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Hostage to Cinema: Constantine Giannaris


Constantine Giannaris is one of Greece’s most noted film directors currently.  Audiences in Melbourne are aware, through the Greek Film Festival, of his three main feature films, From the Edge of the City (1998), One Day in August (2001), and his latest one, Hostage (2005), which is part of the current season “Focus on the Greek Diaspora” at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (go to www.acmi.net.au for more details).


Giannaris was actually born in Sydney, in 1959, but his family left for Greece soon after.  As a young man, he then left Greece to study History and Economics in England, and then made his first short films in his mid-20s.  In a way, it was a natural progression for him.


“I was always into politics,” he says, “since being an adolescent, but I then dropped out of organised, parliamentary politics in the Greece and UK.  Using film was a medium for me to get certain ideas across.  I was heavily involved in issues around the body politic, sexual politics, in the ‘80s, early ‘90s, which climaxed in that whole realm of queer politics, queer cinema, in the UK.  My early shorts are all related around homoerotic subjects.”


Of course, we as an audience here in Melbourne haven’t seen these short films of his.  And it would seem that queer issues as such are not really at the forefront of his features From the Edge of the City and Hostage, which seem to revolve more around social issues.  But he disagrees.


“For me, queer issues are pertinent in the features.  In my first feature, Three Steps to Heaven, made for the British Film Institute and Channel 4, in 1995, that was quintessentially a queer film in the sense that it was refusing to take political correctness seriously, and was undermining gay bourgeois identity.  From the Edge of the City is definitely a queer film, as it’s about young men who are prostituting themselves, and that’s mixed up with identity, what it means to be queer, straight, Greek, Russian, what it means to be a foreign, an other, which I think is at the very core of what I consider queer politics.  The next feature, One Day in August, moves away from that, to a more metaphysical direction, the matter of personal odyssey, and questions like ‘Is there a God?’, what is the notion of miracle, miracle as a daily thing in our lives.  Hostage is a continuation of the queer theme, but in an attenuated form – it has to do very much with the notion of male identity, violated male identity, the state or whatever imposing itself upon the body, in this case the body of a young Albanian.”


Does he think audiences can really grasp that kind of subtext – surely the social issue of the Albanian immigrant in Greece is the more pertinent thing audiences are engaging with, especially considering the story is based on an actual event that happened in 1999?


“Well, hopefully the film works on different levels,” Giannaris continues.  “For me, this is the level I’m interested in, about the body.  As I saw the real-life event played out on television, it seemed obvious to me that it was about how this man had been raped.  So for the mainstream Greek audience this person, the character on screen, represents the whole threat of a young proletarian male, without familial ties, etc.  So the police state then steps in.  This is a very traumatic event for the Greek psyche, the threat of the Balkan, marauder, bandit, amartalo, klefti, especially the Albanian.  But of course the film can be read on many levels – it’s a critique of Greek society, the reaction of Greeks to the Albanian.  The film got massive publicity, and there was a huge outcry.”


Was he expecting that?  “I certainly wasn’t expecting it to that level.  It really threw me.  It created a real furore.  There were neo-Nazis and far right demonstrations outside cinemas, bomb threats in Thessaloniki.”


There is a large realm of filmmaking, especially documentary and social realist narrative work, which genuinely believes film can both reflect and affect life – that reality and cinema can impact on each other.  Giannaris, especially with Hostage, seems to fall into this realm.  I ask him if he believes in social change, or awareness, through film.


“I think unfortunately I do,” he admits.  “I know it’s not particularly fashionable, but I do.  It surprised me, but I was actually pleased with the response the film got – the film obviously hit a raw nerve, people weren’t able to accept it.”


Purely on a formal level, the film is an interesting and ambitious work because it actually combines psychological elements with a thriller plot.


“I think,” Giannaris explains, “that all my films combine things in such a way.  One Day in August is a melodrama, but it also fragments the narrative into four parts, in an artistic way.  From the Edge of the City is very much a youth genre film, rock’n’roll, drugs, but within that it has formal concerns, to deconstruct things.  Part of the problem with my work is that it’s actually neither arthouse or commercial, but that’s what I like to do, to merge things.”


From my perspective, Greek cinema is a little like Australian cinema – there’s an insularity, and it’s difficult to make films, and internationally there’s little recognition, either artistically or commercially.  What are Giannaris’ thoughts on Greek cinema at the moment?


“I think the problem with Greek cinema is that it was recognised in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with Cacoyannis, Angelopoulos.  And it was a period where Greece was interesting politically, with the dictatorship, the political movements, the left, the students.  Since then, there’s nothing particularly fascinating about Greek society.  And there’s the situation now with Greek film funding which basically produces the ‘bastard auteur’ – everybody wants to be Angelopoulos, they ape that kind of thing, and that fails, because there was only one Angelopoulos.”

I ask Giannaris whether he is working on a new project at the moment.


“Yes,” he says.  “It’s a European co-production, in English, about an oil tanker, where the captain rescues what he thinks are a group of Mediterranean / North African fishermen, but it turns out they are illegal Iraqi immigrants, mainly 12 – 18-year-old teens.  The film is about the relationship between the captain, the kids, the crew, in that confined social environment of the oil tanker.”

How advanced is the project?  “The script is locked off.  We have a third of the money, and immediately after this trip to Australia I’m off to a co-production market in Berlin, where I’m hopeful to lock in two other co-producers.  We could be shooting at the end of the year.”


So far, Giannaris has managed to make several features of interest, and this latest project would continue his trajectory through his cinema career.  He has a set of concerns which he is exploring with every work, which is the mark of any good filmmaker.


© Bill Mousoulis January 2008.
This report first appeared in Neos Kosmos.