When attempting to pin down the essence of Greek cinema, one immediately understands that this is not an easy task. Widely misperceived, both by people who live within Greece’s borders and without, Greek Cinema is either completely ignored or deeply fragmented, as viewers and critics usually focus on one of its aspects or “waves”; looking at the tree instead of the forest.
But to comprehend this Mediterranean cinematic tradition, another question needs to be posed first: “What does it mean to be Greek?” That is the question that most Greek filmmakers have been tackling throughout the decades, and a response has not been found just yet. There is, of course, the concept of Hellenism, a theme notably dealt with directly by Michael Cacoyannis through Electra (1962) and Iphigenia (1977), or indirectly by Theo Angelopoulos and his constant retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Homer’s Odyssey. There’s Greek village life, depicted thoroughly on screen in bucolic melodramas during the first cinematic steps taken by filmmakers—after all, the first Greek feature film was Konstadinos Bahatoris’ Golfo (1914). There’s the bouzouki from Zorba’s Dance, perhaps the most globally known, infamous Greek song, composed by the recently deceased Mikis Theodorakis. There’s Greek coffee and food. And while every single thing just mentioned comes from the same, small, sunny country, one can also see that Greece is not one cultural thing; it’s a plethora of different things mashed together forming a national identity that, though collective in its loud, lively, loquacious existence, is also confusing. Even if Greeks instinctively answer to a collective “we”, the core of that “we” remains elusive.
After all, how can such a question be answered when the country has known nothing but political instability in different forms for decades if not centuries (if the invasion by the Ottoman Empire is added to the equation). A closer look at 20th century Greece will reveal the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the Metaxas Dictatorship, the German Occupation during the Second World War, the subsequent Civil War between the right-wing Greek government army and the Democratic Army of Greece formed by the Greek Communist Party—an event rarely mentioned—a military dictatorship formed by the Regime of the Colonels, and an inevitable financial crisis, which, although it emerged in 2008, was years in the making—its starting point was 1981, the year Andreas Papandreou was elected Prime Minister for the first time.
In fact, that prominent presence of political uncertainty has automatically meant that funding for film production has been tenuous if not outright non-existent. War-ridden years aside, there were times that the Greek government chose not to support cinema and especially certain filmmakers due to ideological clashes made adamantly clear through the existence of strict censorship, as the state aimed at reinventing the past instead of calling it what it was: ugly and occasionally cruel. Feeling that their voice should not be limited by the state, directors such as Angelopoulos sought private funding. Thirty years later and filmmakers like Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari were facing similar financial problems. For that reason, they started supporting each other; Tsangari produced Lanthimos’ Kinetta (2005), Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011), and he, in return, produced and had a role in Attenberg (2010). They adapted to a hostile environment and survived.
With all that in mind, it’s no surprise that Greek Cinema is, at its core, political, somehow often addressing the freedom/oppression binary. It brings to the fore ideological exasperation with the government officials, and expresses past traumas of national catastrophes especially after 1949, the end of the Civil War. Besides the upbeat musicals that existed to appease a nation that was tired of all the blood and hardship, the Golden Age of Greek cinema—i.e. films made during the 1950s and 1960s (right up to the junta years)—also included serious film noirs and melodramas, some of which questioned the issue of belonging and alienation (i.e. Otherness) and the implications of freedom such a theme addresses. Moving forward to the next decade, a new cinematic wave emerged, introducing the radical use of aesthetics and ideology criticize the oppressive rule of Georgios Papadopoulos (whether directly or implicitly): New Greek Cinema. The most notable representative is none other than Angelopoulos whose films Reconstruction (1970), Days of ‘36 (1972), The Travelling Players (1975) etc., brought about a unique cinematic gaze that would change how Greek cinema is viewed forever.
Besides taking a stand against totalitarian regimes, the question of freedom can be addressed in unconventional ways as well, as is the case with Greek cinema these past few years—a strand too easily labeled Greek Weird Wave, and too frequently deemed a mere product of a country in crisis. Examples vary from identity as a form of prison (Babis Makridis’s Pity and Birds), house as a cage (Alexandros Avranas’s Miss Violence) and the cinematic universe itself (Lanthimos’s Dogtooth), but no matter the diverse details, the focus remains the same: the essence of freedom or lack thereof.
Stefan Goncharov dives into a thorough discussion of Yannis Economides’s nihilistic filmography, explores the gap between the existential and the social, and comes out the other end having witnessed how a disintegrating public sphere may have severe, brutal repercussions on the individual psyche of the modern Greek.
Savina Petkova offers a fresh and insightful take on Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010) and Chevalier (2015) by using the lens of suspicion to flesh out the confining experiences one goes through while thinking everything is potentially harmful and/or deceitful.
Maximilien Luc Proctor, immersed in the hypnotic mise-en-scène of Theo Angelopoulos’s Eternity and a Day (1998), shares his ruminations on (re)discovering the essence of time, while following a tormented protagonist trying to free himself from the burdens of the world of the living.
Alonso Aguilar skillfully dissects the works of Nikos Koundouros and Michael Cacoyannis, and reports back with information on how these two directors, though undoubtedly influenced by film noir and melodrama respectively, transcended those cinematic traditions by establishing their own distinct Greek gaze, freeing themselves from filmic tropes and cultural expectations in the process.
Michaël Van Remoortere looks into the Greek myth of Medea by focusing on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969), and discovers at the core of the tragedy, the essence of female oppression.
Uncertainty breeds confusion, an anarchic chaos that builds day by day. Instead of drowning in it, Greek filmmakers, throughout the years, engrave their own political, visual language on a global wall. Half the time misunderstood, but nonetheless in full existence. Almost always addressing the same collective question from different angles and techniques, they trace their origin in different Greek sources. Ancient temples, rural Northern Greek landscapes and Athenian urban grayness—it’s all the same though very different. Even when resources have been scarce, or completely absent, they find a way to keep on shooting. They create something out of nothing. It’s almost as if they’re saying “let there be (cinematic) light”.