The “Greek Weird Wave” just got weirder. Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence (first unveiled at Venice) had its premiere screening on home soil at this year’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF) and promptly catalysed a hot-bed of discussion that will no doubt be continuing well into the new year. On the surface, the film is a stunning critique of male-instigated power abuse and female victimhood, delivered with stylistic bravura and formal confidence, but, under the surface, the film is very problematic when examined contextually, within current Greek cinema.
Looking at the film as an object in its own right, one finds a tense and intense portrait of a Greek family utterly dominated by its patriarch. The jigsaw pieces come together only towards the end of the narrative, but we know from the opening scene (the suicide of one of the young girls) that something is seriously amiss in the household of this family. The father abuses (sexually and in every other way) his wife, daughters, and, finally, his granddaughter, who is only 8 years old. As this jigsaw comes together, Avranas ups the tempo and swings modes, from suggestion to actual direct presentations of the abuse. It’s not for the faint-hearted. We see men as opportunistic, cynical, monstrous beasts, and the women as compliant, helpless, frail victims. Feminists, look away. In fact, it’s a portrait of sadism not far removed from Pasolini’s Salò (1975).
Stylistically, the film is curious. It relies mainly on a stylisation of acting and movement, using inexpressiveness to create tension in the viewer. But in the face of the more direct moments in the film (as discussed), which are very powerful, the stylisation looks disingenuous and misguided. It’s as if Avranas wanted to have his cake and eat it too. At its most stylised moments, the film is almost like a cartoon, and that does a disservice to it. More damning, the film, despite its strong content, has no soul, no “human spirit”, no rebellion, love, hope. There is only the (beautifully comic) moment when the mother has some beer and pizza, and the moment when she finally snaps and kills her husband. Overall, the film is bold but also somewhat deficient.
And, as mentioned above, the film is also problematic when examined in context with other recent Greek films. It seems to be a copy, or at best an alternate version, of Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009). When Dogtooth broke through in 2009, it seemed to trigger a number of other “weird” Greek films into existence: ATTENBERG (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010), Alps (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2011), Boy Eating the Bird’s Food (Ektoras Lygizos, 2012), L (Babis Makridis, 2012), Joy (Elias Giannakakis, 2012), all of which could be bundled under the “Greek Weird Wave” banner, but all of which had their own individual personality (for better or for worse). Miss Violence, however, seems to simply re-arrange the themes and style of Dogtooth, just ditching the black humour and post-modernisms.
Avranas, who prior to this made the underwhelming Without (2008), was in attendance at the festival, and proved to be a hyper, outspoken character, defensively deflecting any questions about Dogtooth (“My film is more realistic”) and also proclaiming that Greece had no good filmmakers whatsoever from 1980 to 2008, that it is only he, Lanthimos, Tsangari, and other current young directors that are finally doing something for Greek cinema. This, of course, is a typical myopia brought about by a certain “arrogance of youth”, from someone revelling in his spotlight (awards won at Venice). History stands however, and one can list many directors who have made at least one masterpiece in Avranas’ “blighted” period: Angelopoulos, Voulgaris, Ferris, Papatakis, Nikolaidis, Panayotopoulos, Marketaki, Giannaris, Athanitis, Economides. How will history remember Avranas?
The festival screened eight Greek films in total, with the other really interesting work being I Teleftaia Farsa (One Last Joke) from Vassilis Raisis, who debuted with the charming Elvis’ Last Song in 2009. Raisis is an antithesis and perhaps antidote to the “oh-so-serious” Greek scene currently (apart from Miss Violence, international festivals have also seen two other Greek films featuring violence and alienation in recent months – Luton by Michalis Konstantatos and September by Penny Panayotopoulou). Imagine an American indie like Richard Linklater (his early work) or Andrew Bujalski dropping into the Greek scene, and you pretty much have Vassilis Raisis. One Last Joke has three distinct sections to it, each of interest: it starts off as a witty, whacky, fast-paced look at the shenanigans of a group of eccentric scientists, who in their spare time like to play pranks on believers of the supernatural, and it then goes into a love story between one of the scientists and a cancer victim, and it then concludes with a 1st person video diary (seemingly a suicide note) full of metaphysical ruminations and personal recollections. It’s a good mix of comedy and tragedy, and, the crucial point, it holds the interest because it doesn’t try to be a “big” film – Raisis shoots on low-quality DV equipment, and most of the actors look like ordinary people, creating a very life-like effect (but there is one flaw here – a commercial actress, Marina Kalogirou, is cast as the cancer victim, and she spoils the feel somewhat). Raisis is a director to watch. He could go all commercial (let’s not forget that Greece has a moribund commercial cinema, full of abysmal comedies) or could carve a real name for himself as a “Greek indie” filmmaker, a breath of fresh air on the Greek scene.
The other Greek films, just quickly: I aionia epistrofi tou Antoni Paraskeva (The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas, Elina Psikou) is clearly another Weird Wave offshoot, with its Haneke-art style and utilisation of Dogtooth’s patriarch (Christos Stergioglou), but it really just fails to get off the ground, none of its scenes having much resonance or spark to them; Na kathesai kai na koitas (Standing Aside, Watching, Giorgos Servetas) is an occasionally powerful, occasionally middling story of a fiery young woman clashing with a small town’s array of troubled or sick people; O heimonas (The Winter, Konstantinos Koutsoliotas) combines fantasy and reality, and has some great effects, but it never seems to settle properly and find a particular tone or meaning; Wild Duck (Yannis Sakaridis) contains a good story (about a man’s conscience driving him to help the community), but its fractured time structure robs it of narrative and existential energy; O Profitis (The Prophet, Dimitris Poulos) is full of interesting themes (war, religion, family), but as cinema it is completely lacking, being too literal and theatrical.
With the demise of TIFF’s brilliant sections Experimental Forum (programmed by Vassily Bourikas) and Independence Days (programmed by Lefteris Adamidis), I focused on the Balkan Cinema section this year, and this was a real highlight. Programmed by Dimitri Kerkinos, the Balkan Survey featured many new films, but also a stack of masterpieces from 1994 onwards (the first year TIFF started featuring Balkan films in a section of their own).
Two of the new films were superb: Jîn (Reha Erdem) and Când se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism (When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism) by Corneliu Porumboiu. Porumboiu is the director of Police, Adjective (2009), a beautifully controlled and mysterious film about police work. The new film is still a surprise though: a relaxed, intelligent observational study of a film director and his actress. The opening shot of the film sets the tone, as we hear the director’s apologia for a plan-sequence cinema, using 35mm’s 11-minute roll length. So, of course, we then see a number of 11-minute shots for the rest of the film. But they are not virtuoso shots, they are calm. And the content is not dramatic, but it is also not minimalist. It’s in the mode of, as they say, Rohmer or Hong (see below) – small shifts, small tensions, the beauty of dialoguing with another person, the pleasure of walking into a room, the grace of living one’s life. The Romanian directors of recent times obviously have a love of realism, and a love of experimenting with it. To have a 90 minute film that is akin to a neutral recording of some moments in the lives of some characters, without having anything dramatic happening in the film – well, this is a very interesting exercise.
Reha Erdem’s last film was Kosmos (2010), a transcendental work about a shaman figure connecting with the world and coming off second best. Jîn also features an unusual protagonist – a teenage girl who is actually a Kurdish guerilla fighter. But the film is not political, or a war film. There is a magnificent focus on the land – the mountains she hides out in, the valleys where she forages for food, the roads she feels lost on. We see her at one with nature, and with the animals in the woods. Erdem practically creates a magical fairy land, but one punctuated by the unforgiving blasts of bombs and gunfire. It’s an impressive, atmospheric film, but one somewhat flawed by Erdem’s inability to translate the girl’s desires to us, the audience. Her movements are oblique, shadowy, we don’t know her feelings and motivations. An unusual misjudgment from a talented filmmaker.
One of Erdem’s previous films was featured in the retrospective Balkan section: Bes vakit (Times and Winds, 2006). It is a subtle and poetic rites-of-passage story set in rural Turkey, the film where Erdem found his distinctive voice. Two other Turkish films from noted auteurs were in the retrospective section: Semih Kaplanoglu’s Süt (Milk, 2008), a rich story of a young man’s quest to become a poet, done with sharp social observation by the director, but degenerating into hazy symbolism by the end, a device that also marred the director’s next film, Mal (Honey, 2010); and Kasaba (Small Town, 1997) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the director’s debut feature, already displaying his steady hand and broad compassion.
And I also saw two Romanian classics in this retrospective: Balanta (The Oak, Lucian Pintilie, 1992) is a completely manic and surreal story of two anarchic individuals as they find themselves in one grotesque situation after the other, in a kind of socio-political critique from the director mixed with a Buñuelian provocation, where everything and the kitchen sink get thrown in; and Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Cristi Puiu, 2005), surely a masterpiece of realist filmmaking, its 150 minutes flowing like one long, unbroken shot in an impressive construction by Puiu, who marries the formal design with an acute observation in the content, presenting us with misery, chaos, stupidity, but also grace, compassion and an unexpected peace.
TIFF’s main section, Open Horizons, was a disappointment this year. It is within this section that I hoped to see new works by established auteurs, such as Denis, Reygadas, Dumont. Instead there seemed to be too many works from younger directors. I caught some of the titles: Nugu-ui ttal-do anin Haewon (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon) is a delightful film from the South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, the story of a female student’s “sentimental education” as it were, as she traverses through reality, fantasy, and dreams, we viewers never quite sure what we are watching; Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (TIFF’s Opening Night film) is an engaging and drily humorous alternative vampire film, Tilda Swinton melding perfectly into the languid yet tense atmosphere of the whole piece; Night Moves is from a director (Kelly Reichardt) I’ve heard good things about but not seen, so I was curious to see it, but whilst the film is engaging with its ethical probing, I found the style quite laborious and lifeless; The Kampala Story (Kasper Bisgaard & Donald Mugisha) is a good little film (60 minutes long) about a teenage girl in Uganda trying to help her family out, directed in a simple, direct manner, utilising documentary elements within its fiction.
It must be said again – considering the impact of the financial crisis on Greece, TIFF is a great success, continually. It is a well-organised festival in a beautiful setting, and it is large enough for there always to be something good for the viewer to watch. As noted, the Balkan Cinema and Greek Cinema sections were the real highlights of the festival in 2013. It seems that this year’s festival actually had a streamlined Greek section, with only 8 films programmed (there were many others available only in the Agora), but they were a great representation of all current Greek cinema, not just the “Weird Wave”. So, Greek films continue to get made, despite the crisis, and the festival continues to exist. Great Greek spirit all round!
Thessaloniki International Film Festival
1-10 November 2013
Festival website: http://www.filmfestival.gr/default.aspx?lang=en-US