Athens, the present. A small group of adults offer their services to bereaved families. They play the part of the deceased, copying their behaviour and reenacting events from their lives. So goes the simple but odd premise to Yorgos Lanthimos’ fourth feature film Alps (Alpeis, 2011), a film that picked up the Golden Osella for Best Screenplay at the 68th Venice International Film Festival. The film was released during a high point for Greek cinema. Ever since Dogtooth (Kynodontas, 2008) picked up the Prix un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, the presence of Greek Films at International Film Festivals has not waivered. Critics and cinephiles now look to Greek cinema as a contemporary avant garde, leading to the recognition, within the media at least, of a Greek Weird Wave (Rose).
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the wave is its lack of domestic precedent. In fact, Barring a ‘golden period’ during the 1950s and 1960s and the individual successes of Theo Angelopolous and Costa Gavras, Greek cinema has scarcely received any international acclaim. Yet in September 2010, four Greek films featured at the Venice International Film Festival and exactly a year later 30 Greek films were earmarked for release. These numbers are impressive, due both to the relatively small size of the country and the fact that the films originate in the tumultuous context of post-Recession Greece. Thessaloniki celebrated its 50th International Film Festival in 2009, presenting 250 films from around the world. Yet, controversially, Dogtooth did not appear. It was instead screened over 300 miles away in Athens. Its omission was the result of major unrest between the Greek film workers and the state, which had been stalling on proposals for a new film law. Over 200 filmmakers boycotted the Thessaloniki film festival, including the Greek State Film Awards, as a result of its government-funded status (Grivas 2009).
The financial failings of the Greek government prior to the Global financial crisis have been well documented and included a culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence which included the ministry of culture. Although a law had been passed in 1989 stipulating that 1.5% of television income should be invested into the film industry, those television companies that chose not to pay were not reprimanded. On top of this was the influence of unions within both the Greek Film Centre, which doled out state funding, and the jury for the Greek State Film Awards, which also handed out monetary prizes; leading to accusations of favouritism and rigging (Grivas 2011). So, when a new government came into power, a group of producers, directors and filmmakers united under the banner ‘Filmmakers in the Mist’ and hoped their actions would bring about much needed change in the make-up of Greece’s film industry. The resulting abolishment of the Greek State Film Awards and the eventual implementation of a new film law, which enforced the 1.5% television tax as well as introducing new incentives such as a higher tax return for small art house productions, were both viewed positively (Grivas 2011). However, the Greek film industry was nonetheless “stunted by the financial crisis” (Flix). Despite the large number of films being produced budgets remained low (averaging around €750,000 per film) and obtaining the funding they had been promised remained a struggle (Grivas 2010). Against this backdrop the setting up of the Hellenic Film Academy, which is run by filmmakers for filmmakers, and holds its own annual film ceremony, replacing the Greek State Film Awards is impressive.
It is worth noting that save for the language spoken, the locations of the shooting and the nationality of the directors, there is very little about the films, which could be seen as specific to Greece. This contrasts quite starkly with films that had won the Greek State Film Awards in the years prior to its termination, including Brides (Nyfes, 2004) and El Greco (2007), which were very much heritage fare about what it means to be Greek. After such a dramatic rupture had taken place in the country, it is perhaps unsurprising that a set idea of national identity was cast adrift. Moreover a film such as Attenberg (2010), deals with a renegotiation of identity on the part of the protagonist, Marina, in the light of her father’s impending death. As an outsider it is difficult to view the films without attempting to super-impose allegories of the national social climate onto them. Yet this is not always straightforward: a film such as Alps, for example, deals with loss and, at a push, a tough job market. However, for the most part it is cryptic.
Interestingly, the influence of Sir David Attenborough’s nature documentaries in Attenberg plays a large part in defining Marina’s personality and we see a similar thing take place in Dogtooth, in which, as Mark Fisher explains, “it is the movies which end up destroying the children’s contented insularity” (24). This is a recent phenomenon, facilitated on a large scale by the proliferation of VHS and DVD, not forgetting the truly globalizing influence of the Internet. Less than a lack of national identity then, we are seeing the emergence of a collective global film culture. Indeed, in an essay about the perceived influences on the German Berlin School, director Christoph Hochhäusler refutes suggestions that it is a rebirth of the German New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s and claims instead that, “the Berlin School is unthinkable without the possibility of ranging through all periods and across all national borders that has been offered by the DVD” (23-24). What we are seeing in this New Greek cinema then is the coincidence of a critical point in Greek history and a group of directors with a rounded knowledge of film history.
Mapping the films is reassuringly complex. Dogtooth, Attenberg and Alps all seem to find origins in the subversive cinema of Lars von Trier and the lingering, almost documentary approach to filming is reminiscent of the films of Austrian director Michael Haneke. In its study of industrial buildings Attenberg also makes direct reference to Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964). Indeed, all the films share what Edward Lawrenson calls Antonioni’s “feel for the expressive emotional potential of urban landscapes” (71). L (2012), a film that shares the same cinematographer as Dogtooth, has a similar decentered narrative focus to the films of Robert Bresson. If the concept of a Weird Wave is to have any merit, these are the films – through their formal distinctiveness as much as their awry content – that have an undisputed claim to the title.
In an essay that focuses on the contemporary cinema of Argentina, a country that has experienced similar financial breakdown and subsequent austerity measures, Rosalind Galt argues that the films works against a neo-liberalist construction of the world. For her “their refusal to make sense, their jamming of the gears of social productivity” constitutes a “refusal, in formal terms, of futurity”. And in this she finds “the potential for a queer default cinema” (66). Rather than presenting the issues in a familiar way that reasserts the language of the status quo, the films promote weirdness in order to destabilize the conventions: “[t]he perverse and surreal is made to feel quite commonplace in these films, yet meaning remains opaque”, their lack of sense, here being presented as actively political rather than stylistically superficial (Galt 65).
A key factor I have used to judge this selection of Greek films as distinct from those created previously in the country is their presence and success at international film festivals. While this is to an extent a useful indicator of their recognition outside of Greece, it is ultimately not without its problems. Rosalind Galt notes how films can be geared towards film festivals, suggesting that “the subordination of aesthetics to marketing could easily be seen as a methodology that inadvertently assents to capitalist logic rather than offering any resistance to it” (69). Such cynicism is confirmed by the recent emergence of films such as Miss Violence (2013) and Standing Aside, Watching (Na kathesi kai na koitas, 2013). The former examines content similar to Dogtooth, whilst the latter has been compared to Attenberg (Doyle). Both films have featured in international film festivals, but both are far more conventional in their approach to narrative (Doyle). Further to this is the fact that a large proportion of the films to emerge from Greece at this point have, as of yet, been deemed unworthy of much critical attention. The conclusion could therefore be drawn that many of the films in the cycle are merely riding the wave that was initiated by Dogtooth and given weight by the media attention given to Greece in the fallout of the global financial crisis. As such, the Greek Weird wave may already be receding.
Doyle, Ronan. “Why Greek Cinema Is Invading Ireland.” Indiewire. Feb. 2014. Web. 8 Mar. 2014.
Fisher, Mark. “Dogtooth: The Family Syndrome.” Film Quarterly, 64.4 (2011): 22-27. Print.
Flix. “Greek Cinema 2011-2012: Safety In Numbers?” Flix. Sept. 2011. Web. 29 Feb 2014.
Galt, Rosalind. “Default Cinema: Queering Economic Crisis.” Screen, 54.2 (2013): 62-81. Print.
Grivas, Alexis. “New Greek Filmmakers Triumph Despite Country’s Financial Woes.” Screen Daily. August 2010. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.
Grivas, Alexis. “Greek Industry Mainly Welcomes New Film Law.” Screen Daily. Jan. 2011. Web. 21 Mar 2014.
Hochhäusler, Christoph. “On Whose Shoulders: The Question Of Indebtedness.” The Berlin School: Films From The Berliner Schule. New York: The Museum Of Modern Art, 2013. Print.
Lawrenson, Edward. “Wrocław, Reykjavik.” Film Quarterly, 64.2 (2010): 69-71. Print.
Rose, Steve. “Attenberg, Dogtooth And The Weird Wave Of Greek Cinema.” Telegraph.com. Aug. 2011. Web. 13 Jan 2014.
Written by Oliver Westlake, (2014); Queen Mary, University of London
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Copyright 2014 Oliver Westlake/ Mapping Contemporary Cinema
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