Few countries have borne the brunt of media scrutiny in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis to quite the extent that Greece has. Emerging as the barometer by which Europe's economic woes have been measured, the Greek population could be forgiven for running to hide in the relative comfort of their local cinema, just as those suffering through the Great Depression of the late 1920s found comfort in the picture palaces of yesteryear.
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Hollywood was created on the back of the people's need for entertainment in tough times and in recent years the Greek film community has reacted to their homeland's troubles in much the same way – with fresh voices and sharp insight into the nation's economic plight. To gauge the prevailing mood of Greek cinema one need look no further than Ieroklis Michaelidis' political satire Need for Lies, the opening night film of 2011 Greek Film Festival. Already a major success in its homeland, Need For Lies reflects the industry's fearlessness in broaching topics at the core of Greece's troubles, in this case, political corruption and financial waste.
According to Festival Chair Nia Karteris, the changing face of Greek society and the film industry's response made programming the 18th edition of the event particularly challenging.
“Three or four years ago, all the production budgets and all the grants for producers and directors were provided by the Greek Film Centre, an umbrella company overseen by the Minister of Culture,” says Karteris. “Since the economic crisis, their funding has been slashed enormously and we've seen the film industry go directly into production houses, maximising (their budgets) and doing a much more professional job.”
The shift in the infrastructure had financial repercussions for Karteris and her team, as they sourced content for the festival. “The cost for us to hire and obtain the rights for films from these production houses has meant an additional financial burden for us,” she says. “But [we understand] that it is a business for them and they have to make a profit. But on a professional level, the Greek film industry is moving into a new avenue and there is a future for the sector.”
Other films in the 2011 program that tackle social injustices include Knifer, Yannis Economides' monochromatic study of despair, Nick Gaitatjis' road drama Without Borders, Stratos Tzitzis' minimum-wage agitprop 45m2, Sophia Papachristou's anti-corporatisation comedy Biloba, and Nikos Kalogeropoulos' search-for-meaning allegory Riders of Pylos. Of particular importance is Nikos Megrelis' incendiary documentary Shooting vs Shooting, which examines the cases of slain warzone journalists, with particular reference to recent killings in Iraq. (Australia's John Pilger features.)
The emergence of strong, new voices can be quite daunting, even to festival programmers as experienced as Karteris. Although she programmed Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg for the 2011 event after opinion-dividing runs in Sydney and Melbourne, Karteris is acutely aware of the potential for backlash against confronting material.
"We need to support these new directors,” she says, forcefully. “If Greece is going have a future in the film industry, this is the direction we have to look at. These are very strong films with strong messages and we need to go beyond the 'four-square', beyond the cinema, to see how these films relate; [these films] are how young people see the difficulties that the world, and especially Greece, is facing at the moment.” Karteris confirms that Lanthimos' Golden Lion-nominated Alps – a reworking of his Dogtooth concept – will screen at the 2012 event.
Old voices, too, stake a prominent claim for modern relevance at this year's festival. Certain to be an audience favourite is Israeli-born director Roy Sher's My Sweet Canary, an enriching, compelling account of the life and musical influence of Greece's national treasure, rebetiko songstress Roza Eskenazi. Also providing historical context to modern Greek troubles will be a retrospective on the works of the late Michael Cacoyannis, the first since his passing in July. Included are his Golden Globe-winning films Stella (1955), starring Melina Mercouri, and A Girl in Black (1956), as well as his 1999 adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.
A celebration of the Cyprus-born director's filmography is long overdue for Karteris. “Michael Cacoyannis was and will remain one of the greatest directors Greece has ever seen. The films we have chosen not only deal with the hardships that Greek people had to deal with back in the '40s and during the Second World War but, looking at those films now, people can relate to the hardships and what they are facing now with the economy.”
Despite the dark days the country is presently enduring, Nia Karteris is quick to point out that her lineup also focuses heavily on the Greek people's passion and optimism.
Audiences are sure to beam at domestic hits such as Layia Yiourgou's erotically-charged Red Sky, Vangelis Seitanidis' marital farce Other Half, Nikos Zapatinas' broad heartwarmer Once Upon a Time There Was a Baby, and Panayotis Fafoutis' football-themed crowd-pleaser The Heiress. “Even in these times, the people of Greece love life and love to laugh,” she beams. “They live amongst some of the most beautiful coasts and islands in the world and the daily romance of life is part of all Greek people.”
Karteris predicts the next wave of Hellenic films, many already under consideration for her 2012 program, will further expand upon Greece's shifting social mores. “One of the major films is Another Sea, from the very well known director Theo Angelopoulos, and deals with the refugee issue and how the Greek government can't deal with it because they have no policies on it,” she explains, excitedly. “So you can see that directors are taking on everyday issues and bringing them to light.”
For more information on the 2011 Greek Film festival visit www.greekfilmfestival.com.au
Editor's note: The article has been updated since it was first published (the festival director's comments about the programming of Dogtooth were incorrect).