Tsangari Uses the Big Screen to Tackle Greek Taboos, Family Life

Among the films recognized on the red carpet at the Academy Awards was the first Best Foreign Language nominee from Greece since the 1970’s: Dogtooth, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is a surreal and disturbing tale of three teens who have never been outside the walls of their family’s estate and are held in check by a domineering patriarch. It’s among the highest-profile works from a new wave of Greek cinema produced by a handful of up-and-coming young filmmakers. A prominent member of that group is Athina Rachel Tsangari, who in addition to being Dogtooth’s associate producer, has been riding a wave of recognition from her own recent film, Attenberg. That film has made the festival circuit, including Sundance, and is now in the midst of opening in countries across Europe. Her success has come during Greece’s recent economic upheaval. Like Romania and Argentina before it, a real-life crisis has brought out mini-bursts of creative filmmaking. “I don’t know if it’s a sympathy vote, but there’s an interest.” Tsangari, who declines to give her age but looks at home among thirtysomethings, says. “I believe that through (your country’s) difficulty, you sharpen your creative vision. There’s an urgency … I didn’t know whether I would make another movie in Greece. So you have to say everything you want to say.” What Tsangari wants to say turns out to have a lot to do with relationships between fathers and daughters; with the clash of old and new in Greece; with the duality of sex and death; with the animalistic nature of human beings, cultivated through a lifetime of watching the nature documentaries of David Attenborough (the origin of her film’s title). Attenberg, the story of a sheltered 23-year-old woman who must prepare for her ill father’s death, has stirred debate among conservative Greek society by dealing with taboos—such as a daughter asking her father if he’s ever imagined her naked – and by questioning a long-held religious stance against cremation in the country. {34338}
Despite all of its big ideas, Attenberg is fairly accessible, says Tsangari’s friend and collaborator Bryan Poyser. “At the end of the day, it’s really a coming-of-age film,” he says. The film won a Best Actress prize for its lead, Ariane Labed, at the Venice Film Festival last September. Both it and Dogtooth contain themes related to the social, class and generational upheaval experienced in Greece in recent years. “They’re about the conflict between parents and children, and how they navigate this new world,” he adds. Tsangari was born and raised in Athens, but attended New York University to study theater, which she says is a more popular pursuit in Greece than film. While there, she picked up a job as a projectionist for the school’s film department to earn extra money. She was watching student films as they were being edited, and in the process became fascinated with filmmaking. Around that time she stumbled onto the set of a film by then-unknown director Richard Linklater and ended up with a small acting part as a character’s Greek cousin – that film turned out to be a seminal American independent feature, 1991’s Slacker.
She moved on to the University of Texas at Austin, where she taught directing and with Poyser founded the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, which ran from 1996 to 2007 and became a prominent showcase for experimental short-film making from both U.S. and European directors. After her first full-length feature, The Slow Business of Going, won acclaim in 2000, she took a detour from feature filmmaking to take on several large-scale special projects: she was tapped to be the video director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympics, and she conceived and directed the animation projections at Athens’s new Acropolis Museum.
She also helped to cultivate a culture of making small-scale, small-budget films in her home country through her production company, Haos Film (a name that’s a play on both chaos and house,) founded in 2005. “A few years ago, there was no such thing as an independent film in Greece. Either you got money from the Greek Film Center, or you didn’t make your movie,” Poyser says. Her production experience proved useful when she made Attenberg. Initially, the production was mounted with the promise of a budget of €250,000 ($346 million) from the Greek Film Center, the government-subsidized agency that gives grants to homegrown filmmakers. That fell apart with the country’s debt crisis as the movie was filming in February 2010. “My crew decided to go on with it even though they were not going to be paid anytime soon,” Tsangari says. Once the film was accepted into Venice, a bank loan paid to complete the film. Along with Tsangari, Lanthimos (who took an acting role in Attenberg) and fellow director Yannis Economides, whose 2010 feature Knifer has earned positive notices, are growing accustomed to making shoestring-budget films with small, agile crews – with or without government help. “Nothing was happening in Greek cinema for like 20 years,” Tsangari says, adding with a touch of pride. “It’s now on the rise.”
Tsangari, who has homes in both Athens and Austin, rattles off three projects that are next on her agenda: An adaptation she’s currently writing (and declines to detail); a romantic comedy she hopes to film in Austin; and a science-fiction film with a twist: “Science fiction as an ancient Greek tragedy with deadpan comic elements,” she says. Some are calling her an auteur, but Tsangari shrugs off the praise. “I feel like I should have a few other movies under my belt to be called that. I want to have my own voice and I want to make my own language. I’m not making popular (movies.) Maybe one of my movies will be a blockbuster someday, but my way. Not by conforming.”


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