Five Contemporary Greek Films Considered
by Andrew Horton
“What we need today is no less than a revolution. We need to do violence to the cliché, create havoc with the tried, the tired, and tested." Larry Gelbart
During the summer of 2002, Variety, that clear “voice” of the American film industry, noted a new trend that is occurring globally: Hollywood sales and rentals have begun to fall about 7% ($2.2 billion) each year due to the increasing popularity of “local” films (Dawtrey 1). Repeat: Hollywood is now losing money as filmmakers in countries such as France, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Spain and Norway are making films home audiences want to see in large numbers.
But such is not the case yet in Greece. Why this is so and what can be done about it is the theme of this brief glance at one aspect of contemporary Greek cinema.
Let’s begin with the growing awareness of many young Greek filmmakers of their situation: “I want to make good films in Greece like they do in Ireland from My Left Foot to The Crying Game. You know, films that have a large home audience and go on to play in cinemas around the world as well as gather a multitude of festival awards,” one young Greek filmmaker told me in Athens recently. But he was not alone. Another used “Iran” instead of Ireland as her cinema of admiration from a “small country” that has a number of filmmakers who know how to tell a local story like White Balloon that plays globally. And at least three other filmmakers had a question for me the summer of 2002, knowing that I have written scripts for Yugoslav films and teach screenwriting around the world: “Why can’t we Greeks make films as powerful as this year’s Oscar winning “foreign film”, Ademir Tanovic’s No Man’s Land from Bosnia?”1
It’s a clear fact that contemporary Greek cinema is not suffering from a lack of talent. Any representative cross section viewing of recent Greek films by new, maturing, and/or well-seasoned directors such as Pandelis Voulgaris, Nikos Panayotopoulos and Theo Angelopoulos suggests a surprisingly diverse field of styles, approaches, narratives and themes. But as Greek filmmakers themselves are becoming increasingly aware, the overreaching weak point in most of these projects is the screenplay. I am writing this essay as a screenwriter and international script instructor and adviser for screenwriters in countries from Norway and Hollywood to New Zealand, and South Africa as well as throughout Europe including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria myself, with a long familiarity with Greek cinema. My intent is to take a brief look at five promising recent Greek films and I also wish to look into the near future and what can be done to strengthen the forming and “telling” of strong Hellenic tales on film. The films under consideration include Renos Haralambidis’ second feature Cheap Smokes (Ftina Tsigaras, 2000), Christos Dimas’s first feature, The Cistern (Akrovitis Tou Kipou 2001), Constantinos Giannaris’s third feature, One Day In August (Dekatpendavgustos, 2001), Andreas Pantzis’s third feature, Evagoras’ Vow (To Tama, 2001), and Sotiris Gortsas’s third feature Brazilero (2001).
Not all of these recent films have received a general release in Greece as this essay is being completed in 2002. But of the films that have, none has done well at the home box office,2 and certainly unlike this year’s Bosnian Oscar winner, No Man’s Land, none of the group has had an international popular distribution. There is, however, much to celebrate as we shall see, and the future does suggest that Greek filmmakers are beginning to take screenwriting more seriously.
FIVE EASY SCENES & FIVE HARD NARRATIVES
Consider five strong moments from our films under consideration that suggest these are filmmakers/screenwriters who should be taken seriously.
Sotiris Goritsas has an impressive track record with his debut film From the Snow (Ap’ To Chioni, 1993) about Albanian Greek immigrants trying to make in a Greece hostile to anyone speaking Albanian, and with his second film, Balkanisaeur (l995) which is a well told road movie of two Greeks making money by working scams between Bulgaria and Switzerland. His latest effort, Brazilero has a fine set up as “Euro inspectors” descend on a Greek country town to check on whether Euro-cultural funds have been well spent by our leading Greek characters.
Nothing could be so on target and up to date in dealing with how Greece and Greeks fit or don’t fit into the “new European order”. I do not wish to give away the conclusion of Goritsas’s social satire in Braziilero, but a brilliant scene is when the inspectors, one a Dutchman and the other an Italian, discover that the so-called cultural center that the European funding was supposed to build is a half finished frame of a large structure far out on the edge of town. But not only is the structure not finished, it is actually full of refugees from a variety of Balkan and Middle Eastern and African nations. This scene alone in which the inspectors are forced to decide if this is a “violation” of the funding or actually a creative re-direction of what is meant by a “cultural center” wins our hearts and our respect for Goritsas’s cinematic and narrative vision. That said, much of this 95 minute film drags and the cross cutting between personal stories and that of the cultural center and its inspectors lacks a clear sense of narrative cross cutting and character development.
Andreas Pantzis has a strong background in both documentary and feature films including two previous features, The Rape of Aphrodite (1985) and Rape of the Cock (1996). He also has a special perspective on cinema having graduated in film not in his native Cyprus but from the much acclaimed film school in Moscow. Evagoras’ Vow, his recent film is an extremely ambitious historical epic of a simple Cypriot peasant son of a local priest who, just before World War II begins, sets out to thank a Saint in a monastery for delivering him a son in a family of five daughters. This finely photographed and orchestrated “odyssey” at a time of great social and political upheaval could have become, with a stronger script, a personal epic that pulls in audiences everywhere like Homer’s tale if we were made to care more about our main character. But while Pantzis succeeds in capturing historical atmosphere, costumes and textures, he loses his main character in his overly complicated mixture of everything from Nazi troops to British forces. Several I have talked to who have seen the film said that, ultimately, they simply couldn’t follow the story and frankly didn’t care by film’s end. One Day In August follows in the timely current multiple narrative mode of Pulp Fiction, Run Lola Run and Beautiful People by tracking four different contemporary tales of Athenians in one apartment building taking off for their August holidays. With complicated chance crossings of narratives, the main “thread” is actually a lonely seventeen year old boy who breaks into the apartments and lives out a series of “costumed” fantasies in these vacant “worlds.” The set up is very compelling and promising. And yet by journey’’s end, director/writer Constantinos Giannaris has spread himself so thin, that each character becomes a caricature rather than the more rounded figures we were hoping would emerge.
In The Cistern Christos Dimas has etched an extremely poignant “coming of age” story of about a group of eleven year old boys in Eleusina in l974 that ends in the drowning death of several of the boys. Like Truffaut’s 400 Blows, Dimas’ first feature captures the joys and also the muddled lives of the surrounding family members and other adults, all seen from a youth’s point of view who is torn between the old gang and the world of adulthood that awaits him. The narrative spine breaks down, however, in cross cuts to a number of subplots including quite surrealistic “ancient” brothers related to a “curse” cast early in the film. Less would have been much more here, even though there is no mistaking the depth of emotion and character traits explored in the young boys. Memorable moments include those of the boys playing dangerous diving games at an old water tank (cistern) which has a huge industrial fan underneath it, and also moments of the boy at home dancing and playing with his mother and working on drawings underneath the furniture in his home.
Finally Renos Haralambidis’s follow up to his popular first film, No Budget Story (1997), Cheap Smokes is an offbeat romantic comedy set in Athens on a single summer night as a young man (played by Haralambidis) falls in love with a young woman he meets at an outdoor phone booth. Haralambidis has some very fresh scenes including the phone booth meeting as “he and she” are at side by side phones talking to each other before she “gets” that the voice on the other end is the handsome young man beside her. The closing sequence manages nicely to “jump” the film into a level of magic romantic realism as the streetcar the young couple is on “fills” with flying pigeons and doves. But rather than opening up this romance and the two main characters, Haralambidis has added so many minor figures—mostly a carnival of frustrated men of various ages and backgrounds---that the main story and lovers are almost lost in the shuffle of monologues and mini scenes.
All five and many more Greek films of the past thirty years are in need of a strong rewrite to bring out the splendid promise that each film evokes. Yet before we can talk about improving the screenwriting scene in Greece, we need to review its history.
GREEK SCREENWRITING INSIDE OUT
Greek screenwriting can be broken down into roughly two major periods: the Greek “studio” cinema of the 1950s and early 60s and the post 1967 “New Greek Cinema” and beyond up to and including the present. Screenplays during the 1950s and early 60s worked effectively for several reasons. First, Finos Films and the other studios were basically working in several well-defined genres, most specifically, musicals, light comedy, and village melodramas (Malandrakis 53). And genre on the one hand provides simple frameworks of expectations for writers and audiences while thus allowing the writer to “play” with the genre conventions to come up with new plot twists, clever character variations, and imaginative reworkings of tried and true tales (Horton Writing the Character Centered Screenplay 26). But particularly in the case of light comedy and musicals, the Greek tradition of what Americans would call vaudeville theater—epitheorisis in Greek—was also important for films starring such icons of the Greek screen as Thanasis Vengos and Aliki Voulyaklaki. In this sense, Greek cinema of this period was much like Hollywood in the l930s and early 40s. In California at that time, musicals and comedies often starred vaudeville and musical theater vets such as the Marx Brothers, Mae West and W.C. Fields and the writers also came to Los Angeles with such “hands on” background. In Greece, even such renowned director/writers as Michael Cacoyannis came to screenwriting with a firm understanding of these Greek genres and of ancient theatrical structures too.
Yet with the coming of the New Greek Cinema of the late 1960s that coincided with the coming of the Junta Dictatorship of 1967, filmmakers broke away from the old genres of Greek film and, influenced by everything from the French New Wave and the German New Waves to East European films such as those from Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, began writing their own scripts in their own way. On the plus side the late 1960s and 70s found Greek audiences lining up to see Greek films that took on subject matter never before explored on the screen such as Theo Angelopoulos’ surprise box office smash hit, O Thiasos (The Travelling Players 1975) that examined, in part, the Greek Civil War of 1945-49 from the perspective of the Left (Horton. The Films of Theo Angelopoulos 103).
And yet the negative effect of this “auteur” approach to cinema with most of the directors acting as screenwriters too, was that more and more films began to be written and shot that perhaps played a film festival or two such as the Thessaloniki Film Fest, and never opened commercially in an actual cinema.
While on the other hand, dozens of films since the mid 70s that have made it into cinemas briefly seldom gathered more than 10,000 ticket sales in their first run.
But the Greek screenplay of the past thirty years has been hurt as well by two important elements that have been missing in Greece. First is the lack of strong script or film school programs that are available in other countries and, second, a lack of what I would call a script environment of “cross fertilization” and mentorships. Emir Kusturica of Bosnia/Yugoslavia, for instance, is typical of so many of the award winning and popular Yugoslav filmmakers of the 80s and 90s in that they had the chance to study film at one of the best film schools in the world during the 60s and 70s: The FAMU Film School in Prague where teachers included Milos Forman and Milan Kundera among others.
No strong film program or school has yet developed in Greece even though a few commercial “schools” have come and gone such as the Stavrakos School in Athens. And certainly no screenwriting program of any note has been ever available in Greece. Fortunate filmmakers have managed to study abroad, however, and taken script programs offered in London, Paris, Australia, and the United States, for instance. But the need for a well structured and staffed script and film program is a pressing need for Greece. In the next section we will turn to signs that such possibilities may begin to exist soon.
Secondly, there is a need for a richer sense of a “script culture” and cross fertilization between filmmakers. Filmmakers I talk to in Greece speak of how much they basically work alone or with only one or two friends. The idea that screenwriters and filmmakers would actually help read and even write and rewrite and analyze each other’s work is not a reality in the Greek film world as my research suggests. But in other countries, a richly supportive script community or set of communities has evolved. Take the French New Wave, for instance. Remember that Godard and Truffaut began their careers helping each other on their scripts and their filming. Similar stories have emerged about filmmakers and screenwriters in a number of East European countries, in Hong Kong, and New Zealand to name but a few. When I started working with Srdjan Karanovic in Belgrade in the 1980s, I was immediately impressed that his friend
Rajko Grlic of Zagreb helped write some of his early films while he did the same for Grlic, And that other members of the “Prague Group” including Emir Kusturica often read each other’s work, gave feedback, shared actors and resources. Thus instead of isolation and a sense of competition, there was a feeling of accomplishment for the whole “film community” when one film became a local hit or picked more festival awards. Kusturica, for instance, in accepting a Cannes Fest award for When Father Was Away On Business in l985 said, in his acceptance speech, that the award really should go to the whole “Prague group in Yugoslavia.” Ademir Tanovic in Bosnia has grown up in this very same script and film culture in making No Man’s Land that has in large part transcended political barriers and the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan commented on such a mutually helpful environment that he realized existed in the Balkans, especially before the wars of the past decade, during his visits after the Bosnian war to the Sarajevo Film Festival in 1997 in Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festivals and the World They Made. Building such a sense of cooperation, sharing and mutual support in screenwriting in Greece will, of course, take time, energy and a sense of dedication on the part of individuals willing to reach out and help each other.
NEW TRENDS IN GREEK SCREENWRITING
There are changes afoot in Greece that suggest a brighter future for Greek screenwriters and films. Let us specifically consider two important breakthroughs: the increased contact between screenwriters and filmmakers throughout the Balkans because of a new organization, The South Eastern Europe Cinema Network, and the beginning of European Union funded seminars bringing together screenwriters and expert professors from all over the world with Greek screenwriters participating too. Formed in 2000, the South Eastern Europe Cinema Network Film was initially set up through the help of the Greek Film Center to bring together filmmakers, producers, distributors and screenwriters from Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Albania, all of the former Yugoslav republics, Bulgaria and Romania.3 The potential for such cooperation and coordination on workshops, conferences, and even co-productions is enormous and long overdue. I personally remember the excitement generated at an earlier attempt to start up a Balkan Film League at the Belgrade Film Festival of l996. Representatives from all of the above countries sat at the same table in a restaurant beside the Danube sharing stories, toasts to each other, and simply “talking film”, the language they all understood.
This new Association is beginning to talk about the need for “script development” projects. The idea would be for screenwriters to be chosen from each of the participating countries to meet on a regular basis for seminars and script development sessions. One hopes that such meetings will begin as early as 2003.
Similarly, script development seminars have already been funded by the European Union Media Program. Perhaps the most successful branch of this program have been the seminars called Sources and Sources 2. The Sources programs, directed by Renate and Marion Gompper located in Berlin, team well known screenwriters with groups of no more than five screenwriters who apply, each from a different country and each bringing with them a producer attached to their project in development. The idea is to meet initially in one location for a week and then several months later when the scripts are completed at another city, most often that of the instructor.
Several Greek films including Pericles Hoursoglou’s The Man In Grey (1997) grew out of this useful example of international cross fertilization. Again, speaking from personal experience, I have found such an approach extremely inspiring on many levels.
The Sources seminar I conducted (1999) was on writing comic scripts and met for the initial week in Cologne, Germany. My participants were from Ireland, the Netherlands, England and Austria. The follow-up meeting in which we read each other’s completed works and commented on them occurred four months later in London. What I think happens very quickly in such an environment is that writers stop thinking of each other as “Greek”, “Dutch”, “American” or “Irish” and see and hear each other as simply, SCREENWRITERS! Thus the politics of having to deal with writers/filmmakers from one’s own country go out the window and one is free to honestly be receptive to other influences, critiques, suggestions.
With the summer of 2002, a Media sponsored program with a similar structure but with a much larger cast (20 screenwriters) was assembled on the island of Nisseros in July. The follow up session is scheduled for October on the island of Samos. Once more, the screenwriters are from all over Europe with five coming from Greece. In talking with several participants, they noted that the cross-national influences, especially of simply hanging out with other screenwriters, more than made up for the limitations of having such a large group.
CONCLUSIONS AND NEW BEGINNINGS
There is no one way to write a successful screenplay (Horton Writing The Character-Centered Screenplay 2), It is, however, possible to suggest approaches, exercises, and a wide range of samples of films, stories and characters that can help strengthen an individual writer’s work. And it is my feeling based on all we have discussed above that in the next few years we will begin to see an exciting variety of films that more fully connect with local and international audiences.
A few such films have already begun to emerge. In closing, let us mention one: Chios born director Dimmos Avdeliodis’s first film The Four Seasons of the Law (1999) is what New York based critic Dan Georgakas calls, “a comedy that has something to say about country life and governance in Greece” (6 ). With a rave review in Variety and popular screenings at festivals around the world as well as a respectable home box office in Greece, Avdeliodis is a writer/director to watch. In following four rural police assigned to supposedly godforsaken village on Chios during four different seasons, they and thus we the audience come to know the characters, customs, quirky habits and charming nature of this “backwater” area of Greece. Avdeliodis succeeds in his script and in his direction to build on what he knows—his home island of Chios—with a carnivalesque sense of both character and narrative that leaves us feeling we have been pulled into another world and enjoyed it for the almost three hours he holds our attention.
1 Andrew Horton has written a number of scripts with Yugoslav directors including the award winning social comedy Something In Between (1983) with director Srdjan Karanovic and Brad Pitt’s first starring role in a feature film, Dark Side of the Sun (1989) directed by Bozidar Nikolic.
2 A Greek film is considered a “hit” these days if it sells more than 100,000 tickets in an opening run. This is in comparison to Hollywood films that have runs of 500,000 tickets or more. In 2002, One Day in August was actually the second largest selling film with 70,000 tickets while most Greek films released in 2002 were under 10,000 tickets sold (Greek Film Centre statistics).
3 A guidebook to this organization is published by the Greek Film Center, Film Professionals’ Guide: South Eastern Europe Cinema Networrk 2001. It is available through the Greek Film Center by writing to it at 10 Panapistimiou,, Athens 10671,
Dawtrey, Adam, “H’Wood Battles Local Heroes,”
Variety (July 15-21, 2002)
pp. 1 & 49.