Hard Times Bring Out Best in Greek Films

– John Anderson/New York Times

Konstantinos Kontovrakis was a programmer for the Thessaloniki Film Festival until 2009, when he quit to become a film producer. Unfortunately, that was the year “the whole mess started,” as Mr. Kontovrakis put it. He meant the Greek economic crisis that continues to send shivers through the global economy. “Since then, I haven’t made a lot of money.”

But he has made films. So have a number of his compatriots. Despite having to negotiate a transformed and rocky financial landscape, they are creating a new and newly independent strain of Greek cinema, a movement — called the Greek Weird Wave by The Guardian of London — that recently has shown a great deal of rough health.

Miss Violence, a harrowing, almost gothic family drama by a newcomer, Alexandros Avranas, won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival in September.

That same month, the Toronto International Film Festival’s City to City program showcased a number of strong, strange films out of Athens, including The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas, with its droll social commentary; Standing Aside, Watching, a contemporary western with a heroine named Antigone and a debt to Sergio Leone; and Wasted Youth, an Athens drama about skateboarding culture amid a city in crisis.

Mr. Kontovrakis was a producer of Standing Aside, Watching, directed by Yorgos Servetas; Giorgos Karnavas was a producer of Antonis Paraskevas, directed by Elina Psikou.

They were both producers of Wasted Youth, directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel, and they produced Boy Eating the Bird’s Food, directed by Ektoras Lygizos, the Greek entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language film next year.

The two producers have now joined forces by creating the production company Heretic. “You need a map to figure it out,” Mr. Kontovrakis said during an interview in Toronto.

What isn’t on that map is the route to film financing in a country where the European model of government-funded culture has gone the way of the Minotaur.

The debt crisis that followed the economic recession of 2008 — and led to austerity measures linked to a bailout in 2010 — has had many repercussions, among them the loss of arts money. In the United States, self-financing movies is business as usual. In Europe, filmmakers have traditionally entered “schemes” — involving film board or lottery proceeds or tax incentives — or they haven’t gotten their films made. With public money drying up, Greek directors and producers are on unfamiliar turf.

If they were wealthy, of course, they could easily finance their work. Mr. Karnavas owns a bar, which provides some of the income that movies aren’t providing.

Without financing sources like the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, the national agency that closed in June, few replacements have stepped in. “Some distribution companies contribute money, and some TV, but other than that, it’s personal investment,” said Fenia Cossovitsa, another Standing Aside producer. “You’re a person with money who invests in films, or you’re a filmmaker who spends out of your personal pocket.”

Mr. Kontovrakis said that shooting on Standing Aside began with the understanding that Hellenic Broadcasting would make a contribution. “But this money never came through,” he said. “We had to finish and respect our commitments. So it was personal investment.”

Miss Violence, too, was financed exclusively through private sources. For Ms. Psikou, a fellow at the Berlinale Residency, a program of the Berlin Film Festival (and the first Greek so honored), the making of Antonis Paraskevas was very personal and very independent.

“There were many times I tried to make this movie and had other scripts and tried and tried and tried, so I decided to do this one alone,” she said.

She received some financial help from her parents, and Mr. Karnavas contributed equipment and assistance during postproduction, but that was it. Most of her cast and crew members didn’t get paid, and she went without a producer.

There is a natural temptation to ascribe both the aesthetics and mechanics of the new Greek indies to a crippled economy and troubled society. In Antonis Paraskevas, for instance, a fading television celebrity feigns his own kidnapping and finds that no one cares, as he holes up in an empty hotel that was, in reality, an empty hotel.

Whether the country’s finances have inspired cinematic themes is a complicated question, one that’s perhaps becoming tiresome for the filmmakers.

“Especially with foreign people, it’s in their minds all the time,” Mr. Karnavas said. “Everybody’s thinking about it, everybody has their own definition of what it means. It’s a very bad time financially, but the fact is that Greek society was torn apart before. The same exact things were there, but nobody had to pay them any attention.”

Mr. Kontrovrakis said by phone from the Thessaloniki Film Festival this month — where Standing Aside, Watching was having its Greek premiere — that the crisis is increasing the influence of the country’s right-wing extremists and exacerbating the racism that all of Europe has experienced in the wake of rising immigration. “I grew up in a country that took pride in not being racist,” he said. “Now racism has become almost the norm.”

Do the films reflect this? They radiate a sense of unrest, and a desire for retaliation — against sexual abusers in Miss Violence, or the Mafia-like rule exercised over the town in Standing Aside. In that film, Antigone (in Greek myth, the scourge of men) does a Wyatt Earp on a gang of thugs. One of them has an abusive relationship with her friend, Eleni.

“When the economic collapse took place, that’s when Yorgos needed to make Antigone the protagonist of the film, and not Eleni, because he wanted a stronger character and not a victim,” Mr. Kontovrakis said. “This is a good example of how the crisis has infiltrated the filmmaking.”