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Greek cinema fights to rise from ruins

A new generation of innovative Greek filmmakers is flying in the face of funding cuts and declining ticket sales

ATHENS, Greece — The crowd arrived early on a balmy night in this ancient Mediterranean city, a mix of millennial hipsters, film-school geeks and middle-aged couples talking softly in the shadows of floodlit ruins. Visitors approaching the venue were gently rebuffed by a beefy security guard, forcing them to wait and smoke off to the side — two things at which Greeks have become especially adept as their country trudges through a protracted political and economic crisis.

While the atmosphere was relaxed, it was possible to glimpse the dour mood of recent months. Among the film industry professionals who gathered for the event, producer Amanda Livanou lit a cigarette, took a drag, and sighed.

“I think everyone is exhausted and fed up,” she said. “I can sense a mood of helplessness.”

The night, hosted by the Hellenic Film Academy, was meant to showcase the slate of local releases that would be hitting Greek screens in the fall. For many, the scene was a reminder that Greek cinema has enjoyed an unexpected flourishing throughout the years of the crisis, ever since Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2009 and earned a foreign-language Oscar nomination. The film, about the disturbing day-to-day dynamics of a family kept captive by an overbearing father, brought to the screen an eccentric, darkly comic voice that would soon inspire other directors, and give rise to a new, strange movement — what one critic dubbed the “Greek Weird Wave.”

But while a generation of Greek filmmakers has found critical acclaim abroad, a more sobering reality faces them at home. For an industry that has traditionally relied on strong government support, Greece’s economic free-fall — and the harsh austerity measures that followed in its wake — have left many feeling as if they’re aboard a sinking ship.

Amanda Livanou
Courtesy Amanda Livanou

“There hasn’t been proper funding,” said Livanou, who’s currently in production with “Park,” a film by the first-time director Sofia Exarchou. She pointed to some of the challenges facing Greek filmmakers today: uncertainty at the state-funded Greek Film Center and the state broadcaster ERT, traditionally major sources of financing; strict capital controls that limit the amount of money Greeks can send abroad and withdraw from ATMs, and have crippled low-budget filmmakers; the government’s decision in August to lift the so-called “audience tax” on movie ticket sales — money which had historically been used to finance films.

In such a grim climate, said Livanou, filmmakers have been forced to adapt — and to plow forward to get their movies made. For “Park,” she said, “we just found some private money and we went ahead.”

Fewer and fewer Greek filmmakers, though, have managed to persevere in recent years. After 31 feature films were released domestically in 2011, just 17 hit the screens in 2014. Most of the roughly two dozen features previewed by the Hellenic Film Academy that night would be lucky to get even a limited theatrical release, according to producer Maria Drandaki.

Audiences are dwindling, too. From a peak of almost 12 million tickets sold in 2010, fewer than 9 million were sold last year. “The market has shrunk a lot since five years ago,” said Drandaki. “The last five years, more money comes from abroad… and less from the Greek box office.”

Surveying the spirited crowd, Drandaki looked resigned. “The [financial] situation was not very glowing before,” she said. “But now, it’s gotten even worse.”

When the crisis hit, and Greece started becoming world news … suddenly you had these new directors struggling to make these weird, strange, idiosyncratic, politically charged films.

Syllas Tzoumerkas

director

For many, Greece’s greatest contribution to world cinema was Anthony Quinn’s indelible turn as a middle-aged peasant with a lust for life in “Zorba the Greek,” Michael Cacoyannis’ 1964 adaption of the classic novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. At the time of its release, Greek cinema was at the height of its golden age — an era marked by large-scale studio productions of Hollywood-style musicals and romantic comedies.

Just three years later, though, a military junta toppled the government, and under the watchful eye of censors, the film industry declined. It would be nearly a decade before the junta fell and rumblings of life returned to the cinema, most notably with the rise of Theo Angelopoulos, widely considered to be the country’s greatest filmmaker. In the early ‘80s, film was revived again when former actress Melina Mercouri was selected as Minister of Culture, ensuring that Greek filmmakers would enjoy substantial government support in the years that followed.

But with the industry heavily subsidized by the government, Greek cinema lapsed into its “stone age,” according to film critic Christos Mitsis, a period marked by art-house movies more suited to the classroom than the theater. An old guard dominated by powerful labor unions was entrenched at the Greek Film Center, controlling the purse strings that largely dictated which movies could get made. Among the younger generation of filmmakers, a growing mood of defiance began to brew, with many feeling that corruption and cronyism were preventing new voices from emerging.

A still from Yorgos Lanthimos's "Dogtooth," with Aggeliki Papoulia (center), Mary Tsoni (right). Courtesy Everett Collection/Kino International.
Kino International / Everett Collection

That defiance came to a head in 2009, when dozens of actors, directors and producers boycotted the 50th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the country’s longest-running and most prestigious festival. Calling themselves “Filmmakers in the Mist” — a riff on the endangered apes of “Gorillas in the Mist” — the group lashed out at the government’s slow-moving efforts to overhaul film legislation. They urged officials to introduce financial incentives for local producers, enforce a legal mandate stipulating that TV stations invest 1.5 percent of their annual net revenue in new film productions, and end the political meddling that was hampering industry growth.

The dramatic revolt occured when the global recession was starting to take its toll on the Greek economy, and the country was making headlines around the world. “When the crisis hit, and Greece started becoming world news … suddenly you had these new directors struggling to make these weird, strange, idiosyncratic, politically charged films,” explained director Syllas Tzoumerkas. “At the same time, in the global scene, there was familiarity with [the country’s problems].” That familiarity would soon help to propel Greek cinema into the international spotlight.

A year after Lanthimos’ Oscar nomination for “Dogtooth,” four Greek films appeared at the Venice International Film Festival, including Tzoumerkas’ feature debut, “Homeland,” and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Attenberg,” which mimed a naturalist documentary style to explore the awkward coming-of-age of its 23-year-old heroine. Two years later, Alexandros Arvanas won Venice’s prestigious Silver Lion for “Miss Violence,” a dark tale of abuse and denial set in a claustrophobic Athens apartment. Today, from Rotterdam to Berlin to Cannes, Greek directors regularly appear at the most prestigious festivals in the world.

While many of the Greek Weird Wave’s young filmmakers cut their teeth on low-budget, indie filmmaking in the 2000s, the darkness that pervades much of recent Greek cinema has a strong connection to this age of crisis, austerity, and uncertainty. “These films are born from a certain era. These films are born in a certain era,” Tzoumerkas said, noting that filmmakers today are trying “to talk about an experience in a truthful way — not only a personal experience, but … an experience of many people, of many families.”

If there had been a sense among his generation that a day of reckoning was near, Tzoumerkas explores it to powerful effect in his 2014 feature “A Blast.” In it, a free-wheeling young woman gradually leaves what he calls “an era of illusions” and emerges into the grim reality of a failed marriage and a family on the verge of financial ruin.

The rude awakening echoes what many Greeks have experienced in recent years.

A still from Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Attenberg,” with Ariane Labed and Vangelis Mourikis. Courtesy Despina Spyrou/Strand Releasing/Everett Collection.
Strand Releasing / Everett Collection

“We were really eating that middle-class dream,” said Tzoumerkas, noting that young Greeks a decade ago held the expectation that “all life is going to be there in front of you.”

At a crowded café on a weekday afternoon, director Sofia Exarchou took a moment to appraise the customers at nearby tables. “They don’t have any money, so they go out for coffee. Usually they take one coffee for five hours,” Exarchou said, with a resigned laugh. “Three euros.”

Like all Greeks, filmmakers have been forced to make do in this age of austerity, and many are coming together to collaborate on each others' films. “There is a lot of help between … the directors, between the crew,” said Exarchou, who relied on professional generosity for her own film, “Park,” which is to be released early next year.

It’s this communal spirit that Exarchou and others hope will spread to the halls of government, where the industry is lobbying for stronger measures to boost film funding. Chief among these are the reintroduction of the audience tax that was abolished in August, and a renewed effort to implement legislation mandating that TV stations invest in the film industry. That law has been on the books for nearly two decades, but has never been enforced.

As “Park” went into production last year, Exarchou feared her film would be one of the casualties of political infighting. The Greek Film Center had promised her nearly $200,000, but after a shake-up on the GFC’s board last August, funding was withdrawn. Without government backing, her plans to co-produce the film with foreign partners fell through, and after setting an initial budget of $1.1 million, she managed to secure just half that — not even enough to cover post-production costs.

Since Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza party was reelected in September, however, there have been encouraging signs for filmmakers. State broadcaster ERT announced in November that it will soon issue a call to fund new co-productions — the first since it returned to the airwaves in June after a two-year hiatus. And in recent months, stability has returned to the GFC.

Exarchou is now in talks with the GFC to get the final bit of funding that will drag “Park” across the finish line. For filmmakers in Greece today, she said, such uncertainty goes with the territory. “You cannot program anything here. So you just go with your instinct and the flow and you say, ‘OK, let’s do it now. We have this money. Go.’”

Throughout the process of making her first film, Exarchou has had to adapt. In “Park,” she explores the lives of a group of teenagers living in the abandoned remains of the Olympic Village, built to host athletes during the 2004 Summer Games. Exarchou had initially envisioned the film as a coming-of-age story, but when she began scouting locations, she realized that the village’s dilapidated houses — raffled off to working-class families after the Games, and now being considered as a site to host refugees — offered a poignant symbol of Greece’s pre-crisis hubris and folly.

By combing through the ruins of modern-day Greece, Exarchou joins a generation of filmmakers who are finding a voice in the desperation and frustration of their era. But it’s a moment that has also brought a certain freedom. “You feel that there is something to say — you need to say things,” Exarchou said. “You feel more daring … because you don’t have anything to lose.”

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