[The films of Ana Kokkinos] plunge their characters into all kinds of darkness, where a sense of ultimate self may be found or, more disturbingly, lost. Audiences prepared to meet such daunting challenges would be right to think they are in the presence of a major talent…. (1)
Ana Kokkinos’ (1958-) cinema is distinguished by its dynamic, kinetic and visceral style. The worlds she represents and creates intimately and bodily connect the viewer to the cinematic image. They have affective powers, evoking a gut reaction in audiences through being both physically, and as Brian McFarlane has observed, “emotionally demanding”. There is “nowhere to relax” in her films (2). Steven Shaviro could have been describing the experience of Kokkinos’ films when he wrote, “perception becomes a kind of physical affliction [in visceral cinema], an intensification… of bodily sensations” (3). Viewers of Head On (1998) report emerging from the experience feeling physically exhausted (4). Through the creation of sensate filmic worlds, Kokkinos has made a significant contribution to global cinema.
Background, Influences, Preoccupations and Style
Kokkinos also creates spatial worlds. As an Australian filmmaker, she has also made an important contribution to Australian National Cinema, in particular, through her representations of the city and populace of Melbourne.
She was born in Melbourne and has worked from that base for all of her career. She initially trained and was employed as a lawyer until she undertook a postgraduate degree at Swinburne Film and Television School in 1991 (which became the School of Film and Television – Victorian College of the Arts in 1992). In the first year of film school she wrote and directed her first short, Antamosi, a familial story of migrant reunion told through the lens of three generations of women. This tale of mothers and daughters resonates right through to her most recent film, the feature film Blessed (2009). Together they touch concerns central to her oeuvre, including an interest in female perspectives, trauma, identity, working-class life, and parental influence or relationships. Kokkinos has said of her mother’s generation of Greek migrant women, many of whom lacked education, that they were “shackled” by “language, by economic circumstance and their dependence on men” (5), an idea that both her first film, Antamosi, and her most recent film tackle in their own ways; Blessed combines this interest in expressing the bonds between mothers and children with a tale of women who are experiencing difficult personal circumstances.
To date Kokkinos has directed three features and a short feature (6). She works mainly as a director but has four co-writing credits. This indicates her productivity given that undertaking both writing and directing means each film takes longer. She usually co-writes her own films, which speeds up the process; although she is obviously interested in collaboration given she has frequently worked with writers Andrew Bovell and Mira Robertson (7). In addition, she was also an Executive Producer on Blessed, something that may illustrate both a move to uphold control over her films, and her status (that she can maintain this power) (8). Since 2000 she has also had a career directing Australian television, including the popular series The Secret Life of Us and, more recently, The Time of Our Lives (2013) (9).
When Kokkinos emerged in the 1990s, Cinema Papers, amongst others, was heralding a “New Breed of Ethnic Filmmakers” (10). Multiculturalism had been a core part of the Australian policy landscape since the 1970s, but the Hawke government’s “National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia” (1989) set the scene – in a government-subsidised industry – for a new pluralism. Filmmakers like Kokkinos, Alexis Velis and Monica Pellizzari were encouraged to make films that reflected their ethnic backgrounds. Multicultural stories gained greater funding and mainstream exposure, even with non-ethnic filmmakers (for example, Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, 1992).
The ethnic label was not the only one Kokkinos had to contend with. As Chris Berry observed, Head On was “pigeon holed” as “gay or ethnic” despite resonating widely as a coming-of-age film (11). Kokkinos was branded in a similar fashion herself. She is on record as deflecting such labels:
I don’t identify myself as a “Lesbian” filmmaker. I reject that tag.… I am a filmmaker. I have the capacity to represent all kinds of characters on screen and tell a variety of stories with all kinds of characters in a compelling and interesting way for the broadest possible audience. (12)
Whether or not Kokkinos is willing to acknowledge the influence of her own background, ethnicity and sexuality are undeniably aspects of her films, particularly in the early work.
She has frequently adapted literary material for her films. Christos Tsiolkas’ novel Loaded became Head On, and The Book of Revelation (2006) was based on the Rupert Thomson novel of the same name. Blessed transformed Tsiolkas’ play Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? Kokkinos staged and shot all these productions on the streets of her hometown of Melbourne. From this perspective (as described and analysed in the second section of this article) Melbourne emerges as a character or signifier of meaning in her films. She has clearly been driven by an interest in the interior states of her central protagonists, all of whom are emotionally vulnerable and scarred by abuse. She has also acknowledged that Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has been a major influence on her work (he who also worked extensively across theatre and television), an artist renowned for his psychological insight into characters. Kokkinos has recalled that Bergman’s use of colours, and the “faces of the female characters on screen”, resonated strongly with her (13).
The physical and interior landscapes of Kokkinos’ films reflect her own interiority. For example, she has said that Only the Brave (1994) wasn’t so much autobiographical but
explores some of my personal obsessions and the landscape that I grew up in. I had not seen a contemporary Australian film reflecting some of the experiences that I felt close to. I was trying to express something that was coming from within… I felt that up until that point working class female protagonists, their point of view and their perspective had been neglected. (14)
This is the particular contribution Kokkinos has made to Australian National Cinema, a body of work that has, as described in the next section, captured her unique vision of the city of Melbourne and its people.
A View from the West (15)
The cinema of Ana Kokkinos is deeply imbued with understandings and vistas of Melbourne’s western suburbs. These personal filmic landscapes of the place she grew up offer an insider’s view of place. Yet these insiders are also outsiders who are frequently othered, painfully aware of their difference due to their sexuality (as gays or lesbians); their ethnicity (as Greek immigrants within a troubled multicultural Australia); their socio-economic status (as working class, and often disenfranchised youths); and their place as sons and daughters battling familial tensions (particularly as 2nd generation migrants). Indeed, all these dilemmas are arguably expositions of Kokkinos’ own background, and inform her vision as a filmmaker who has achieved powerful insights into these worlds, creating a body of work that makes a significant contribution to the representation of Melbourne in the cinema.
Each of Kokkinos’ films has something to offer an understanding of this place. Her first film, the 1991 black-and-white short Antamosi, began her filmic preoccupation with exploring Greek-Australian migrant life in Melbourne, with its large and vibrant Greek population. It also establishes her exposition of psychological landscapes and the inside of her characters. She moved from the interior spaces (houses and backyards) of the earlier film to make Only the Brave, the production that first inserted the motif of looking from the largely industrialised west at the city. In this film this motif is used to underline the idea that Kokkinos’ characters feel cut off from communities, families, and “the action”. She expanded this in Head On, where the central protagonist, Ari (Alex Dimitriades), circles and approaches Melbourne across the mammoth West Gate Bridge, serving to signify the divide between the west and the centre. Through Ari’s journey, the spaces of Melbourne and its west are mapped, and the urban experience is offered through the lens of teenage mobility, desire and angst. The film further demonstrated her talent as a visceral and kinetic filmmaker, a quality also evident in The Book of Revelation, which has the most psychologically interior focus of all her films. This was followed by Blessed, a collage of streetscapes, including views of the city from the perspective of the west. Rachel Power described it on the Australian Film Institute (AFI) website as “like all Kokkinos’s films”, fiercely refusing “to look away from the darkness that lurks in our cities and our hearts” (16).
Head On is arguably the Kokkinos film that has the most to say about Melbourne. Tracing Ari’s movements through Melbourne over a 24-hour period, it takes the audience into the space inside his body and head (Ari’s mind space, and the liminal, visceral space his body encounters and shapes); the physical spaces of the houses, the neighbourhood, the tram, the nightclub; and the migrant and diasporic spaces of the city (through the locales, activities, sensibilities and conflicts).
Ari, a young, gay Greek, queers space and place as he cruises through the city imposing meaning on the urban landscape – for example, the Vietnamese market become a “gay beat”. Through referencing the Vietnamese diaspora, the market signifies Melbourne as a multicultural place, an aspect achieved through many scenes, such as Ari’s arrival at the city centre. As he passes significant landmarks such as Flinders Street Station, Ari remarks, “the place is full of Arabs”.
As he and his Greek-Australian friends pass the cake shops and foreign faces of the mise en scène that codes the inhabitants as ethnic “others”, he yells racial abuse from the car window, a device used by Kokkinos to expose the city as a location for troubled multiculturalism.
In The Book of Revelation and Blessed, Kokkinos moves closer to the inner city, and these films are more centrally located there – as seen when Daniel (Tom Long) crosses the bridge over the Yarra River and into the midst of the city and then to the dim laneways of Melbourne in the former. This film sets up an opposition between gentrified Melbourne (signified by cafes and street performers), and the grunginess of the west (a contrast signified in terms of where the central character lives in each location). After his kidnap and rape, Daniel is dumped in the west of Melbourne like rubbish – perhaps signifying the west of the city as a wasteland. Somewhere between the city and the west is Port Melbourne, a place where Daniel has moments of solace as he gazes out to sea. The port is an important location for a particular generation of migrants: the site of arrival and hope. It is also seen in the finale of Head On. Set against a backdrop of Greek music, and inter-cut with stills of migrants arriving at a sea-port (evoked through the editing as Melbourne), Ari’s internal monologue allows the audience insights into what he has concluded from his journey: “I am not going to make a difference. I am not going to change a thing. No one’s going to remember me when I am dead;” which sounds bleak, but is an important concluding moment of self-acceptance.
Blessed tracks seven children roaming the streets of the city and suburbs over a 24-hour period (later recreating this time-frame from their mothers’ perspectives). That film, like Kokkinos’ others, foregrounds character types who are generally invisible, for instance Rhonda (Frances O’Connor), whose children end up on the streets and in care, and who is subjected to a string of violent partners. This may appear to offer another bleak perspective, but Kokkinos has two aspirations: firstly, to realistically represent what for her is a disadvantaged part of her city (lacking infrastructure, and the dilapidated home to the socially underprivileged), and secondly, to tell a story about mothers and hope – all Rhonda has is the children she was “blessed” with.
Kokkinos’ vision of Melbourne explores the characters’ lives in terms of their ethnic, cultural, sexual and class differences, ultimately offering audiences an opportunity to also understand the city they see in her films from the inside as she takes them through the streets and suburbs, its landmarks, its interiors and its psyche.
- Brian McFarlane, “All in the Family: Three Women Directors”, Meanjin vol. 69, no. 3, 2010: http://meanjin.com.au/editions/volume-69-number-3-2010/article/all-in-the-family-three-australian-women-directors/.
- McFarlane. This comment of having “nowhere to relax” was made in relation to Blessed, but I feel it applies to all of her films, and have cited this here to indicate that.
- Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993, p. 53.
- I have taught this film several times in the course “Australia Cinema” at RMIT and students frequently say this.
- Paul Kalina, “A Passionate Take”, The Age 10 October 2009: http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/film/a-passionate-take/2009/10/09/1255019609765.html.
- These are the features, Head On, The Book of Revelation, Blessed, and the short feature Only the Brave. I am calling Only the Brave a short feature as it had a theatrical and festival release as a short feature, and is 59 minutes in length. Head On is frequently referred to as her first feature.
- Kokkinos’ only sole writing credit is on her documentary The Original Mermaid (co-directed by Michael Cordell) in 2002. Mira Robertson is a creative and life partner.
- Another view of this is that the title of Executive Producer can indicate a commercial relationship rather than a position of power within the production.
- In Australia it is very common for practitioners to work in both film and television, and many well-known film directors are also television directors (e.g. Sue Brooks, Cate Shortland, David Caesar and Matt Saville).
- Pat Gillespie, “The New Breed of Ethnic Filmmakers”, Cinema Papers no. 90, October 1992, pp. 24-28.
- Chris Berry, “The Importance of Being Ari: Chris Berry Takes a Sideways Glance at Head On”, Metro no. 118, 1999, pp. 34-37.
- Kevin Thomas, “Collision With Life”, LA Times Weekend, p. 12.
- Tony Katsigiannis, “Ana Kokkinos – Her Journey from Melbourne’s Western Suburbs to Cannes”, Screen Director June-July 1998, p. 6.
- The rest of this article is a reworking (with permission of the editor and publisher) of Lisa French, “A View from the West: The Cinema of Ana Kokkinos”, World Film Locations: Melbourne, ed. Neil Mitchell, Intellect, Bristol, 2012, pp. 66-68.
- Rachel Power, “Blessed: An Interview with Ana Kokkinos”, Australian Film Institute, August 2009: http://www.afi.org.au/AM/ContentManagerNet/HTMLDisplay.aspx?ContentID=8365&Section=Blessed_an_interview_with_director_Ana_Kokkinos.
Ana Kokkinos Screenography (as director):
2013 The Time of Our Lives (TV Series) 4 Episodes
2012 Australia on Trial (TV Series) 1 Episode: “Massacre at Myall Creek”
2009 Blessed (Feature)
2006 The Book of Revelation (Feature)
2005 The Secret Life of Us (TV Series) 1 Episode: “The Mysteries of Attraction”
2004 The Secret Life of Us (TV Series) 1 Episode: “Stretching the Friendship”
2003 The Secret Life of Us (TV Series) 2 Episodes: “This is Now”, “The Art of Deception”
2002 The Original Mermaid (Documentary) (co-directed by Michael Cordell)
2002 Young Lions (TV Series) 2 Episodes: “Fruit Market Underworld”, “Boy School Bullies”
2000 Eugenie Sandler P. I. (TV Series) Seasons 1, Episodes 1-4
1998 Head On (Feature)
1994 Only the Brave (Short Feature)
1991 Antamosi (Short)