The writings of Bill Mousoulis
Your Film Language Greek?
Is your film language Greek? Is our film language Greek?
What do I mean by the words "film language"? Do I mean the language spoken in a film, or the film’s grammar, its style, its form?
What I want to do with this paper is look at some broad areas in relation to the work of Greek-Australian film-makers. Areas, questions, such as: What does it mean to be a Greek film-maker in Australia? What does it mean to be a 2nd generation Greek film-maker in Australia? Does this Greekness, this cultural background, have an influence on the work produced? Does it in fact determine the language in the films, the philosophies, the ideas, the feelings in the films? And if so, does it make these films then somehow special and different, and indeed even better, than your average run-of-the-mill Australian film?
And I want to also pose a question regarding the audience for these films. Is it only Greeks who can understand these "Greek" films?
Firstly, a brief overview of the Greek-Australian film scene. In my booklet A Guide to Greek-Australian Film-makers (published in 1999 by the Antipodes Festival), I list 56 Greek-Australian film-makers who have directed at least one short film in Australia over the past 30 years. It is a listing of directors only (not writers or producers), and it does not include those who have directed only educational, corporate, TV, music clips, etc. It is a listing of those who have directed what we normally think of as "films" – fiction (short or feature length), documentary, experimental, but also video art films.
Of these 56 directors, 11 of them have directed at least one feature-length film. Including two productions undertaken this year (but not completed) and excluding Hollywood/overseas films (such as Dark City [Alex Proyas, 1998]), this makes for 22 feature films.
How does this fare in terms of equitable representation of Greek-Australians in the industry? In the past 20 years, 4% of all features made in this country were directed by Greeks. If we look at the figures for the past 5 years, however, this figure jumps to 7%. The Greek NESB (non-English speaking background) population is around 3%, so one would have to say that the representation is more than fair. Compare it with the Italian situation, where the Italian NESB population is approximately double that of the Greek one and yet only Monica Pellizarri and Luigi Acquisto spring to mind as Italian-Australian feature film-makers.
My research into this field could not unearth any names from the ‘50s and ‘60s, let alone from any earlier period. Compare this with the case of Giorgio Mangiamelie, who made films in Australia as a 1st Generation adult Italian in the ‘60s, films far more in line with the work of Fellini, Bellochio, De Sica, than with any Australian work. (Giorgio actually suffered tremendous neglect as a film-maker at the time, including the ridiculous situation of the Australian government not supporting the acceptance of his film Clay (1965) into the Cannes Film Festival – perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that no Greek was making films at the time!)
And so Greek-Australian film-making begins in the '70s, with substantial assimilation already in place. The "first" film-maker was John Papadopoulos, and his story seems to recall Giorgio’s somewhat. Born in 1948 in Greece, he came here in 1952, fought as an Australian soldier in Vietnam in the late ‘60s, before then making some short films in the ‘70s (one of which I’ve seen, and it is intense and searing). His last film was made in 1978, and he hasn’t made one since, a career over at 30.
Also in the ‘70s, a number of other careers begin, and they continue to this day: that of the visual artist Nicholas Nedelkopoulos, working exclusively in Super 8; George Miller, of whom everybody knows; and Michael Karris, a film-maker with an intriguing body of work to his name, work of great variety and integrity, but with no feature film credit as yet.
In the ‘80s, a number of film-makers hit the mainstream, directing pretty much commercial features: Nadia Tass, Lex Marinos, Alex Proyas, John Tatoulis. At the underground/independent level, a number of other figures simultaneously emerge: the video artist Peter Callas; the Super 8 film-makers Phillip Kanlidis and myself; and the short and documentary film director Anna Kannava.
But it is now in the ‘90s where we see the full flowering of 2nd Generation Greek-Australian film-makers. After directing only one or two shorts, the following have made features in this decade: Kay Pavlou, Aleksi Vellis, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stavros Efthymiou (now Kazantzidis), and Ana Kokkinos. These film-makers are more idiosyncratic and edgy than their ‘80s counterparts, and there are a number of other similarly sharp and "modern" directors right behind them, currently making a heap of short films: Spiro Economopoulos, Christos Tsiolkas, Christina Heristanidis, Tim Spanos, Jim Stamatakos, George Goularas, Daniel Kotsanis, Fionn Skiotis, John Tsialos, the list goes on and on (there are film students from the past couple of years not yet listed in my guide).
Now for the first crucial question: have these film-makers explored "Greek" subject matter in their films? For the feature films, the answer is a resounding no. From Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) to The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990) to Mary (Kay Pavlou, 1994) to Everynight, Everynight (Alkinos Tsilimidos, 1994) to whichever other one you care to mention, no, no, no, and more nos. Only Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998) qualifies here. For the short films, the situation is much better. Kokkinos’ two shorts Antamosi (1991) and Only the Brave (1994), Pavlou’s The Killing of Angelo Tsakos (1989), Tsilimidos’ Man of Straw (1988), the work of Anna Kannava and Michael Karris, some of the other shorts – here we get explorations of Greek subject matter.
If we explore the work of all these Greek-Australian film-makers at the thematic and formal levels, however, we get more interesting results, even when the subject matter is not "Greek".
For those film-makers who do put the Greekness in the subject matter, obviously the relevant themes revolve around issues such as migration, assimilation, racism, identity, cultural dislocation. A film like Head On actually tackles most of these, and throws in issues of sexuality and youth culture to boot. It is an admirable film, with a great central idea, that of a youth relentlessly living out a search for himself, life, experience. It is such a pity then that the film is so flawed by bad writing (stereotypes used, problematic timelines, inauthentic social detail) and rudimentary directing (sledgehammer visuals and aurals, flat emotions).
Ana Kokkinos has actually explored the genre of the family drama in her short films, and it is surprising that hardly any other of these film-makers have approached this area (family dramas are so relevant to Greek lives – all of us who are Greek know what a drama our families can be). Michael Karris is one of the very few, with his short film A Face of Greekness (1979). This film has the power and subtlety that Head On lacks. From its clever title to its almost phenomenological gazing at the Greek face, this film captures a family’s pain at their daughter’s rape with depth and compassion.
Displacement and identity are explored by Anna Kannava in her autobiographical documentary Ten Years After … Ten Years Older (1986), where she returns to Cyprus ten years after migrating to Australia at the age of 15. Anna is a very individual and sweet film-maker, her work is infused with love and grace. Other films that explore themes of displacement and identity are two works shown on SBS-TV in 1998: Fionn Skiotis and Lisa Horler’s Levantes (1998), which caused some controversy in the Greek community with its slightly anti-nationalist sentiments; and Christina Heristanidis’ Omelette – A Multicultural Love Story (1998), where the film-maker documents her marriage to a Skip.
But the best film concerned with displacement is Michael Karris’ Two Homelands (1979). This is an incredible film, supposedly a very simple half-hour documentation of a concert given by Savvas Christodoulo at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in the late ‘70s, but in reality very much more. For a start, it was shot on film, with different camera set-ups, and it was then edited according to an ambitious plan which might have backfired completely. Basically, the concert footage is alternated with photos and film footage of people in Greece, and these photo sequences are segued into the music with some very dramatic poetry readings, in an attempt to reach cathartic heights of emotion. In lesser hands this would have seemed sentimental; as it stands, it is an unbearably moving film, and I would recommend any film programmer to drag it out of the cupboard for a screening.
Interestingly, the themes of displacement, assimilation and racism are in some of the films of the film-makers under discussion here but in films that do not have Greek subject matter. The work of Stavros Efthymiou, for example, is totally about displacement. And aren’t the main characters of The Life of Harry Dare (Aleksi Vellis, 1995) (a blackfella) and Everynight … Everynight (a jailbird) underdogs, outsiders, the dispossessed (i.e. like so many of the initial migrants to this land)?
Now I would like to briefly explore the more formal and structural areas of these Greek-Australian films, the areas where the deeper philosophical things lie, as it is these areas that yield the richest results.
Firstly, a few words about "Hellenic sensibility", as it is labelled. For me, Hellenic sensibility is wonderful because it seems to be about, on the one hand, a kind of deep, serious thinking and questioning, and, on the other hand, a full on emoting and feeling through of things. There are three originating streams here: (1) The philosophers – from the pre-Socratics, with their incredible wish to think about life and the naïve but evocative visions they came up with, to the Socratics with their relentless dialogueing, to the Aristotelians with their notions of study and analysis, these philosophers were active beyond compare. (2) The tragedians – they combined great feeling with great order, or, to quote Nietzsche, Dionysian states (dance, music, laughter, sex) with Apollinian ones (calm, forgiveness, grace). (3) Homer – here we have the ideas of the hero and the journey, a hero who is very conscious of life, its ebbs and flows, who lives very much a heightened existence. Of course, Western philosophy and thought and modes of being have been saturated with these three streams, but one cannot help feeling that these things exist in a somewhat diluted form today in Western thought, drama, life.
The pure versions of these things are great, and I see them in the work of these Greek-Australian film-makers. Look at a film like Thug (1998), by Spiro Economopoulos and Christos Tsiolkas. One of the modes that the film utilises is that of the essay mode, with its Socratic-like questioning. This is a film that has an edge. Head On was based on a novel by Christos, and it is the one good thing about that film: that biting, free voice, far from all those rosy-coloured voice-overs we normally hear in Australian films. Levantes also has a similar quality, as does John Conomos’ Autumn Song (1997), another essayistic and poetic exploration of displacement, memory, identity. Also, The Killing of Angelo Tsakos is in the mode of an investigation, and one only has to meet film-makers such as Alan Tsilimidos, Aleksi Vellis, even Ana Kokkinos, to see how they have attitude, edge, unlike many other Australian film-makers.
A deep sense of tragedy infuses the aforementioned A Face of Greekness, but it can also be found in spades in Tsilimidos’ short Man of Straw. This is a half-hour black-and-white documentary about that well-known type, the Greek male gambler. The camera follows the one man around as he, you guessed it, loses all his money at the racetrack. It is a devastating portrait.
Dionysian qualities abound in some of the films under discussion. One would have thought that Head On could have qualified as a "Dionysian" film, what with its rush of sex, drugs and music, but it doesn’t because there is no celebration of life, no joy, no love, in the film. Ari may go on ride, and feel himself through his soul thorougly, but in the end it’s more like a "Gen X" film than a "2nd Gen" one. One has to look elsewhere: the Super 8 work of the dancer Christos Linou; the celebration of queerness in Tim Spanos’ work; the relentless filming of the film-maker’s dog in Dog Film (1989); the expanded cinema work of Daniel Kotsanis, where he throws himself into the projecting of his films, playing them backwards, moving the projector around, performing live alongside it all, etc.; and, oddly enough, Anna Kannava’s Vanilla Essence (1989), with its elegaic joy rising from its comic machinations.
As for Apollinian qualities, not too many seem to be in evidence in these Greek-Australian films. Perhaps only my work qualifies, with its reflective and still elements. The one film that combines philosophical, tragic, Dionysian and Apollinian states is the aforementioned Two Homelands. Here is a film that is tragic, that is full of life, full of feeling, and yet it is also calm in the way it looks at all these things.
Are these "Hellenic" films better than other films? I would say they are, because of the extremes of feeling and thought that reside within them. But then again, I am biased – I favour independent and experimental and art films to mainstream ones. The work of Nadia Tass or John Tatoulis for example – it seems to me quite conventional, not really getting into any edgy, provocative areas.
I guess the hope now is that some of these younger Greek-Australian film-makers can develop to the point where they can become comparable to, say, European art film directors, such as Theo Angelopoulos, Lars Von Trier, Bernardo Bertolucci, Claude Chabrol, people like that. Kokkinos herself has expressed a love for the work of Tarkovsky and Bresson, so let us hope she will steer towards those waters (her debut feature is nothing like the work of those auteurs).
Finally, can one view films from or through this "Hellenic sensibility"? Of course one can! But it is getting harder and harder to do so these days, what with the American domination of our screens reaching ridiculous levels. The two primary modes of watching created by American films revolve around fantasy and tension (or sex and violence), the dumbest of emotional capacities.
Perhaps we Greeks are able to see things others cannot. And maybe then it is our responsibility to not let that seeing die. Maybe we can advise others on how to look, how to feel, when it comes to watching certain films.
Overall, I consider myself an Australian, but I’d like to think that, when it comes to my film language, I am Greek.
This paper was given at the "Hellenic Culture in the Antipodes" conference,
Sydney, November 12-14, 1999.
See also A Guide to Greek-Australian Film-makers
© Bill Mousoulis November 1999