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FOOD & TRAVEL

New Greek Film Wave Makes Splash

In recent years, Greek films have made cinematic headlines at every major international film festival. This would be a big plus for Greek culture at any time, but it is especially so at a time when the prestige of the Greek nation is at an ebb. The last time Greek films made a collective dent in world cinema was in the 1950’s when Melina Mercouri, Irene Papas, Michael Cacoyannis, Manos Hadjidakis, and Mikis Theodorakis became international celebrities. In the post–junta era, Theo Angelopoulos became an international art house favorite, winning many awards, including two at Cannes. But no other Greek filmmaker has gained similar acclaim. The Greek films now creating cinematic headlines have no unifying theme or style. Dogtooth (2010,) a winner at Cannes and finalist in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Film, offers a surreal attack on totalitarianism while Plato’s Academy (2009,) winner of a prize at Locarno and presented as a special event at Venice is a realistic comedy about Albanian immigrants. Attenberg (2010,) a winner at Venice, is a feature length coming-of-age film focused on a 23-year old woman, while Casus Belli (2010), also shown at Venice, is a humorous short that mocks bureaucracy.
Other recent Greek films that have received international attention show the same diversity. Strella (2010,) which deals with trans-gender issues, created a sensation when shown as a sidebar event at Berlin. Apena (2010,) a film about swimmers, drew praise at Venice. Buzz (2005,) a documentary about Hollywood scriptwriter A.I. Bezzerides, was shown on PBS and had a unique Hollywood screening sponsored by the Writer’s Guild of America. Omeros (2005,) a film about Albanian immigrants aired on HBO. Correction (2009,) another film about immigrants was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious New Directors series. And The Journey (2007,) a history of the Greeks in America, has been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on PBS. Ironically, the film critical to opening the new door for this upsurge is Safe Sex (2000,) a semi-pornographic comedy starring some of the best known soap opera actors of Greek television. Safe Sex had zero impact outside of Greece, but domestically, it attracted more than a million Greeks. This would be equivalent to an American film that played to 30 million Americans that would gross the equivalent of $2 billion. Although Angelopoulos’ The Travelling Players (1974) drew 600,000 Greeks, by the 1990’s, most Greek films had less than 50,000 admissions and any film over 100,000 was considered a hit. The success of Safe Sex shattered the misconception of many Greek filmmakers that Greek audiences had abandoned Greek-language films. What remained unclear after the box office success of Safe Sex was if there was a significant Greek appetite for less frothy films. The answer came with the release of A Touch of Spice (Greek title: Politiki Kouzina) in 2003. The film dealt with the nature of Greek culture and the relationship of Greeks and Turks with considerable humor, pathos, and word play. Although shot in a realistic mode, some sections were rendered as fantasy and the special effects were the finest ever in a Greek production. A Touch of Spice drew even more Greeks than Safe Sex, but unlike Safe Sex, it enjoyed critical acclaim and some international exposure. It did quite well in Turkey.
{34561}A year later, Brides, a tale of picture brides coming in America in 1922, again drew a million Greek spectators. As a number of other films in the early decades of the new century drew attendance numbers that paralleled American imports, Greek filmmakers were encouraged to create films that pleased them artistically but utilized formats that would appeal to popular audiences. This served to ebb the notion of many Greek filmmakers of the 1980’s that film was a kind of elite art reserved for the knowing few. A longer-term seeding of the Greek upsurge began in 1992 when the Thessaloniki Film Festival, an annual exhibition of new Greek films, transformed itself into the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. The expanded Festival mixed the work of filmmakers of established international stature with films from emerging directors and from national cinemas often ignored in the West. The considerable national publicity generated by the 10-day festival slowly created a significant audience for fine films. An extra plus was the Festival’s proximity to the tens of thousands of students at nearby Aristotle University.
Another new feature was the establishment of a section devoted to Balkan films, and later the establishment of a Balkan Film Fund to finance films in a competitive regional competition. A number of the films that have been part of the Greek cinematic upsurge enjoyed partial financing from this source. Another long-term influence on Greek film is that many younger filmmakers have trained or worked abroad. Tasso Boulmetis, director of A Touch of Spice studied film at UCLA, and Athina Rachel Tsangari, writer-director of Attenberg is a graduate of the University of Texas. Spiro Taraviras, director of Buzz, got his training in Germany. Brides had Martin Scorsese as an executive producer. Connections such as these do not diminish what the Greeks have done, but indicate that they have left behind the somewhat parochial climate prevalent among Greek filmmakers during the immediate post-junta era. Another new factor is the modest but growing number of women filmmakers in what had been almost entirely a male industry. Attenberg is written and directed by a woman and Ariane Labed, the film’s star, won Best Actress at Venice. Despina Mouzaki was a producer of A Touch of Spice and then Director of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival from 2005-2009. Starting with The Cow’s Orgasm (1997,) Olga Malea has made a series of excellent films that have all turned a financial profit. Other notable films made by women include Maria Iliou’s Alexandria (2001) and Katerina Evangelakou’s Think It Over (2001). Greek women made a particularly strong mark in 2002 with Lucia Rikaki’s Words of Silence, Penny Panayotopoulou’s Hard Goodbyes; My Father, and Stella Theodorakis’s Close, So Close.
A perennial problem confronting Greek film in America is distribution. While Dogtooth secured an established distributor, films that should have done well in America such as A Touch of Spice and Brides did not. The problem of getting non-English language films on screen and then on moderately priced DVDS is not uniquely Greek, but Greek film has a unique advantage that is as yet untapped.
Approximately 80% of all Greek Americans (800,000) live in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas and film-going centers. Their enthusiasm for Greek film has been demonstrated by the burgeoning Greek film festival movement. The favored American distribution model for foreign films is to mount screenings in a few major cities and expand to more venues if the film does well. Greek Americans could be a substantial, built-in core audience for such an exhibition strategy.
Surges in national cinemas are not uncommon. Some last a few years, others decades. Economic woes often trigger fine art. If so, the Greek film renaissance could just be in its infancy. Greek Americans with entrepreneurial daring willing to go beyond promoting a single film to create a Greek distribution network could be a factor in turning the present surge into a more permanent presence.

Dan Georgakas is on the editorial board of Cineaste film quarterly and Director of the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine * Modern Greek Studies, Queens College, CUNY. (georgakas@hotmail.com)

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