The writings of Bill Mousoulis
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 grand-daughter, 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 8 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, someone who is a breath of fresh air on the Greek scene.
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 this year 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).
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.
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 the 2013 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!
© Bill Mousoulis 2013.
This report first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.69, November 2013.