainly-young audience. Using an ensemble cast, the film narrates multiple stories set on a Tuesday in the heart of Athens. A supermarket checkout worker and her gambling boyfriend, a sexually frustrated paraplegic and her sister, two other sisters with a dying father, a drug addicted doctor, a religious girl in love with a wannabe burglar, an extramarital affair between a book-binder and a gallery director, a radio disc jockey with impotence problems. Character-driven stories intercut with telling detail. Shot on a modest budget, the director created the script through an intense process of improvisation. The result brings to mind the realism of Mike Leigh’s films. The stories from everyday life – relationships, living space, work, sex, family ­– are delivered with such intensity that the lack of full closure is entirely consistent with idea of the flow of life seen through the film’s parallel narratives.

The situation of Greece’s lowly-paid “600 euros a month” generation is the subject of Stratos Tzitzis’ 45m2. Christina, a young woman wanting to assert her independence, struggles to pay the rent of a cheap apartment. Similar in theme to the director’s Sose me (Save Me, 2001), it is a tight realist treatment of a growing social problem of youth dependence on family. Christina’s story is one of courage and inventiveness, driven by the dream of the possibilities of life. The director describes his approach as “extreme realism” although the focus on the details of Christina’s straightened circumstances is filmed with a tender and steady eye on her determined and free spirit.

The veteran director Nikos Perakis’ Artherapy (shown at the Greek Film Festivals in Australia last October) is a type of homage to a young generation of Greek artists. A creative docu-fiction, it captures the frenetic energy of young artists in Athens in the summer of 2009. The documentary sequences of rehearsals and performances move seamlessly into semi-fictional narrative threads that are enacted in the chaotic art spaces of the city. A celebration of youthful expression, this hybrid feature playfully explores the ambivalent and multiple meanings such art generates. Perakis presents the vibrant contemporary world of a host of intense young artists as they themselves live it, through the ubiquitous frames of digital media.

There were two films with a comedic edge to them, and both have clever hooks. Zacharias Mavroudis’ first feature O xenagos (The Guide) is about a young architect Jason who becomes a tourist guide for a group of foreign students more interested in coffee, alcohol and sex than the architectural monuments of Greece. The comedy plays on Jason’s sweet natured but overly-serious reaction to the playful teasing of national stereotypes by his tour group, and his own sexual ambivalence. The clever English dialogue provides a easy and light comedic atmosphere. The other comedy is Yorgos Bakolas’ O monahikos astakos (The Lonesome Lobster) which presents an off-beat dilemma when Nikos, a small restaurant owner in Athens, introduces an exotic lobster to his menu. The lobster was considered sacred by an ancient tribe on the Danube River and Nikos is suddenly the target of ecological and spiritual groups concerned with the consequences of his gastronomic proposal. A light and playful take on current values and habits in modern consumerist society.

In the Festival forum Greek Cinema Beyond its Borders emerging Greek directors spoke about their varied experiences with overseas festivals and sales. Overseas markets are important for long-term viability. A constant theme was the tricky fit between film as artistic dreaming and film as business. The criticism of New Greek Cinema as a state-fed cinema that refused to be commercial still needs to grapple with the dilemma of how the imagination and creativity of new filmmakers can be nurtured by the state without compromising independence. The Greek cinematic landscape has surely changed. Most filmmakers have hopes in the new legislation. The newly-established Academy and the lobbying of the “foggists” have begun to disperse the mist. Creative producers are working with directors and scriptwriters in a period of renaissance. But to fully emerge from the mist, to sustain the creative surge and survive in an uncertain economic climate, Greek filmmakers may well need to keep working as they always have, as free-spirited guerillas of cinema.

Thessaloniki International Film Festival

3 – 12 December, 2010

Festival website: http://www.filmfestival.gr/default.aspx?lang=en-US

Endnotes

  1. To be eligible for State Cinema Awards, films were required to compete in the Thessaloniki Festival.
  2. The first Greek Academy Awards were presented in Athens on 3 May 2010. These awards, unlike the previous State Cinema Awards, are non-monetary.
  3. Michel Demopoulos, “New Blood is Flowing in the Veins of Greek Cinema”, Cinema, winter 2011, no. 219, p. 52. In Greek.

About The Author

Petro Alexiou is a researcher, writer and translator. He was the scriptwriter on the short film The Killing of Angelo Tsakos (1989). He is currently an Honorary Associate Research Fellow in the Department of Media, Music and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney.