Crisis of Identity in the ‘Greek Weird Wave’
Daniella Verektenidi, 30/4/20
(the below is an edited version of my final year Film Criticism assignment)
(Attenberg, Athina Tsangari)
‘I’m a godless old man leaving you in a new century, without teaching you anything’ says Spyros, to his daughter Marina, in Athina Tsangari’s comedy drama Attenberg (2010). This sentence sums up a few of the ideas that are implemented in the Greek society and the New Wave of filmmaking in Greece.
The director, who’s previously worked with Richard Linklater on Slacker (2002) and Before Midnight (2013) , is one of the few prevalent figures in the Greek cinema of today. Chevalier (2015), was her most recent feature film. A deadpan comedy about masculinity and male dynamics, Chevalier similarly to Attenberg, belongs to this new wave of cinema that has emerged in the last decade or so in Greece. This ‘Greek Weird Wave’ as many have called it due to its unique thematic style, seems to have appeared in a time when the country has been at its weakest economically. Along with the 2008 December riots that caused a troubling aura hovering above the nation. Is this aura and the state of insecurity the inspiration that inspired this new generation of Greek filmmakers to create these bizarre films?
Similar to the French New Wave or nouvelle vague back in the fifties, where filmmakers were looking to re-invent the way films were made in France, a few filmmakers in Greece have taken upon themselves to express their way of seeing life at the moment. The French were inspired by the auteur theory, the view that the director is the most important creative force in the making of the film. This way, films were analysed by recurring themes or styles attributed to each director. Interestingly, the Greeks seem to have established a collective auteur approach to their filmmaking. The approach has been characterised as ‘weird’ and when you see one example you would understand why. Unlike how we’ve seen Greece in Hollywood, those films are not about happy family affairs and Pierce Brosnan losing his breath when singing with a blue sea on the backdrop. They are dark comedies that don’t intend to make you laugh and pass your time unaffected, but instead to raise your eyebrow to the situations you are exposed to.
Attenberg, for instance, is an observational piece of film that looks at its main character the way David Attenborough looks at the subjects of his documentaries (hence the title). We see Marina, a 23 year old cab driver, hissing like a cat to her friend, with whom she doesn’t seem to have the friendliest of relationships. We also see her act like a monkey with her dying father when spending time together. All the while she appears to be trying to deal with not desiring anyone sexually and being afraid of human contact in that way. The more she comes to terms with the inevitable death of her father and learns to let go, the closer she gets to overcoming her fear of connecting with someone in a sexual way. The fear of intimacy she is facing appears to only be solved with letting go of the bond she has with her father, the only family she seems to have.
The subject of family can be understood with a Greek proverb that reads ‘as long as you have the blessing of your family, it does not mater even if you live in the mountains’. Family is a big part of Greek cinema and that comes as no surprise as it is important to Greece itself. Letting go of your family as well as looking for it are both important in this new surge of cinema.
Yorgos Lanthimos a recurring collaborator of Tsangari has established this importance with his Academy nominated film Dogtooth (2009) and later on with Alps (2011). The latter one is about four individuals who called themselves and their business Alps. Their line of work is to ‘fill in’ for members of family that have passed away in order to ease the pain of the family’s loss. They find their clients in a hospital and by collecting little pieces of information of the deceased, they pitch themselves to their families as a substitute. As the tagline of the film says ‘when the end is near, the Alps are here’. The reasoning behind their actions is questionable but the characters themselves appear to have no family of their own and it would be right to assume they hope to find it through their work even if temporary. Like Attenberg, Alps looks at human connection and the times in which it is lacking. The characters who strangely substitute the dead, are struggling to connect with others around them but salvation is in neither of the directors minds. Tsangari herself said in an interview that ‘’I really have to understand or accept redemption for my characters because I guess it’s something that I haven’t understood or accepted for myself.’’ We don’t see people finding each other in the end or reaching catharsis. Their bizarre behaviour that seems unappealing at first, makes up with that struggle to connect as that feeling doesn’t seem strange at all.
So there is something disturbing in family relations altogether, there is chaos and uneasiness that challenges the notion of ‘family’ as viewed in normal. Perhaps a bit darker than the previous films mentioned, Miss Violence (2013, Alexandros Avranas) is another great example of the turbulent new wave. The fascinating opening scene of the film is a lovely looking birthday party for the 11 year old Angeliki, with all her family celebrating with songs and music at their sunlit apartment. Angeliki is dancing with her granddad and siblings before leaving them to the cake and pass-the-parcel. She walks towards the balcony, smiles at the camera and jumps off. Her family is still celebrating in the background. The camera tilts on the ground to reveal her body unmoving on the asphalt road. ‘’She was really happy’’ says the granddad to the welfare officers, there wasn’t a reason for her to jump. The rest of the film we spend trying to solve the puzzle of why she did.
We soon come to realise that there is something not completely right with the family and the closer we get to answers the bigger the idea of the ‘family’ is being brought down. The granddad, a man who takes on a humiliating job in an office to support the family seems to be reacting with an unnerving way to her loss. The more we observe him the more we realise he seems to be holding every member of his family by a string. He is the patriarch figure that we can also interpret as the nationalism that resurrects with the people and drives them to keep still with outdated traditions and beliefs when succumbing the ‘family’ in great distress and anxiety.
It is not only the family that is in question but also sexuality and gender roles that in modern Greek society are still taboo topics of discussion. In Attenberg, Marina asks her father ‘’Do you ever picture me naked?’’ ‘’Of course not, don’t say things like that’’ he answers. ‘’I do. But without a penis.’’. They conclude their conversation by saying that some topics are taboo and for a reason, in the society we live in we are not meant to discuss those. In the Greek society however, even today, there are various subjects that are considered taboo. This New Wave is allowing these topics to be addressed - perhaps what film and art does best.
Marina is questioning her sexuality and the act of sex. She is seen admiring female bodies and engaging in a very awkward kiss with her female friend only to discover that she is not attracted to them. The questioning of one's sexuality however, in this Orthodox Christian society, is not a thing you would stumble across a film or any other media in Greece so easily. Even today, homosexuality is still viewed with restraint by a lot of people and only the younger generation seems to be more open to consider, examine and accept it. Even though this backward-look on the subject sounds quite horrifying to acknowledge, it is important to discuss to move forward. The gender roles that have been firmly established are suddenly being questioned. The patriarch; who is the man that carries all, is not so strong anymore. In Attenberg the daughter is the one providing for her father, whereas in Miss Violence the granddad is not the man who appears to be and ultimately is brought down.
Chevalier on the other hand is questioning masculinity entirely. Here a group of friends go on a fishing trip where they end up playing a game of ‘who is the best in general’. Each of them rate each other in everything they do, the way they dress, speak, swim, sleep or get an erection. Whoever scores the highest will be announced the winner and receive the chevalier ring. The masculinity of each of the players is at stake as they try to convince each other of how great of man they are, even though the tough image they are trying to project is far from it. The most ironic scene that challenges that idea is towards the end of the film when the winner is announced. Before they hand the chevalier ring they sing a traditional school song that says ‘where’s is the ring, you will not find it’. The ironic part is that this song was sang usually by young girls on school breaks and it referred to a wedding ring. Grown men have never been seen singing it, so when it is sung here the impact is bizarre and strangely entertaining. When men are usually portrayed as the breeder and strong figure, suddenly that image is being diluted. The masculine figure is shown to have insecurities, fears and general ‘emotions’ that previously were not attached to them.
What we see in all these examples is insecurity and a lot of questioning, mainly the idea that is hovering all around is that of one’s identity. The films seem to rethink and reconstruct the idea of the Greek national space, where a certain established role of the family, patriarchy, gender, sexuality and other ideas seem to be challenged. After the economic collapse and the uncertainty of the stake of the entire nation, doubt loomed over every individual and in greater ways the young people who would only just get out into the world. It is no wonder how one can start challenging the idea of oneself when you’ve lost hope in all of what you were certain before.
Marina is not sure of who she is meant to be with men and women, apart from her father. In Alps, the characters are trying to find where they belong even if where they find themselves is entirely fabricated. In Miss Violence, the question of identity comes from the audience seeking answers to who the characters are against what they are displaying themselves to be. Whereas Chevalier questions whether masculinity has anything to do with one’s identity. Perhaps the role of this weird wave is not only to show the turmoil of the Greek society of today but also break away from it. How do the Greeks do it? They are making films about people who are not society’s norm. They are weirdos. When first watching any of the films of this new wave you stop and ask ‘what are they thinking?’ This is not how adult members of a civilised society act. But through that presentation of ‘abnormal’ behaviour they question what is normal and whether it should be.
The success of the new wave as it appears to be is due to all these factors and it is undeniable that it has brought attention to the country’s cinema once again after such a long time of silence. Greek cinema beforehand was repetitive motifs of melodrama and the attempt to mimic Hollywood tropes that had no weight on what Greece is as a nation. Before Dogtooth, it hadn’t received a nomination at the Academy Awards since 1977 with Iphigenia (Michael Cacoyannis) adapted from Euripides’ play Iphigenia at Aulis. The question that rises at this point is what does this Greek Weird Wave mean for the future of Greek cinema? Being optimistic we would hope that this is only the beginning of a changed cinema for a changed nation. There is however an undeniable setback for the expansion of a bigger cinema scene and that is financial.
With Greece declaring bankruptcy the same year as Dogtooth’s release it is surprising that a new wave was established at all. Most new waves of cinema emerged after socio-political changes; the French New Wave followed by the New German Cinema, came after the second world war, while Spanish cinema completely reinvented itself post Franco era. There is a need of expression when one's surroundings are repressing and ambivalent. When words fail to describe one's angst, art fills in to help understand that anxiety and one’s identity. Filmmaking seems to be the art form that generations have chosen to express themselves, with this Greek generation doing the same now. Will that need of expression be enough to keep this movement going?
Lanthimos in an interview expressed his doubts on the topic, even with the success of Dogtooth he said, filmmaking in Greece is still a very hard process. There is hardly any funding available and the films they made so far is all a product of collaboration and hard work. It is no wonder he is moving to foreign productions such as The Lobster(2015) and most recently The Favourite (2018). Tsangari seems to be more hopeful and has set up her production company HAOS Film in Greece with the intention to build the Greek cinema scene. Let’s hope we haven’t seen the best just yet from this weird wave and that it is only a new era of filmmaking for the nation of Greece.